My second teaching job was at an inner-city middle school. It was a “magnet school” for law, health and education and in addition to teaching band and handbells I was in charge of teaching the law class. In addition, our school had a special “unit” for “at risk” students – those who had failed at least two grade levels. Studies had proven that those who failed two or more grade levels had a much greater risk of dropping out of school. So the principal and two other teachers devised a program (which became nationally known at that time). The main objective was to get those students back on task and up to their “regular” grade level by the end of their 8th grade year. Still a young newbie, I hooked up with them as they became my mentors – decades before Ohio decided to have mentor teachers. I learned from the best and basically marched to my own drumbeat.
During this time period the rock band, Genesis, as well as Phil Collins, were very popular. Phil Collins had a song/video called “Another Day in Paradise.” Basically, the song was about how mankind in general overlooks the less fortunate – more specifically how “invisible” homeless people are. The song made students think and realize that no matter how bad their own lives seemed, someone else had it even worse. Then they saw the video that included statistics about the number of homeless. The original video showed that sometimes you can’t always tell, by how someone looks, that they are homeless. They decided to experience what life would be like to be homeless so on one cold day, they went outside to really feel what it must be like. The local news showed up and interviewed the shivering students. They asked questions and the students had answers – they felt empowered to do something to help the homeless in our area.
Now anyone who has taught at the middle school level knows, students at that level are a unique bunch – still naïve and immature in many ways yet on the cusp of becoming young adults. While they can seem very self-centered, they have deep and caring hearts. The dilemma became…what can students do at that age level to make their immediate world/community a better place for those less fortunate and how do they go about it? They decided they wanted to raise enough money to purchase a home for the homeless. A big dream, goal and aspiration, right?!? But how do they “quickly” earn funds for this? They did some research about the homeless in our area, devised a plan (with the permission of our principal) and wrote to celebrities (actors, athletes, singer/musicians) asking for donations – items that could be sold at an auction.
They made lists, devised a form letter, found an auctioneer who would donate his time/talent, a place outside of school to host the event (so more people would notice and take part). They divided into committees and got to work. After a couple of months donations started rolling in – shoes, props, autographed photos and/or scripts, designer fashions, etc. Finally, towards the end of the school year, the auction was held. They raised thousands of dollars for the homeless but not enough to buy a building/place. Were they discouraged? Probably a few were but they realized how proud their teachers, principal, parents and community were that children so young (and many from rough backgrounds and home lives themselves) took notice and wanted to make their community a better place for those less fortunate than them. It took their minds off their own problems and lifted their spirits while focusing on the needs of others.
That was the power from just one song! It made an impact on their lives, gave them the desire to learn about the less fortunate in their own community, led them to dream big, and set goals. Those young adolescents (some not even in their teens yet) aspired to no longer ignore the homeless but to reach out and lend a hand – something so many adults chose not to do. They showed no fear, learned many other vital life skills along the way and made the world (at least in our community) a better place. And they inspired others along the way too – including their music teacher who watched in amazement at the changes taking place in them daily. And for those wondering…. what happened to the money? It was donated to a local homeless shelter. My words of thought and words of wisdom to you??? Never let classroom teachers, principals or parents make you feel like you are just a fluff or extra subject, or a means for which others get a planning period. Music connects with people of all ages – even middle school students in our world today.
During my time there, we discussed current events in music – inspired by popular music of the day as well as local news. Students reached out to help the homeless, ended up testifying at our state capital about animal cruelty (which led to a change in our state law) and learned how music was so important for healing Holocaust survivors. I won awards for teaching “outside the box.” But as I’ve already said in another post, the awards aren’t what are important. It’s really about how music touches our lives and how we touch the lives of our students. And then there’s how our students touch our lives and teach us just as many things as we teach them.
Be that person who isn’t afraid to tackle more than “just music” in your classes. Reach out to touch the hearts, minds and lives of your students. You may never know how much of an impact you’ve had on a student but…. Share your love and passion for music (or a song) and create that positive vibe. Dare to dream with and for your students. Help them to set goals and never underestimate them. They will always rise…..or sink……according to your expectations. Nothing is impossible and remember….kindness is contagious. As Michael Jackson once said, “Heal the world, make it a better place.”