This Year, How To Begin

Version 2It’s time for the new school year to begin. That usually means students and teachers return to their buildings, exchange stories of an enjoyable summer, and except for light hearted complaints about how the summer break was too short, everyone is generally glad to be back, able to see their friends again and get back into the familiar setting of school. This is usually how it goes. But this year is different. Many will not be returning to buildings for face-to-face instruction, but meeting with students online, and with colleagues little to not at all. As if that weren’t enough, the country is deep into social unrest, rioting continuing in some cities that have resulted in loss of life and loss of livelihoods. Students, particularly those in urban areas who already live with a level of apprehension and fear over safety, will begin this school year with even more fears on their minds, less equipped to apply the focus a thriving educational experience demands. 

This school year will require teachers to be at their finest. It will require more time than we are used to being spent on meeting the psychological, emotional and physical needs of students. Without attending to these, the rest will be an “uphill battle” at best. We all need to feel safe, cared for, and confident that today and tomorrow will be successfully negotiated, and that we will come out of them intact. Students walking into their music class will be a little more at ease than they will be walking into other classes where they will find a teacher they’ve never met before. We music teachers are a familiar face, comforting in our already formed relationships with our students, who are not new to us, but returning. 

I am reminded of a particular year when there was a complete turn-over in the middle school team at the K-8 school at which I taught. Students were coming in with fear and apprehension all over their faces. We teachers were all standing outside our classrooms, and as the students walked through to their homerooms, all they saw was one unfamiliar face after another. Finally, one student got to my room on his way to his homeroom. He stopped, looked at me, and said, “well at least you’re still here.” We matter enormously to our students. This year, more than others, we need to show our students that they matter to us, that we care about each of them. We need to let them know that we will go through these unsettling times with them, that we too have fears and unsettling thoughts, but that together we will make it through. If I were a building principal, I would tell my teachers, “I don’t care if you don’t crack a textbook in the next two weeks. Build relationships in your classroom, comfort and reassure your class, give them time to settle in and get comfortable.” This is even possible online, though more challenging. The time students spend with you online must be a time they look forward to and find they need. They must find confidence and comfort in the time they spend in your online learning environment. 

Students need to be encouraged to be there for each other too. Most naturally are, but now it is important that no one be left out of healthy friendships with peers who are supportive. There’s an old song by Bacharach and David called “What the World Needs Now (Is Love).” Though the music is probably not of interest to today’s students, the lyrics are as relevant as ever.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love                                                   It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of                                                 What the world needs now is love, sweet love                                                     No not just for some but for everyone

The lyrics go on to name things we have of enough of, but only love is found to be insufficient. Much of what we took indispensable a year ago, is unimportant or just plain worthless now, as we all seek to find stability, health, and comforting familiarity in our lives. School will need to help us all find that this year. The arts are all about our innermost emotions and feelings. Through performing, responding, listening and creating music, we can get in touch with our anxious, restless selves, express what’s going on inside us, and find comfort in like expressions through music of others. Here are some examples you may find helpful.

Shostakovich, D. (1937). Symphony No. 5, op. 47. 9 (first movement) The first movement of this symphony begins with a wrenching, cantankerous theme that brings disquiet and angst immediately. It soon gives way to a gentler theme that melts into melancholy sweetness. Soon the brooding disquiet begins to stir reminding us that it is never completely gone, not yet anyway. The hopeful call of a flute beckons, but only against a dark background. Then the key turns from minor to major, and there is the strongest suggestion of hope yet. We are not in the clear yet, but the darkness is weakening. But then it returns, transformed and persistent though not quite as menacing as before. Perhaps there is still hope. Flashes of the former darkness are heard, but this time in the bright timbres of the upper winds, joined by the upper strings. There is a battle between goodness and evil that grows toward epoch proportions, both sides contending for dominance. With the snare drum, the armies march and clash, each represented by its own theme. The dark theme is scurrying, confused and desperate. Then, at 11:17, the turning point comes. That sweet and hopeful theme has risen up in newfound power and defeats the enemy. Out of the battle, that sweet flute arises once more, signaling victory and hope, even as all had seemed to be lost. There are casualties, yes, and the sadness that comes from them, but there is hope, and the flame of love. We have a future, and it will be better than what we’ve just been through. 

2. Jackson, M. (1988). Man in the Mirror. I’m not sure Michael Jackson ever got enough credit for his advocacy for social justice and environmental concerns. Another piece of our current circumstances is the rocketing of social injustice in our culture. His song “Man in the Mirror” still resonates with students today, and carries a message we especially need to hear now. Students love singing this song, and the lyrics provide a starting point for discussions of this important and timely topic. 

3. Cole, J. (2014). For a heartfelt expression of the black experience, this song is excellent, especially the last verse. It says in a few minutes what needs to be said. You might use this song to launch students at creating their own songs on the social justice issues that are on everyone’s minds. 

Some music programs are being threatened by Covid-19 restrictions. Activities such as those suggested here can establish music programs as a critical and essential part of our coping with recovery from current conditions. You teach a powerful subject. Music has the keys to our inner lives that other subjects do not. As a music teacher, you are just what your students need. Step in and step up. At least you’re still here. 

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