Having students set the gritty teen novel The Outsiders to music is just one of many creative, cross-curricular projects in which music teacher Andrea Peterson has involved her students at Monte Cristo Elementary School in Granite Falls, Washington.
That creativity, as well as her success in reviving the districts music program, and other contributions to the school and community, helped make Peterson the National Teacher of the Year .
A native of British Columbia, Canada, Peterson came to Granite Falls in 1997, and found that the schools music departments had been gutted. Peterson appealed to the administration and school and community groups for funding for instruments and equipment. She was so successful in rebuilding the districts music programs at the elementary and secondary levels that the district hired a second music teacher.
The National Teacher of the Year Program is sponsored by the ING Foundation and is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) . The national teacher of the year is released from teaching duties for a year to travel and serve as a spokesperson for the teaching profession.
Peterson talked with Education World about the roots of her desire to teach and her passion for seeing her students excel in everything they do.
Education World: Who or what inspired you to be a music teacher?
Andrea Peterson: Without a doubt, my dad, a veteran teacher of 34 years, is my greatest inspiration. He has always approached teaching and life in general with an attitude of service. Growing up, I was constantly aware of the powerful effect his service had on his students, their families, and our community. From physical education teacher, to minister, to special education teacher, my dads life has been a constant model of creating community through service.
He serves his community by teaching children how to succeed in life. These lessons come academically in the classroom, after school on the basketball court, and informally in the countless hours he invests in his students outside of school. At times, his students have lived in our house, when they lost their own homes due to family tragedy. Through examples like these, my parents repeatedly taught me to choose a career in which I could serve others. As a result, I entered university with the intention of becoming a doctor. Then, in the spring of my freshman year, I visited my brothers, both of whom were music education majors at a college in Colorado. When I realized that I could combine my passion for music with a desire to serve others, I knew that teaching music was my destiny.
EW: What are some of your goals for your students?
Peterson: I have a quote by Aristotle on the wall of my classroom that says, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a habit, not an act." When my students leave my classroom I want them to understand this quote to the point that it becomes part of their internal makeup.
But more than any of that, I want them to know that excellence is a goal that you must work toward every minute of every day. All too often, our society accepts mediocrity as satisfactory. In and out of school, we tell children that it is acceptable to do things incorrectly, as long as they feel good about themselves. The intrinsic problem, of course, is that human beings never feel good about themselves unless they are achieving. I want my students to realize that if they are going to reach their true potential, they must practice excellence in everything they do; be it music, science, or phys ed.
EW: Can you describe some of your cross-curricular projects? Why do you think it is important to involve music in other areas of the curriculum?
Peterson: I developed a cross-curricular approach to teaching music ten years ago out of a research-based belief that cross-curricular teaching is among the most effective ways to increase student learning. Students who have trouble seeing the relevancy of their social studies curriculum can become completely energized about history by singing about the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Conversely, children who dont necessarily love to sing can see the relevancy of learning music by connecting music to math or science. When students are able to tie learning from one subject to another, their retention goes through the roof.
Typically, I begin by taking a curricular area that is being taught in the regular classroom. I then create an eight-week music unit to coincide with the teaching of that curriculum. For example, my multi-age students recently studied S.E. Hintons novel The Outsiders as part of their reading curriculum. In an effort to support this learning, I had the students write a 30-minute play that included scenes from the book. The students selected three Broadway show tunes they felt exemplified the thematic material in the play. The students used a computer sequencing program to create an accompaniment track that turned one of these songs into a rap. I personally composed two other songs that would incorporate the plays message. While learning the musical, the students continued to study The Outsiders from a literary point of view with their classroom teacher.
EW: What makes a good day for you?
Peterson: I love a day where the first time I look up at the clock is at the end of the day. That usually means that weve been so busy learning, creating, and making music together that the time has flown by. I love it when, as a teacher, you are just in that zone. The kids are engaged, assessment is showing the evidence that they are learning, and everyone -- and I mean everyone -- is focusing on bettering themselves.
EW: What message do you want to convey as you travel the country this year?
Peterson: Simply put, I want to encourage people to get involved in education. That might mean being a mentor or a reading tutor. Or maybe it means raising money for your schools afterschool programs. Whatever the case, our schools need the help of their communities. Americas children need role models and relationships with successful people, to show them the way to achieve. Every child needs to have that one mentor in his or her life who will motivate him or her to achieve beyond his or her own expectations. Teachers, parents, administrators, and community members in general need to come together to ensure a quality education for every child.
This e-interview with Andrea Peterson is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.Article by Ellen R. Delisio