Confessions of a Teacher / Musician

Being both a singer / songwriter and a teacher isn’t always easy. Before I realized there are more effective ways to quiet down a room of first graders, I used to lose my voice with alarming regularity. At the risk of stating the obvious, a teacher and singer without a voice is a very sad thing to be. Experienced teachers of course, know to use a voiceless signal like a drum, a chime, or a clap; but they don’t teach you that in teacher school. I also learned the hard way that late Tuesday night gigs aren’t a good idea, no matter how prestigious the venue. To have any hope of matching the energy of a room full of first graders, a decent night’s sleep is essential. Then there are the times when you question if one career is sabotaging the other. One summer I was at an all day math workshop learning new ways of teaching fractions to my fourth graders when I missed a message from a promoter asking if I was interested in opening for the Violent Femmes. By the time I called back the slot had been snatched up, along with the chance to play on the same bill as one of the seminal bands of my youth.

There have been good moments of course. I’ll never forget the time one of my first graders dragged her parents to one of my gigs – past her bedtime, of course. At the gig I played most of my set standing, but looked in vain for somewhere to sit for the solo acoustic numbers. I ended up playing them standing as well. That year for Christmas my student got me a very nice, very sturdy stool – the kind every singer / songwriter worth their salt should have.

And then there are times when my songwriting and teaching worlds merge in such a seamless dance of mutual reciprocity that I simply must accept that I couldn’t succeed in one without the other. Such was the case when I wrote the songs that came to be my album Kids of the Earth – Songs for the Green Generation.

My students and I had embarked upon an ecology unit, exploring life cycles, ecosystems and our relationship to the planet. Right off the bat I noticed my students had a natural empathy for plants and animals. They were the first to notice when their mustard seeds poked their shoots above the soil. And some identified with their plants so much that they would say things like “I’m thirsty today!” when giving their plant water. It was this kind of empathy that motivated them to learn, read and ask everything they could about caring for their plants.

“What is good for our plants?” they asked. This question led to the another question, “What is good for us?” I didn’t plan it but my class explored healthy human habits along with healthy plant habits. It was often this blurring between person and plant that made for the best caretaking.

I began writing the song Reduce Reuse Recycle as a fun way to blur the line between my students and the planet. Creating empathy for the Earth, I reasoned, was a little more abstract than creating empathy for our plants; but there’s nothing a catchy melody can’t overcome, right? I wanted my students to be the Earth, to talk like the Earth, to take on the Earth’s concerns, so I wrote the song from Earth’s point of view.

This was my first try at writing a song to reinforce my curriculum so I wasn’t sure how it would go over with my class. Would they like the song? Would they sing it? Would it stick with them? I did have a somewhat captive audience, but would the song connect?

The answer turned out to be a resounding yes! My students loved the song and would sometimes start singing it spontaneously at random times of the day. After my class had sung the song for many months, a parent told me that his son had gotten the family to begin recycling because he didn’t want the Earth “to get sick” and he told them they should “think before throwing anything away.” The lines from the song had stuck and the boy’s newfound empathy for the Earth had inspired positive action. Another parent also told me that on a hike her child got them all to start picking up any trash along the way because of the child’s urgent concern that this was making the planet ill.

Because my students responded so well to “Reduce Reuse Recycle”, I wrote more songs to dovetail with our study of the Earth. The more songs I wrote the more I became convinced that music was the perfect medium, the perfect teaching tool to foster and expand a child’s natural empathy for living things and, by extension, the planet. These songs became the basis for my album.

Children represent the attitudes of the future. If human habits need to change in order to solve the problems facing our planet, children offer us our best chance. Given the enthusiasm with which my students approached our ecology unit and their readiness to take action, it is my opinion that children are an under-appreciated and often overlooked resource in the environmental movement. With the right guidance and perhaps more importantly, the right soundtrack they can and will lead the way.

Education and music are both passions of mine. They are also two large arenas that require large amounts of time and energy to do well, let alone master. Though there have been times when I wanted to just focus on one – this project, this album united them in a way that affirmed my commitment to them both. United them, in a way like those old Reese’s commercials where the chocolate accidentally falls into the peanut butter and the characters discover the two distinct flavors, though good by themselves, are better together. My songwriting complimented and even enhanced the success of my teaching. My teaching gave purpose and served as inspiration for my songwriting. Perhaps I was meant to inhabit both worlds after all.

Readers, perhaps you can weigh in and tell me what you think! You can listen to the album here:

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