Madison educators work to keep music in the curriculum

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Emphasis on academic disciplines may prevent students from participating in the arts

Music can have powerful and transformative effects on students’ lives when incorporated into the school curriculum.

Studies have shown that K-12 students who take music lessons while in school are nearly 20% more likely to graduate on time and 10% more likely to attend school each year. day. But the opportunities students have often depend on what schools can offer and the academic pressure some face to focus on schoolwork.

Many composers taught in traditional early music classes, such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, are white men. Other than that, educators are doing little to diversify their courses to meet the interests of more students.

Anthony Cao, a music teacher at Madison West High School who holds a master’s degree in music education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said a growing number of music teachers think their class offerings are getting less less applicable to students of color due to setback. interest in their lessons.

“I hear a lot about that. I hear that students of color aren’t interested in the traditional music education in school, the traditional sense band, choir, orchestra, that model,” Cao said, “This is a dangerous oversimplification.”

Cao became the first teacher to implement a hip-hop curriculum in his class, which he says began to attract interest from a more diverse student body.

“Just by presenting [hip-hop studies] might be more relevant for kids, but it’s not an immediate solution,” he said. “It still needs to be taught well by someone who values ​​the culture and values ​​the art form.”

One of the reasons for this misconception, Cao said, is the growing emphasis on college readiness in high schools and how that alienates students from all identities in music. As college admissions continue to become more competitive each year, educators are pressuring students to focus more on advanced-level courses like advanced placement and honors courses.

This dynamic is present in the Madison Metropolitan School District with the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, a learning progression that emphasizes college readiness in high school. The AVID program, Cao said, is increasingly marketed to students of color, making those students less likely to take advantage of music lessons even if they have an interest in it.

Erica Halverson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses on how to bring creativity and the arts into the classroom. Photo by Maureen Janson Heintz.

“Part of [the problem] is programmed, because programs like AVID targeting first-generation kids going to college typically target a large percentage of students of color,” Cao said. “These students are almost shut out of high school music for all four years of high school because the place in the schedule just isn’t there.”

Outside of school, students are beginning to see even more barriers between themselves and music lessons. When you consider the cost of private lessons combined with the need for transportation to and from events, music starts to seem more out of reach for students of color.

“Part of [the problem] is access to private lessons because race in our community is so intertwined with socio-economic status, so students of color generally can’t afford summer lessons and camps and those other opportunities to continue develop their skills as they age,” Cao said. “These are experiences that would really help them thrive in a high school music program.”

At Lincoln Elementary in the Madison Metropolitan School District, students speak five different primary languages, and more than 60 percent qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program. These factors often make it difficult for students to take advantage of musical opportunities outside of class time, principal Deborah Hoffman said.

“Private lessons for [music] requiring someone to drive someone to a lesson,” Hoffman said. “If you think of someone taking piano or violin lessons while they’re in kindergarten, it takes a parent out of work for the second shift, it requires transportation and money . I don’t think it’s a lack of interest, sometimes it’s just a matter of income.

Based on feedback from teachers and parents, Lincoln Elementary began offering its students optional half-hour music lessons twice a week in a variety of subjects such as West African dance or choir. traditional. In fifth grade, they also receive compulsory string lessons two hours a week, including free use of instruments such as a cello, viola or violin.

Lincoln started the program in 2010 and has made changes since then. These course offerings, Hoffman said, are widely appreciated by Lincoln students of all racial backgrounds.

Some educators are calling on schools to completely rethink how they deliver the arts during the school day. Erica Halverson, author of the new book ‘How the Arts Can Save Education’, which examines how the arts can change the way we teach complex subjects like math and science, said the way programs such as ‘AVID’s emphasis on empirical measures of intelligence may have adverse effects on the racial climate in schools.

“If we continue to value reading and math test scores as markers of intelligence and good learning, we will continue to generate a racist set of ideas about what school is and should be and about what learners are and should be,” said Halverson.

Halverson is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who focuses on the arts and how they can be brought into the classroom. His artist-in-residence project Whoopensocker works with Madison Public Schools to innovate classroom instruction through various forms of student art creation.

“The system’s devaluation of the arts puts pressure on families to give their children the experiences the district has said they value,” Halverson said. “There’s a system-level disconnect there.”

The arts represent many of the fundamentals that educators ask of science and math students, Halverson’s book argues. Art teachers ask their students to identify a central idea from a complex subject, understand it, and then represent it in a new and personalized way, a framework that can be applied to disciplines beyond Arts.

“The way people learn to make art is the model in which we expect successful students to be at the top, regardless of what they learn,” Halverson said.

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