Strummin’ on the Old Banjo

About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.

Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.

The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.

The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.

In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.

Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’

The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’

The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?

There were two distinct schools of thought:

  • One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
  • Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.

At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?

More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.

The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.

When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.

Thankfully, these issues have not gone away. Dialogue between music teachers has become richer and digging into folk music and popular standards has revealed a lot of low-level, unrecognized or underestimated racism, in addition to the blatant, out-there stuff. There is significant scholarship around the value of non-Western music—and pushback as well; this piece and the comments are a good example.

I frequently read threads now on music educators’ groups, as well as journals, articles and casual conversations about musical literature and how to re-think habitual literature choices. Nine out of ten preservice music teachers are white. This is a big deal.

For white teachers, reading through compilations of music with racist roots that they’ve sung as children and used in their classrooms is similar to teachers who love Dr. Seuss learning that his books carry some racist baggage.  I’ve been working on the railroad? How can that be racist?

The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’ says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.

But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that I prefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.

Passing Counterfeit Money and Other Thoughts on Policing

Here’s a story about passing counterfeit money:

I was traveling, in Amsterdam, about five years ago. I was nearly out of cash, so I went to an ATM in a modern mall, part of the Centraal Station area, where trains and trams transport passengers from all over the world. I got 100 euros, using my debit card. I did a little tourist-shopping. Then I stopped for a coffee and a croissant, at a Starbucks. The ultimate American thing to do.

When I got to the cashier, I gave him a ten-euro note from the cash I got from the ATM. He passed it through a machine and, in pleasant, Dutch-inflected English, informed me that the bill was counterfeit.

I was stunned—it can’t be, I said. I just got it from an ATM. He smiled, turned the machine toward me. Watch, he said. Then passed the bill under the machine several times, each time registering a bluish light and a red text: COUNTERFEIT. He pulled a pen-like device out from the cash register and ran it over the bill, as well. It was bad money, all right.

Do you have another way to pay? he asked. Preferably not a credit card?

I did. I gave him a handful of coins, change from other purchases, and it was good. He handed the counterfeit bill back to me. I don’t want it, I said. It’s policy, he said. 

I put it back into my zippered travel purse, and he said—ever so politely—you may want to keep that separate from your other money. I pulled it out and stuffed it into my pocket.

I was humiliated, although the cashier could not have been nicer. I left the Starbucks and drank the coffee standing up, out of sight, thinking dark thoughts about how a bank could have given me a bad bill. There was also no recourse. I could hardly go to the bank (if I could even find a bricks-and-mortar bank with the right name) and tell them that they gave me a bogus ten-euro note, demanding my money (approximately 12 dollars) back.

I went back to where we were staying and compared the bill with other ten-euro notes. I could not see the difference.  I thought about why a Starbucks in an international crossroads would scan every single bill, and how a usually reliable source of currency like a major bank could make a (face it, relatively minor) mistake. Stuff happens, as the bumper sticker says.

Eventually, I realized how incredibly lucky I was. I was a middle-aged white woman tourist, obviously (to the guy in Starbucks) American—probably to everyone else I passed. I was treated as if—of course—I had inadvertently been given a bad bill.

No harm, no foul. Just pay for your coffee. Stop being a Karen.

As the conversation in America moves to defunding or reshaping police forces across the country, it’s worth thinking about all the minor infractions happening every day in the realm of criminal justice, and how we interpret those as seriously criminal or merely needing correction. Potentially harmful things we all do—not using your turn signal on occasion, for example—but only some of us pay for.

It’s also worth thinking about infractions we deal with in the classroom, where teachers police the behaviors of children.  

Any teacher who is honest with herself will, if pressed, acknowledge that some kids get away with more. That we—at least mentally—label kids: Sneaky. Helpful. Lazy. Compliant. Honest—or dishonest.

The first (and only) time a genuine crime was committed in my classroom happened over 25 years ago, when a saxophone was stolen. The child who owned the saxophone suddenly ‘couldn’t find’ it. I thought it would turn up—my personal assumption was that the saxophone’s owner was ‘careless.’

After a month or so, I got a call from the local music store. A woman had tried to sell the saxophone in question to the store, which also dealt in used instruments, saying it was no longer needed by her daughter. Fortunately, the store kept serial numbers of instruments it had sold over time, and it was, indeed, the missing saxophone.

The child who lifted the sax from the band room was a compliant and helpful student. Her mother, who tried to cash in on a stolen instrument, was on the school board. When I brought the mess to my principal, he directed me not to tell anyone. Because it would make US look bad.

The missing sax was returned to its owner—whose parents were not informed that someone tried to sell their kid’s possession. Even though we knew. No harm, no foul. Don’t rock the boat.

All of these people are white, of course.

Things have got to change.

Changing What We Teach

Over the past couple of days, there has been a steady stream of resources, generously shared, for anti-racist teaching.  Here, for example.  Here, here and here and here. And this, just this afternoon.

There are plenty of articles out there speculating on when and how we go back to school, and the consequences of going back too soon. But all the handwringing over alternate schedules, classroom lunches and sanitizing the playground are a great example of focusing on the urgent rather than the important.

Going back to School as Usual only works for a segment of privileged kids in well-resourced schools. All schools, including those where parent satisfaction is high and student achievement is admirable, can benefit from re-thinking what we teach—more than how we teach.

There have been endless conversations on Twitter and Facebook about the value of suggested resources and materials, just how age-appropriate they are, and how they intersect—or don’t—with traditional, standards-based curricula. These conversations, even when argumentative and heated, are good.

This is (or should be) teachers’ professional work. These should be the things we’re reading about, dissecting with our colleagues, discussing with our friends. We can’t go on merely doing what we always did. That’s not teaching. That’s mindless reproduction. It’s clear that it’s not working.

This will involve changing who we are and what we think, sometimes. Take this school superintendent in Michigan, for example, who commented, on his Facebook page:   

“Burning, breaking windows, and looting is also an injustice — what happened to Floyd was wrong! A criminal response is also wrong. Any statement otherwise, condones and perpetuates both criminal acts!!  …it all starts with being a law abiding citizen – had he not paid with counterfeit money, had he not resisted, had he not been under the influence — then there would be no contact with officers; that does not excuse the officer; it just eliminates the conflict to begin with!! It starts with being a good citizen!”

Yeah.  Superintendent of a district with more than 5000 students.

But—I have seen and heard other remarks like his in the past week, and in many years past, in times of unrest. From all kinds of people who see themselves as well-meaning, even progressive. From teachers, too, who see themselves as ‘good citizens.’

Which is why we must do more than space desks six feet apart and set up hand-washing stations. What good is school if it’s just transmitting sterile, pre-approved information, teaching basic skills and collecting data? Why take the risk, unless students we’re giving students something of value, something that challenges them to create a better world?

Skimming through the resources shared by teachers who want to know more about anti-racist teaching, I had a familiar ache: I miss having my own classroom. There is nothing like the juice of having a few hundred students (music teachers often have a few hundred students) and plenty of occasions to talk with them about social justice and equity—and cultural appropriation.

If there were any one thing I hoped my students would learn, it would be an awareness that they’re consuming black musical culture without crediting it to the correct source–or respecting it. That’s the reason I did any anti-racist work (and I’m not suggesting I was good at it): my students were soaking in the outcomes of how to creatively make music out of oppression, and they were totally unaware of it.

We need anti-racist curriculum, all right. Including–maybe even especially–in the arts.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my colleagues, about doing a unit–this was back before the curriculum was steered strictly by CCSS–on ‘tolerance.’ She was teaching 8th grade English and wanted to do some readings and discussions. I got excited about the kinds of music that could support and weave through that kind of unit–artists and composers and reasons why music has value in the culture, helps bridge differences.

We talked about what the community might push back against–we doubted that parents would openly confront teachers over readings about racism, but agreed a handful were likely to complain about readings about tolerance around sexual orientation.

Tolerance (a weak word, but hang with me) might be defined in such a unit as:

In a particular time or place…who is it OK to beat up on a Saturday night? A hundred years ago, for example, it was OK to beat up your wife or girlfriend. The police and neighbors would overlook that as ‘family business.’ That was tolerated. That’s not OK any more—at least on paper. It’s also no longer OK to beat up an immigrant, someone of a different ethnicity or color, or someone with a different sexual orientation.

Except—we can all think of plenty of current examples where tolerance of difference has been shattered. For plenty of spurious reasons. Including righteous declarations about ‘citizenship.’

We’re in trouble. We need to teach our children to do better. We need to look hard at coded language. We need to emphasize the most basic civic acts: Voting. Speaking out. Media literacy. Being broadly informed, about a range of issues. Talking to our neighbors and families.

All of that takes courage. Not as much courage as taking to the streets, but courage. If we just go back to school and do the same old things, then all the ‘learning community’ and ‘21st century’ and ‘high and rigorous’ blah-blah we’ve been tossing around doesn’t reflect what our students observe with their own eyes. If we don’t take this opportunity to teach what matters, we don’t deserve the honor and responsibility of being educators.