Decolonizing the Music Room

How to F.I.N.D. the Brilliance in our Students

Reposted with permission from Decolonizing the Music Room

About three months ago I finished reading an inspiring book by Dr. Chris Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too. This book was a memoir of Dr. Emdin’s personal experiences of being a student in the hood and then a teacher in the hood, and the delicate yet somewhat drastic similarities of the two. As I read page after page of this book, I was able to identify myself in several of the scenarios that Dr. Emdin shared: such as, creating fear-based narratives about students before even getting a chance to meet them or denying students opportunities based upon my biases. Each chapter revealed layers of truth in education that we rarely discuss or talk about in open forums. However, one quote in particular stayed with me weeks after finishing the book:

“Once educators recognize that they are biased against forms of brilliance other than their own, they can finally begin to truly teach.”

Yes, read that quote again. When I read it, I had an “aha” moment. The moment I began to view each student as a holder of brilliance was the moment my teaching changed. As I reflect on my teaching experiences, I can see how, over the years, my view of student brilliance has shifted as I continued to teach and learn. As a classically trained vocal music educator, I learned to define brilliance in music education by the technical standards of Western European training. Some examples of these standards: the ability to identify a chord progression in a choral music piece, sight reading an eight bar melodic phrase, or recognizing the difference between a Schumann and Strauss German Lieder Art Song. Is that brilliant? Sure. Is that the only form of brilliance? Nope.

That’s the thing- fresh out of college and into my first teaching job I was looking for brilliance in all the wrong places. Nobody told me that my students wouldn’t be able to call out chord progressions,  sight sing, or they surely wouldn’t know who the heck Schumann and Strauss were. So, I began to do what many teachers do. I created narratives that took the blame off of me and put it on the students as to why there was not much learning or fun happening in the music room. I’m sure many teachers  you have heard or even used these narratives themselves:

  1. I am the third music teacher in three years……
  2. The administration at the school has changed every year that I have been at the school.
  3. These kids just don’t listen.
  4. I don’t have enough resources.
  5. Every activity I try they just don’t like.
  6. These students don’t like MUSIC!
  7. There is no discipline at home… That’s why they act like that!
  8. They can’t read music!
  9. The teacher before me only did worksheets.
  10. Teaching in the hood is tough. They can’t do REAL music.

And so on and so forth. I admit that I have used these narratives before to downplay or excuse my ineffectiveness to engage and find the brilliance in my students. So, what changed? I did. Around year three or four of teaching I began to notice that my students had extraordinary talents that I didn’t or couldn’t recognize because of my filter to what brillance could be. My own bias and experience had shaped my definition of brilliance. I soon learned that brilliance comes in all forms.

I began to notice that student who would run to give me a fist bump in the cafeteria every morning while I was doing morning cafeteria duty. You might wonder where the brilliance is in that. Well, let me tell you: that student always had a smile and such great energy everyday, it helped me put into perspective the things going on in my life. If this student could smile and start everyday with jubilation and excitement, surely I could do the same. The student who always brought their choir folder and pencil to every rehearsal and was prepared for learning; a student who played drum-set for their church, but didn’t want me to know because they couldn’t read traditional music notation- are those examples forms of brilliance? Of course they are. 

That being said, I had to reevaluate my definition of brilliance in order to be able to identify it in my students. I had to take off my “Brilliance Blockers”!!! My old way of teaching and learning told me that brilliance had to look a certain way, behave in a certain manner, and perform only certain music. That is a lie. Period. 

Listed below is a short checklist on how to F.I.N.D. the brilliance in our students.

F. Flexibility is key in education.

No student is the same. The way your students learned material five years ago may not work with your students this year. This is where as educators we have to find different entry points to begin our instruction to ensure that our students are successful. Being flexible in our instruction will allow for the ebbs and flow that naturally come with teaching students. Flexibility from the teacher will create flexibility in our students’ learning. They too will learn that music education can be futuristic, innovative, fun, thought provoking and more. If you have been teaching the same song every year, find a new way to teach that song. Better yet, find a NEW SONG!

I. Identify your Biases

We all have biases, they are in our DNA. We can’t get around them, but we can confront them head on. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge our biases, and for some of us it’s nearly impossible to tell the truth for and about ourselves. However, there is power in truth. Identify the way you feel when that certain student comes to class. You know who I’m talking about, the student that makes you immediately tense. The student that causes you to stop smiling and being “yourself”. Why do you feel that way? What happened in the past to make you feel that way? What is the trigger point that causes you to revert back to that behavior? Questions like this can help  identify our biases and so we can improve our instruction and build authentic relationships with students.There are tools available to do this exhaustive work, but it begins with YOU. Please understand that our biases will blind us from seeing our students’ brilliance.

N. Never Give Up on Students

Cliche, right? But let me explain. What if I told you that I had a college professor that told me “You need to change your major. You will never be a great music teacher?” Immediately I felt hopeless. Then mad, then angry. I know, however,  that this professor had their own idea of what brilliance was- and I simply did not fulfill that requirement. Did that mean that I was not brilliant? Of course not, but the younger me thought I was a complete failure. How many of our students feel that way in our classrooms? How many of them feel that no matter what they do they will never be brilliant in our eyes? Eleven years later I am in music education and I still remember that day like it was yesterday. In times when I find myself teaching and learning in a difficult situation, I always try to identify the brilliance in the students. Never give up on students- just take off your “Brilliance Blockers” and you will begin to see the brilliance inside each of them.

D. Diversify Your Curriculum

In order to reach students in a more meaningful, impactful way this means we must diversify our curriculum. This means that we have to actually plan with our students’ backgrounds and experiences in mind. The time for teaching songs that are insensitive to a culture, racist in nature, or simply historically inaccurate has come and gone. Meeting students at their point of need is critical to accessing their brilliance. If that means keeping a steady beat to an instrumental track of a Beyonce song, then so be it. However, realize that simply playing a song that students are familiar with will not immediately create student buy-in. Without proper classroom management and a positive culture, simply adding popular music to your curriculum will not change A THING! I know we’ve been teaching those same old songs every year since 1995, and the kids “love them,” however, it is time to look at our curriculum with a new perspective. With platforms like SoundCloud, Spotify, Youtube, and  GarageBand students are creating, recording, and releasing their music at a growing rate. As music educators we should promote this new wave of performing music and filter it into our curriculum. If you feel uncomfortable teaching hip hop, pop, rock and roll, gospel, techno, or any other genre of music that’s ok. Be authentic and sincere about your approach to the music that is out of your comfort zone. Research the music and allow your students to grow and learn with you. We are not the only holders of knowledge in the classroom nor in our school community. Welcome new possibilities into your music classroom and you will begin to see brilliance in your students that you were once unable to see.

Does it take work to find the brilliance in our students? The obvious answer is yes, but it might not be as difficult as you think. Only once we understand that there are different forms of brilliance will we begin to see how truly amazing each student is and can be. There is brilliance in the songs they create and sing on the playground. There is brilliance in that symphonic pencil ostinato on the cafeteria table. There is brilliance in that witty response from a student that makes the entire class laugh. There is brilliance in the child who is soft spoken and is very shy. No matter what, our students have brilliance. Will we identify, acknowledge, develop and praise that brilliance? 

What I know for sure is that our students are brilliant. They are resilient. They are strong. They are courageous. They are leaders. They have the “It Factor”. It is our job as teachers to figure out what their “it” is. Once we realize that…that is when transformative teaching and learning can take place.

Franklin Willis

For more than a decade, Willis has educated, mentored, and developed elementary and middle school students through the power of music. He specializes in providing musical instruction through authentic culturally relevant teaching experiences to empower and engage all children to achieve success. He is a graduate of the University of Memphis with a Bachelor of Music Education with an emphasis in Choral Music in 2009. In 2012, he earned the Master of Education Degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Belmont University. Most recently Willis completed the Education Specialist Degree with an emphasis in Instructional Leadership from Tennessee Technological University. He currently serves as the Elementary Music Coach for the Metro Nashville Public Schools District, to provide music teachers with instructional support and resources necessary to enhance their classrooms. Willis believes that music education is a vital tool to teach student about other cultures, create community, and a love for learning. Through his work, he has developed a passion that the cultivation of musicianship begins at a young age and that every child has musical potential. Every student is a champion and deserves a music teacher who will see the best in them. Willis has facilitated professional development sessions for music teachers of all grade levels sharing his unique and relevant teaching practices. He consistently collaborates with colleagues, community organizations, local businesses, colleges and universities to advocate for the importance of music education in our schools. Through his work he has received national recognition for his ability to meet students at their point of need and guide them to new levels of success. He is a three time recipient of the CMA Foundation Music Teacher of Excellence Award. ('16, '18, '19)

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  1. Sandra Fergins on February 10, 2021 at 8:35 pm

    This was a very inspiring article. It is good to see people love kids for who they are and foresee great potential in each individual student. Students connect with someone who values their worth as individuals.

  2. Chelsea Thiel on February 15, 2021 at 10:51 am

    Bravo! Excellent article! Thank you for this. I will be sharing with my colleagues.

  3. Karin McCartney on February 22, 2021 at 8:01 am

    Excellent, thought-provoking and engaging read!

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