Going Beyond the Notes
A Music Educator’s Journey to Engage Students
By NAfME Member Chris Gleason
NEA Foundation Horace Mann Awards for Teaching Excellence Honoree
Music Educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
When we turned the calendar to 2022, I took some time to take stock of what my last 25 years of teaching have meant to me—what makes me keep coming to my music room every day, especially given how we, as a discipline, have had to adapt during the pandemic. For years, my home state of Wisconsin has struggled with a teacher shortage as more retire and quit the profession.
I have experienced struggles and several times. I have thought about hanging up my sheet music. In fact, at the end of my first year of teaching, I could have become part of the startling statistic of more than 44 percent of new teachers leaving the profession within the first five years. But I am always brought back to something my dad, a fellow music educator, once told me: “Your legacy as an educator will live on through the students you teach and the lives you touch.”
I look for unique ways to engage my students. It helps them think beyond the instruments and music they usually consider in my class.
During one of my early years of teaching, I posted an audacious question to my middle school band: “If we were to commission a composer to write a piece of music for us, what would the piece be about and why?”
One student’s suggestion was one of many imaginative and creative ideas we considered that day, but it captivated the entire class. The student suggested using a famous person born and raised right in our town of Sun Prairie, one of the most influential women in American history, Georgia O’Keeffe.
The student shared that “O’Keeffe is from our town and is very important to all of us. Her story shows her determination to live out a dream even when it had been ripped away. She showed that we can all achieve our goals even if we have to change the path we take.” The moment was stunning. The students quickly found consensus.
Research has shown that “students are engaged when they are attracted to their work, persist despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work.”
Through this lesson, I created a climate of possibility, allowing students to act upon their curiosity and explore their imagination while empowering them to create something with meaning that transcended their own lives. Through intentional planning, students were at the origins of creativity, interacting with composers, artists, historians, and community members. This lesson was so successful that we named it “ComMission Possible” and replicated its success every year.
Recently my class did a piece in band called Moscow 1941 by Brian Balmages. As the students learned, the German army was only a few miles from Moscow when the Russian army pushed them back. When I asked how this was possible, the band students suggested they did it as a team. Students were asked to form small groups and to examine our school community, identifying a problem they would like to address. We used that to learn the power of community to achieve results that sometimes seem impossible.
Each team created a mission statement and action plan to address the problem. After enacting the plan, the students returned to report what happened. One group, self-named “The Sit-Down Group,” made it their goal to sit with the students who sat alone during lunch. Students know how important it is not to be alone at lunch; in fact, a once bullied teen created an app where students volunteer as ambassadors to sit with students who have nowhere to sit at lunch.
As I observed my students doing this, my principal approached me in the lunchroom and said, “What is going on?” I smiled and said, “Band.” He looked at me, a bit puzzled. “I don’t understand. It’s lunchtime.” I explained what we had learned in class and the students’ project and watched his face transform with pride.
These are just two examples where a lesson took on a life of its own because of the students’ level of engagement and excitement. Not every idea sticks in the way these did, but you will know it and feel it when they do.
As a believer in the power of a quality public education, I am honored to be recognized, along with my esteemed colleagues in the field of education, by The NEA Foundation. Being recognized in this way and knowing that I am helping students helps fuel me each day.
About the author:
NAfME member Chris Gleason is an instrumental music educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year and the first Wisconsin teacher to be named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 50 years. Chris is the recipient of the UW-LaCrosse Burt & Norma Altman Distinguished Alumni Award, 2022 and 2017 GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM semifinalist and quarterfinalist in 2020, 2016 Michael G. George Distinguished Music Education Service Award and 2018 National LifeChanger of the Year Award nominee. Chris was recently awarded with the NEA Foundation’s Horace Mann Awards for Teaching Excellence. Chris is also a Teacher Leadership and Engagement Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and serves on committees with TED-Ed and Teach Plus.
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February 3, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)