Lesson from a music teacher

I was exiting a recent Spring Concert at Willsboro Central School when two individuals sought me out to tell me how much they enjoyed and appreciated the points of view I have expressed in letters to the editor and “In My Opinion” publications in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, concerning my view of the problems with the Common Core and standardized testing. Voluntary recognition is a rare occurrence, but much appreciated.

I could have suggested they search the archives of my hometown newspaper, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, to find many more publications under “Guest Commentaries,” but I thought the importance of what just happened in the Spring Concert deserved special attention, especially when contrasted with the present movement to standardize education.

Probably two-thirds of the entire school population from pre-K to seniors was on the stage at one time, all obviously enjoying music beyond what anyone would possibly have imagined. I’m sure there was a feeling that Mrs. Jennifer Moore is a miracle worker. How could she get all these children/”kids” to like and sing music? In this age, a miracle worker she is, but not without identifiable reasons for her success.

While this extraordinary concert was in progress, I thought how great it would be to see this many students as enthusiastic and informed about mathematics, science, history, geography and literature as they were about music. General education or Common Core subjects in today’s curriculum have not produced, among the majority of students, this level of enthusiasm for learning. It’s doubtful that two-thirds of the school population would sing the praises for mathematics and science the way they did with their music, but they could.

Under the Common Core, students do not have many opportunities to engage in self-expression; they seldom receive support for individual differences. Appreciation for diversity is frowned upon in the Common Core and all are judged exclusively by a one-size-fits-all standardized test. Students move from one episode to another, many times before they have fully comprehended the material from the last episode. The elements of creativity and self-expression are missing, and so are the full development of competency and compassion. Enthusiasm for learning that every student craves has been shortchanged.

There are several things that stand out in what Mrs. Moore appears to do to accomplish her objectives for getting everyone to enjoy and participate in music. She obviously sees each child as an individual and she brings them together as a group, complementing each other’s uniqueness in song. She understands that children need to feel genuinely appreciated for their successes and accomplishments. She takes the time to perfect their skills before moving on to the next part of their presentation. Mrs. Moore knows music is an expression of heartfelt emotions that can be cultivated to bring out the best in each child. She knows the discipline of music that guides her decision making when working with her students. Granting permission to use her name and experience in this article, Jennifer had this to say: “Unveiling of their interests and curiosities over time is what creates the magic in our ensembles.”

How can anyone not recognize the intrinsic value of music and the arts in the curriculum for students in our schools? These are personal expressions of meaning that stir the emotions, generating ideas that feed the intellectual health of each individual. Yet the arts are often the first to be cut from the budget in times of fiscal constraints.

In these times, many teachers do not find time for the arts among the demands of mathematics and science, the primary subjects given the highest priority in the march to Common Core. This piecemeal approach to educational reform reveals the urgent need for a comprehensive, systemic plan for change that recognizes all “realms of meaning” we have available for making sense out of life in this age of unique challenges.

A Common Core of arbitrary conclusions determined to be what everyone should know, and a testing system based on a pencil-and-paper exercise designed to meet abstract demands for “correct answers” appears to violate principles that Mrs. Moore apparently has instituted in her unique and successful music program. We should all take the time to examine in-depth what is happening in and to our schools and to our children – what is inherent in the Common Core curriculum and standardized testing. We should not sit by and allow the march to the Common Core to continue. We need to compare and learn from the positive elements of the Spring Concert. But “when will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

For further elaboration, see my books: “Remaking our Schools for the Twenty-First Century – A Blueprint for Change/Improvement in our Educational Systems,” available at www.robertlarnold.com, and “Cursed With Insight – Essays From an Education Reformer,” available at the Cornerstone Bookshop of Plattsburgh.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.