Westminster Center for Critical Pedagogy Explores New Options for Teaching
The following article is an excerpt from a profile that appeared in The Times of Trenton, N.J.
An ear for music, an eye for learning
Imagine you’re a seventh-grader sitting in music class and you’re asked -- no, you’re required, because your grade depends on it -- to relate to the music of Annie, the Broadway musical about the Depression-era orphan.
How likely is it that the play’s perennial song The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow will have any relevance for you? Your iPod is full of titles like Dead and Gone and Drug Ballad and every third song is rap music.
Frank Abrahams has been a professor of music education at the Westminster Choir College of Rider University for 18 years. Through studying, refining and thinking -- something he believes many teachers have forgotten how to do -- he believes he has an answer to the disconnect in so many American classrooms.
The answer is critical pedagogy, a heady term used for many years to describe a way of teaching literacy and history and even mathematics. But not music. Never music. Not until Abrahams came along.
“In a critical pedagogy environment, the power structure in the classroom changes,” says Abrahams, expounding his theories in his office one afternoon last week with the sound of piano music and student voices filling the air outside.
“The teacher teaches the students but the students also teach,” he explains. “In this kind of learning, you put yourself in the position of, OK, the kid’s got something to offer here. Let’s start from the point that they already know something worthy. What can I take from that and then add value? How can I enhance their musical experience, their understanding of music based on what they already know?”
So, when the students in his Music Education classes were preparing to go into a seventh-grade class at a public school and teach Annie, Abrahams challenged them to make the musical relevant. Add media images. Put in a percussive beat. Squeeze rap lyrics between the stanzas. Make a modern statement about music that isn't.
One of his students took news images of orphans from the Haitian earthquake and put them in a slideshow with The Sun Will Come Out ... playing in the background. Suddenly the word “orphan” comes alive in a way no textbook could describe. Goosebumps ensue. Now, perhaps only now, the kids are ready to see what Annie has to say.
“The kids in schools today have a very rich musical life outside of school. The point is to bridge the gap between that rich musical life and what the school thinks you should learn," says Abrahams, who gives his age as very old.
“So it’s not, OK, let’s do a unit on the singer Lady Gaga. Instead you look at how the music of Madonna connects to Mozart, or how the music of rap connects to Gregorian chants. Teaching isn’t a monologue. It’s a dialogue.”
Special to The Times
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Reprinted with permission