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Connecting Cultures Through Band

Elise Naber Allen | August September 2021

    Going into the 2020-2021 year, I wondered what school would be like. Would I see my students in person? Would they show up online? Would we be able to play safely as a group? Are they all right physically and emotionally? How are they affected by the social injustices happening? I did not want to base my professional learning goals on numbers or the ratings students received at evaluations. I wanted room to take care of them as people but still help them grow as musicians. Also, I wanted to step away from the familiar, start programming music from other cultures, and give students meaningful context for the music we played. With those ideas in mind, I decided to program about twenty percent more music from other cultures and become more knowledgeable about cultures and performance practices.
    I entered teaching to create an equitable classroom where all students felt safe, seen, and valued. However, as a young teacher, I did not know how to accomplish this. This inexperience was amplified by teaching in places where I was an outsider and did not always feel comfortable going against community norms, risking being labeled as a radical and fired. Having attended conference sessions and virtual roundtables about creating equitable spaces and diversity in band, I know many teachers wonder how to begin. We want to be inclusive but feel uncomfortable with our situation, afraid of our own biases, or worried about our reputation in the community if we even appear to take a stand on certain issues. However, your silence can be perceived by students as being complicit with the injustices in the world.
    Before discussing culture in class, a good relationship with students is essential. This year I chose only to go into this topic with my seventh- and eighth-graders. I felt that I did not know my sixth graders well enough for this discussion after only interacting with them in virtual classes. I knew my seventh and eighth graders as individuals and how they interacted in groups, so I could anticipate their responses and guide them in respectful, open conversations.

    Before introducing any activities to students, I did my research. There are plenty of resources online about how to speak to students of different ages about culture. I also benefited from multiple courses in my master’s degree that addressed cultural appropriation and authenticity in programming.
    The Iceberg Concept of Culture is a great starting place. This concept explores the idea that such aspects of culture as food, music, clothing, crafts, and celebration are like the top of an iceberg resting above the water. A casual observer can see these parts of a culture. However, as you go deeper, the next section of the iceberg just below the water includes interpretations of culture or how people’s culture affects their behavior in certain situations. The deepest part of the iceberg is a culture’s core values. These are the most significant part and inform the rest of the iceberg. These core values explain how people decide what is good or bad and what they deem acceptable or not. The majority of a culture is invisible, and the deepest part of the iceberg represents the institutions of influence. You can find examples of the Iceberg Concept of Culture from PBS Learning Media’s website. I found this concept helpful in collecting research and deciding how to talk about culture in class. However, when working with my students, we discussed the cultural iceberg only briefly to illustrate how deeply culture is rooted in people.

Getting Started
    To begin, I divided students into small groups and asked them to define culture and share their answers with the class. Culture is a construct and contains so many aspects. Hearing students express their ideas helped me to understand their thoughts and what they remembered from social studies classes. (For those who like graphic organizers, a KWL chart works well here.) Next, I filled in some gaps in their definitions. I noted that culture is an umbrella term for social behaviors and norms found in human societies. Finally, we discussed how people learn culture. Humans are not born knowing culture; they pick it up from people around them.

Discussion Rules
    We continued with a large group discussion about how to speak about culture in class. We set ground rules for discussion because many parts of culture are deeply personal. I took notes so students could see the ideas and refer back to them. Encourage students to set the rules. You can guide them, but they will have good ideas. Students generally do not want to be mean or insensitive.
    Often, when middle school students say something insensitive or inappropriate towards a group of people they are repeating what they have heard. Take a careful approach to correcting these comments. If a student says something inappropriate, they may not know it is hurtful.
    Do not shame students when correcting them. If you act shocked or respond harshly, they often shut down and miss the chance to learn. Researcher and author Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
    A good way to respond when a student says something inappropriate is to ask, “why?” or “what do you mean by that?” Over the past few years, I have adopted this as my blanket response when students say something hurtful or inappropriate. It causes them to pause and think, and frequently they realize a particular comment is problematic, and the issue resolves itself. If the student genuinely does not know a statement is harmful, address them in a one-on-one conversation about treating others with respect.
    A few ground rules my students came up with were:

    ●    No one is forced to share.
    ●    Keep an open mind.
    ●    Be respectful.
    ●    Listen when others are talking.

Exploring Culture
    After setting these guidelines, students again split into small groups to think of examples of their culture in America, the South, Georgia, Monroe County, and even their own families. While students talked, I kept our rules projected as a reminder of the norms for discussion. After about 5-10 minutes (or once I heard conversations starting to drift) we came together to discuss each of these cultures. Many student responses about their culture lived at the top of the iceberg, but a few made it just below the surface. Then, we had a large group discussion on the areas of culture.
    At this point, I also asked students about their experiences visiting other places. These stories can illustrate that unique experiences affect how we see and interact with culture. To encourage students to share their experiences, I exposed a vulnerability and told them about the culture shock I felt in my first position teaching elementary music in North Dakota. I grew up in the South and expected a kindergarten student to say “yes ma’am.” When I said this to her, she looked at me like I was from Mars. My current students, mostly native Georgians, found this culture clash hilarious.
    When teachers share a past mistake, it makes them more human, and students remember it. Sharing my misunderstanding allowed students to feel more comfortable talking about their experiences. Some students shared personal and touching information about their family cultures. Some chose not to share, and that was also fine. When covering these complex topics, I want to make sure that everyone stays engaged.
    As students shared their experiences, I avoided language that affirmed or negated their experience and instead said, “thank you.” If you use responses like “good,” “perfect,” “fantastic,” or “okay,” students may take those as validation or negation of what they shared. Their classmates are listening as well. It is common for people to unintentionally affirm experiences that are closely aligned with their own. Using neutral responses for all students averts the problem of elevating certain experiences.
    In talking about family cultures I discussed how as adults they can decide which parts of their family culture to keep and which to change. I revealed that I grew up in a similar but still different family culture than my spouse, and that there are elements that we each brought to our shared family and others that we have agreed to change. It is important for students to hear that one day they will have control over the culture of their home.

Programming Music
    The other component of my goal for the year was to incorporate this study of culture into the music we played. The pieces I chose for my students were African Folk Trilogy by Anne McGinty, Sakura arranged by Mike Story, and African Festival arranged by Quincy Hilliard. I searched for pieces that were authentic to their respective cultures and appropriately challenging.
    Avoid music that is written “in the style of” as such pieces will not provide your students with authentic experiences and are disrespectful to those who belong to those cultures. Look for arrangements of traditional songs or pieces written by people from the culture you are studying. The goal should be for students to begin to develop a true understanding and not just a superficial or stereotypical awareness.
    We must teach them about the actual thing and not just an idea or interpretation from an outsider. For example, I was intrigued by a piece about a spirit in Pueblo culture. After further study, I discovered that the music had nothing to do with the ceremony for the spirits, nor any part of the Pueblo tradition. It just had the name and a certain sound, so I skipped it.

Connecting to the Culture
    No matter which pieces you use, find ways to bring in people connected to what you are studying. I used YouTube videos to do this. For African Folk Trilogy, I found examples of people performing the original folk songs. When learning about Sakura and hanami, watching the blooming of the cherry blossoms, we watched a YouTube video of some friends in Tokyo sharing tips for how to hanami. A nearby cherry blossom festival in Macon, Georgia was an opportunity for my students to compare and contrast their experiences with cherry blossoms to those of people in Tokyo.
    I worried about how to discuss the background of Quincy Hilliard’s African Festival, a setting of Siyahamba, an anti-apartheid song from South Africa. I never learned about apartheid in school and felt uncomfortable about teaching the important meaning behind the piece. I did some research, and then showed students videos about Nelson Mandela as well as some by author and comedian Trevor Noah speaking about his childhood in South Africa. Many students were familiar with Trevor Noah, so his videos created a nice bridge that connected something new with the familiar. Also, I was honest with students that these were topics I did not learn about in school but were important parts of history and that I was learning right along with them.
    Even better than showing students videos is bringing people into your classroom. If you know a teacher, parent, or community member with direct knowledge about a culture, bring them in to speak with your students. Always try to get your students as close to the source as possible, as this makes the experience much more enriching.

No Politics
    I firmly believe in checking politics at the door when I teach. I never make these conversations political and redirect statements that veer this way. I do not address what any politician or political party says or does. Instead of being guided by politics, I follow a teaching philosophy that all humans deserve equal access to high-quality music education. I also believe my students deserve an education that sees them as individuals and gives them the opportunity to form opinions. I never tell my students what to believe or think. Instead, I guide conversations, encourage them to develop thoughts, and never avoid important, but challenging topics.
    I mentioned at the beginning how so many directors want to make changes happen. It begins with educating yourself, getting a little uncomfortable, and then trying something new in your classroom. It will be okay. Your students are human, even the seventh graders. They appreciate honesty. If you are unsure about something, let them know this is new for you, and you want to give it a try. Not having all the answers is okay. It may not feel like having conversations about culture will change the world, but done with care and preparation you can have a positive impact on your students and community.
    By having students first explore their own culture, you provide a foundation for learning about cultures different from their own. It gives them a point of reference as they explore the world around them. Engage students on a deeper level and step outside your comfort zone. As Jonathan Kozol writes in On Being a Teacher, “The most memorable lesson is not what is written by the student on a sheet of yellow lined paper in the lesson pad; nor is it the clumsy sentence published (and ‘illustrated’) in the standard and official text. It is the message which is written in a teacher’s eyes throughout the course of his or her career. It is the lesson which endures a lifetime.” Taking lessons beyond the page of sheet music and connecting them to students’ lives will help your lessons endure a lifetime.