EPISODE 11: THE STORY ABOUT

the Power of Words

with Linda Benjamin

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That’s what the arts is about. That’s what music is about. It’s having a place to express yourself and to tell your story.

Jamie
Every student has a voice, but one negative comment or interaction can effectively stifle that voice for years. I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we discuss how to nurture and promote the voice of every student with Linda Johnson, the founder of Match Piano Studio and teaching artist trainer for Big Thought in Dallas, Texas. Linda is a certified arts integration specialist through the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. Linda, we’re so grateful to have you joining us today. Thanks for being on the show.

Linda
Thank you. I’m excited to be here, too.

Jamie
I have heard that you have a story to share with us today and hearing bits and pieces of this story from colleagues of mine, I think it’s important that all of our listeners hear this story start to finish. So if you could please share your story with us.

Linda
Sure, I’d be glad to. So I’ve always been… as a child, I wanted, liked to sing and a person like to dance and move around and… My mom even wrote in my baby book that I was a little singer and a little dancer, and so I remember when I was little, we used to go to church on Friday night for choir practice, and I’d sit on the front pew and basically would sing at the top of my lungs because I was just enjoying what the adult choir was doing, um and there was a gentleman who played the organ, and I would watch him and Mr Killen was his name. He’d always turn around and say, “I hear you, Little Linda!” and I would just smile and probably sing a little bit louder. Um, so fast-forward to when I finally went to school in first grade, we had specials and music was my favorite class because I love to sing, obviously. And I would sing just like I did at church on Friday night, and my music teacher would kind of look at me funny and make these faces, but I just kept singing because I was like, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I like to sing.” So one day she decided to call my mom and she talked with my mom, and then my mom passed the conversation on to me and she said the teacher basically said that she never heard anyone who could sing like I could as a child. She said she could sing really, really low notes, really, really high notes and that, um, that she was afraid for my voice because singing in that type of style that I was singing was going to hurt my voice and that she wanted my mom to talk to me. So my mom did talk to me and it kind of scared me a little bit, you know? And then I went to class the next day and I was like, “OK, I’m gonna… I guess sing like everybody else does,” and I did. So I learned how to blend in and like the with a Tina Turner movie, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, when Anna Mae got kicked out of the church choir, I guess this is kind of how it was like it school, I didn’t exactly blend in, but I did learn how to blend in. But the result of that is, you know, I felt, later on, I didn’t realize it then, but I was stripped of my culture because that’s what I was learning, growing up in African American church of how to sing that way. And I found out that that way wasn’t the okay way to sing.

Jamie
Wow, How did this affect the rest of your career as a music educator?

Linda
It affected me, as a music educator… when I have the opportunity to teach students, I would never tell a student that I didn’t like their voice or that they couldn’t sing or that a certain style of music was the right way to sing. What I learned to do was to frame things in the form of a rubric. It’s like “We’re gonna go sing before these judges. This is the piece of paper that judges have if this is what they’re looking for. So we need to learn how to sing in this style of music, and here’s a technique that we use.” I would never personalize it. I would never make it a cultural thing or an ethnic thing. It was like “this is a technique that we’re going to use,” and then I also ah would make sure that we would have other opportunities where the students could sing in the way that they wanted to sing. I taught mostly African American students. That’s where I started my teaching career, which was ironic because I grew up in the suburbs in Dallas and the schools I went to over maybe 10% African American. And so I didn’t have that experience. And then I end up teaching for the first time with 880 students in elementary school and 99.9% of them were African American. And my principal’s like “Every child must know the school song and they must learn ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’.” And I’m like, “Okay, I heard that song somewhere like at church,” but I had to teach them that. And so I was learning it as I went along. It was like I had to relearn more about myself and my culture as an adult as a music teacher.

Jamie
And although this traumatic event happened when you were in the first grade, specifically in a music class, how did that affect maybe your other subjects in a non-musical way? 

Linda
It kind of made me second guess myself about some things. I’ve always been very articulate. I’ve always been in a speech class or whenever there was a play or something, I’d always be the one chosen to do that. So I was always very confident about myself, and I was always in the gifted and talented classes, so it didn’t affect me, um, academically. But what it did, it affected me socially about how do I fit in? Where do I fit it? And just trying to be a part of the group and making sure that my teachers like me because I felt like she didn’t like me because I was different. So I wanted to make sure I could blend in with everyone else and not stick out because apparently sticking out and being myself, which was considered being different, and it seemed like that was a bad thing. So it took me a while to regain my identity. Probably when I was a teenager, I started understanding, “hey, I’m going to be me” because that’s what happens when you’re a teenager. All of a sudden, I realized, Hey, this is this is who I am and I’m different and I’m going to celebrate that And so I got more into of speech and drama like prose and poetry, interpretation, original oratory. And that’s one place where I found my voice because whatever I was passionate about it that time, that’s what I’d write about.

Jamie
But teacher voices really do have power and the ability to really change the trajectory of a whole life. So many teachers feel that they are fostering minority student voices with maybe one month of black history-themed activities, a black history play, maybe a Cinco de Mayo pinata. What would you say to those teachers?

Linda
It’s really important that students are acknowledged regardless of their background. And even if the students that you have are not diverse, it is important that everyone is made aware of the diversity around them and what they will encounter in real life. And I believe there are all kinds of ways that you can actually take the material that you’re teaching and you can integrate it organically throughout your curriculum. I mean, think about it. If something’s not working in your curriculum, you always go somewhere. You may go to Teacher-Pay-Teacher. You may go to your favorite online source, you go to a friend. You go you go back to something that you’re familiar with, something that’s different ’cause it’s like this isn’t working, and so we do it all the time. Why is it that we cannot do that with making sure that the materials that we present to our students are also diverse and culturally responsive?

Jamie
Absolutely. And does this inequity in fostering student voice and encouraging particularly minority students voices? Does it just come through in teacher conversations with students? Or is it an environmental thing as well, such as the environment of the classroom or the whole school.

Linda
The environment of the school is very important. As I said it before, students want to be acknowledged. People want to be acknowledged. So if you are in an environment and you don’t see anyone that looks like you, you don’t see any of those things reflected on the bulletin board. Um, when you have announcements that are made, um, and only certain people or certain groups of people are recognized and your group of people is not, it just seems that students don’t feel valued, and when students feel valued, then they’re going to participate more. Their academic areas will… they’ll excel academically better just because they feel better about themselves. It all goes down to self-esteem. Do you feel good about yourself? When you feel good about yourself, you’re going to produce more. When you feel good about yourself, you will want to do more. And like I’ve always been a pleaser, I wanted to please my my teachers. And so I was one that would always try to do that. That lady in the first grade that I had, it seems like I was never good enough. It didn’t matter what I did that that it wasn’t going to satisfy her and so that environment stifled my ability to be myself and to express myself, which is very unfortunate because that’s what the arts is about. That’s what music is about, is having a place to express yourself and to tell your story. And I wasn’t able to do that anymore. And students need to be an environment where they can feel free to tell their stories. And that’s how we learn from one another is by being able to tell our stories and learn from each other. 

Jamie
I could not agree more with what you just said, and now for a particularly difficult question, and I think this is gonna be difficult not only for myself as a white woman to hear, but also for maybe some of our listeners who do identify as white males or females, um, to hear also, but I think it’s it’s important. What are some steps that teachers can take to examine their own attitudes or or biases towards students of color? And I I come to this conversation as someone who thinks that maybe I don’t have any biases against students of color because I’ve taught predominantly students of color in elementary schools before. But in speaking to some of my black and African American colleagues, this is simply untrue. We all have biases, and we all have predisposed attitudes. What are some steps we can take to combat those and examine those?

Linda
I think one of the things you could do is think about the stories that you’ve been told. We all have biases and the place of those biases come from is directly related to the stories that we’ve heard about different people, and until you experience different stories or different people in different situations, you’re going to develop those bias for those single story. So that’s the one thing that you have to examine. So, for example, I have my single story of the white woman who totally disparaged me for my culture and my background and how I sang. However, the remainder of my music teachers were all white and they were just the opposite. They were white males, and then my piano teacher was a white female who was a wonderful person and I felt no shame, no guilt. And I just went ahead, and I ended up becoming a music educator. But I could have let that one lady be my one story, and so I could have had a bias against the rest of my teachers that I had because of that. And that’s really where our biases come from. By the stories that we have. And even sometimes you just may have one bad experience, and you can’t just take that one single experience, and then use that as your reasoning for why you think about things. And then also your your family or your co-workers or your friends. You learn from their stories, and then you assume that that’s the way it is for everyone else.

Jamie
Well, thank you for for that. And I think many of us listeners today, many of the listeners are  going to truly reflect on what you said and be better educators all around for it. Is this a one-time examination of the biases, or is this a daily practice? Should this be a weekly practice, a monthly practice, or maybe once every August when we receive a new group of students?

Linda
To be honest, every time I wake up in the morning, it’s a new day. It’s a chance to start again. It’s the chance to be reflective of what happened yesterday, and how can I make today better? And one thing as an educator, I have to realize I made mistakes yesterday, and my students may have made mistakes yesterday, and I can’t let that thing cloud my thought process and how I treat my students. And so every day you should reflect because what happens if you don’t? Then it becomes kind of, ah, a muddled situation where that’s where you begin to develop some of these biases because you’re like I remember what you did yesterday and then you’re gonna do it again today and and then and sometimes you have to think about where the kids came from. Um, what their backgrounds were? What? What happened to them before breakfast? If they had breakfast when they came. And so you have to really examine yourself every day, Not even just for your biases. But examine yourself is a human being, because that’s what we are. What did I do wrong? What can I do to make it better? What did I do right? Don’t just beat yourself up. What did I do right? And how can I continue to improve myself from every day today?

Jamie
Thank you for sharing. Where where can we find more about all of the initiatives you’re involved in and what you’re working on currently?

Linda
Well, right now, I’ve been doing a lot of things with the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. Courtney Prugh and I just finished recording a course on cultural responsive teaching and the arts. And so I’m real excited about about that project that we’re doing, Um, and that we just completed. I think it’s coming out in April. And so we actually address things like biases and about, um, how that we can examine ourselves and how that we could be culturally responsive to our students. And it’s not necessarily about… It’s not always about race. It’s about meeting your students where they are because being culturally responsive, you’re looking at the different abilities of those students. You’re looking at gender identity. You’re looking at race. You’re looking at S.E.S. You’re looking at special education. You’re looking at so many things. And so I’m really excited that we had the opportunity to work on this project and to develop this course. And I’m looking forward to see what great things are gonna come from it.

Jamie
Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM and I’ve been your host. Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.

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