Gumbo in the Urban Classroom

Cookin’ in the Classroom

By Anne Smith, Ed.S


What Is Gumbo?

You might wonder why I chose the acronym G.U.M.B.O. as the title of my 2015 NAfME National In-Service workshop. I’m not from New Orleans, and the session is not about jazz. Gumbo is a complex, unpredictable soup-like creation that originated in the slave quarters of Louisiana. Gumbo can be described as the merging of cultures, flavors, and ingredients which have come together to form the ultimate American melting pot.

But gumbo is an acquired taste. It’s not for everyone. It can be spicy, slimy, and slightly intimidating.

gumbo | LauriPatterson

Why Gumbo?

Sound familiar? Gumbo, perfectly describes teaching music in urban schools. Teaching in urban schools can be one of the most daunting, exhausting, and frustrating experiences that a teacher can have in education. It can also be one of the most creatively productive periods that someone can have in their teaching career. G.U.M.B.O. stands for, Great Urban Music Teachers Bring Opportunities.

Lack of resources. Lack of time. Lack of interest. Lack of understanding. Gumbo originated from great chefs who had few resources to obtain food and limited time to prepare what they had. Few understood the challenges that they faced and no one wanted to hear their problems. In spite of the challenges, they were expected to create an appetizing, filling feast for the senses. Sound familiar?

Teachers of students in urban schools are often faced with limited resources. Finding books, instruments, and even furniture in urban schools can sometimes be a challenge. In many schools, the 3 R’s have been reduced to the 2 T’s; testing and technology. Time for music has been reduced and even eliminated for many students due to the lack of time in the school day.

Everyone wants to see and hear wonderful programs. A strong music program makes administrators look good. Parents love to see their children perform. Students take pride in showing what they can do. Yet, it is often left to the already overburdened music teacher to encourage and advocate for the very things that are necessary to make a successful music program possible.

The challenges that often present themselves in urban schools may be great, but the opportunities that we have in those classrooms are greater. Like a great gumbo, a great music program includes many ingredients. First, check your spices. Find out what you have to work with. Inventory your resources. If a spice is old, it should be thrown out. It won’t help the food if it has no flavor. If a lesson plan, activity, or song is not working, then toss it out.

I can remember teaching a unit on state songs. A parent complained to the principal that I was being insensitive to her child because the child was being asked to sing the state song of Florida, Swanee River. The following year, while I refused to ignore the song, I included a few minutes on history and the way in which lyrics can be offensive to others. Later this turned into a lesson on lyrics, censorship, and culture for my middle school students.

Dmitry Fisher/iStock/Thinkstock


How Can I Make It Work in My Classroom?

Great gumbo starts with great ingredients. But, no two gumbos are ever alike. There is no perfect recipe. Every chef or teacher will add things to the “roux” and make it a unique dish. There are, however, a few tried and true techniques that experienced cooks know. Tips that can show you how to add a bit of secret seasonings to help you create great gumbo. One such secret is that you don’t want to overwork your ingredients. Let them blend together naturally.

Musicians want everyone to love music the same way that we do. We have our recipe, we follow it, and it is supposed to come out perfectly. The problem in that is while the roux may be the same, it’s the seasoning that makes the difference. If your friend is allergic to pepper, and you love spicy food, the two of you will stir up different types of gumbo.

The same can be true in the classroom. Three years ago, I accepted a new position mid-year teaching chorus. There are three middle schools in my district. The other two were award-winning programs. I walked in to find that I had three students in my chorus class. Did I forget to say that one of my students was almost totally non-verbal?

After my initial panic, I looked at what was available to me. I clearly wasn’t going to district competition that year. Once I accepted my program as it was, and it was still a program, we started to focus on some of the other standards. We listened to music and analyzed it. Eventually, the students began to sing along with simple songs. The three students worked together to create a piece that they performed at graduation. It may not have been a thick spicy gumbo, but it was a filling tasty soup.


Are You Hungry Yet?

Have I whet your appetite? Join me in Nashville for the G.U.M.B.O session on Sunday October 25 at 11:00AM. Together we’ll create a sweet aroma that is designed to entice your students and inspire you to create your own gumbo. There will be tips, tricks, and ready-to-use activities that will help you meet the standards and integrate with integrity.

Can’t Wait?

Check me out on my Teachers Pay Teachers page in the Smart Arts Salon.

Or contact me directly at


About the Author:

music teacher

Anne Smith is a Teacher of Music in Alexandria, Virginia. She has also taught in the District of Columbia and Prince William County, Virginia. She is also a composer, lyricist, playwright, and local choral director. As a clinician, she has presented across the country for NAfME, TMEC, and others. Anne has recently published her first book on using Gospel music in the classroom: Good News!: The Innovators and Originators of Gospel Music is available at Tate Publishing. 


Anne will be presenting on this very topic at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this coming October in Nashville, TN! Don’t miss the In-Service BACK TO  SCHOOL RATE. The deadline is August 31!




Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across th e country, a wild time at the Give a Note Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today:

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