As with most educators, teaching looks much different for me this year. I teach music at P.S. 87 and P.S. 112 in the Bronx, splitting time between remote and in-person instruction.
Despite the challenges, one thing has remained the same: My classroom and living room are filled with the sounds of singing, clapping and dancing.
How can singing, clapping and dancing in school be important during these traumatic times? Shouldn’t we focus on figuring out how to teach students basic reading and math skills?
Those are essential skills, but we underestimate the importance of music at the expense of our youth.
Being a music educator during the pandemic has caused me to rethink the role I play in my students’ lives. This past year, so many of my students have struggled to just get through the school day. I’ve seen first-hand how music class has helped them persevere.
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At the beginning of the current school year, I joined a few of my students’ other remote classes, to get a sense of what the rest of their day is like. I saw kids who sat all day, often alone. They were expected to literally mute themselves during class, and they struggled to engage.
They aren’t alone. Kids across the country are struggling with isolation and depression because of quarantine. They miss seeing their friends everyday and interacting on a personal level with their teachers. Data is hard to come by, but a study in China found that after a month of quarantine, 22.6% of more than 2,000 students experienced depression-like symptoms.
Class is chance to actively engage
In my music class, I make sure students have their microphones on as much as possible. I encourage them to get up, move around, get out of the screen for a moment, sing loudly and clap with joy. It’s a positive experience for them and for me, too.
For many students, my class is their first experience with music in school. An astounding 55% of New York City public schools don’t have a music educator on staff. That’s why I joined Education Through Music, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing music to schools across New York City.
If we’re serious about keeping our students mentally healthy, we need to be equally serious about letting students experience music. That can begin by reversing last year’s devastating cuts to arts education.
As someone with a language-based learning disability, I know how transformative music class can be. As a teen, knowing I could attend band class in high school got me through the day.
Intelligence comes in many varieties, but some can be hard to demonstrate through traditional exams. When student achievement is measured using tests, poor test-takers — but smart students — are at risk of never experiencing a sense of achievement in school.
Music can build self-esteem
In band, I felt successful, smart and accomplished. My self-esteem started to sky-rocket once music came into my school day. That confidence boost helped me finish high school and graduate from college. It’s what sparked me to go back to the classroom to help other kids.
Last year, I had a student in my class who I would consider a high achiever. She was always engaged, a delight to teach and a leader in the classroom. But if you asked her other teachers, a different picture came to view: her grades were abysmal, she had discipline problems, terrible attendance, and was rude to her other teachers.
As music became more a part of her life, her attendance and attitude improved. The behavior I experienced in my music class was positively affecting the rest of her education.
In music, an ensemble is far more powerful than the sum of its parts. I recently started teaching a virtual choir with Education Through Music, and I knew that the most important lesson was that a choir is a group effort. You may be singing what feels like a small part, but that is what enables the group to thrive. Everyone is contributing their efforts to create something bigger: many sounds, one chorus; many players, one team.
Learning to work together doesn’t just make my students better musicians, it makes them better citizens. I hope many other students have that same chance.
Andrew Grossman is a music educator at P.S. 87 and P.S. 112 in the Bronx. He teaches through Education Through Music, a nonprofit that seeks to uplift students through sustainable music programs in schools.