The Blessings of Liberty Include Fully Public Education

I wrote this blog on July 5, 2018–at a site that is now blocked by a paywall. Yesterday, I read Donald Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore, and his follow-up speech–pretty much the same blah-blah–at the White House, on July 4. When this popped up in my feed today, it felt as if I was naive then–that I had no idea just how far evil would rise, how a terrible crisis could drive the country even further apart. All of this still applies.
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I played my flute in a patriotic-themed outdoor concert last night with the Northport Community Band–as cooling breezes blew across Grand Traverse Bay and firecrackers popped in the distance. There were at least 400 people seated in lawn chairs, clapping along to You’re a Grand Old Flag, The National Emblem and The Stars and Stripes Forever. We played a service medley, as we always do, asking veterans to stand when the tune representing their branch of the service was played. This is standard for our summer concerts–and I usually think of this as hokey, the musical equivalent of a ‘Support Our Troops!’ bumper sticker.

But last night, instead of zoning out during the rests, I watched the crowd–the old men struggling to get to their feet or simply waving from their wheelchairs as the crowd clapped and cheered for them. And I thought of all the major sacrifices–not just lives of young, innocent men and women, determined to serve their country, but the endless struggles for civil rights and equity and justice. I reflected on the striving, loss and pain incurred in the ongoing process of trying to make this nation a true democracy (or republic–take your choice).

The people who tartly point out that we have never been a just and fair nation are correct. But I don’t remember a Fourth of July where I’ve felt more discouraged about the home of the brave, land of the not-really free.

I also still feel a deep commitment, an obligation, to the relevant principles, even as they’re chipped away and made meaningless: Liberty. Opportunity. Equity. Justice. Peace. Persistence.

I found myself, unexpectedly, in tears last night. So much has been lost, damaged, soiled or destroyed. Evil is rising. You can’t deny it. Just watch the news.

Were all the sacrifices in vain–going all the way back to the ragtag Colonial armies, losing their lives over taxation and the conviction that somehow this was their land, that they were entitled, by their Creator, to defend their homesteads and the fruits of their labor? What about the terrible price paid to end the scourge of slavery? To build and invest in becoming a world-class power? All the people who steadfastly developed the American dream–is it just the way of the world that their sacrifices were meaningless in the face of greed and corruption?

The etymological root of the word sacrifice is to ‘make sacred.’ I think I was experiencing the sacred last night, watching the 90-something Navy man sing ‘Anchors Aweigh’ in the front row–and the grandfathers who served in Vietnam shyly nod to each other across the crowd.

I also thought about where and how those men and women were educated. Where did they absorb the idea that citizenship is both blessing and duty? Who taught them to read and calculate, who nurtured their talents and their dreams?

The county where I live–one of the most beautiful spots in the nation, according to Good Morning, America-was originally settled by Native Americans, who still have a large and active presence here, and whose children attend public schools. The abundant fresh waters that drew them here centuries ago are now threatened by a crumbling oil pipeline that lies under a major shipping lane.  Should a public education include factual information about protecting our greatest environmental asset? Is that not also a sacred American principle?

In this holiday week, I am choosing to still believe in the things that genuinely have made America great, those blessings of liberty that include a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child.

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.

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.

Memorial Day 2020

On Memorial Day, I have often dusted off an old column I originally wrote a dozen years ago. It’s about how I never lost my love and appreciation for Memorial Day as an opportunity for school bands and community members to commemorate the sacrifices made so we could live peacefully.

It always seemed like a great lesson for public school children to learn: gratitude and civics.  

When parents would call, a few days before the parade, and say—hey, Jason won’t be at the parade Monday because we have company coming for a day at the lake, I never responded with anger or points-off punishments.

But I would feel sad about the missed opportunity for students and their families to take a couple of hours to honor our own history, our own heroes. Memorial Day services are one of the few chances we get to put our communal, democratic values on display, without glorifying war or violence.

When we moved up north, I joined a community band and chorus which have been at the heart of a Memorial Day service here for decades. No parade—most band and choir members are retirees. But we’ve played a service in a misty rain as well as blazing sun. It’s always the same: a few patriotic tunes, a speaker, a prayer. Then Taps.

This Memorial Day, there will be no traditional service at the Northport Cemetery. No inspiring message, no Scouts raising the flag, no Village Voices singing ‘The Last Full Measure of Devotion’–and no Community Band playing ‘National Emblem’. It is too risky to bring the town’s residents together to honor the military sacrifices made so we can enjoy life on our beautiful, peaceful peninsula.

Instead, the Northport Community Band will be offering a ‘Rolling Taps’ to those who live in Northport. Sixteen members of the band’s brass section will station themselves around town and, one after the other, play Taps. The tribute will begin at the Northport sign, at the South end of town, moving northward a block at a time, and travel through the Village, each player handing off to the next. The final player will be stationed at the cannon in the Northport Cemetery.

The director of the band found it easy to recruit players. Everyone was pleased to find a way to contribute in keeping a cherished tradition—Memorial Day in Northport—alive. If our grandfathers could storm the beaches at Normandy, one trumpeter said, we can certainly stand on the corner and play Taps. It’s the very least we can do to honor those who sacrificed so much more.

Village residents are welcome to listen from their front porches, their bikes or cars, but are asked to maintain a good distance from brass players as they perform, and refrain from talking or applauding.  Taps—originally a bugle call to signal lights out, a time of rest—has become the most solemn military funeral call, a way to thank and say goodbye to those who served their nation.

Much of the Northport Band’s and Village Voices’ summer season has been cancelled. There’s reason to be sad. But there’s also reason to remember sacrifices made. There are sacrifices being made right now, for the health and strength of this nation. Let us continue to keep the flame burning, beginning on Memorial Day.

Day is done. Gone the sun. From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.