With this post, we welcome a new blogger to ChoralNet: middle school choral educator Bethany Perkins Hall, who teaches in a rural community. In her monthly posts (second Wednesdays), she will be sharing thoughts on building a “solutionary” program, including modifications for different types of choirs and ideas for activities and assignments, as well as insights on potential challenges and the joy that can come from this work.
By Bethany Perkins Hall
Even before the pandemic started, I noticed a troubling shift in my middle school students. Many were becoming disillusioned and jaded by the world around them. Climate doom, racism, anti-LGBTQ legislation – they were becoming aware of the issues in the news but felt powerless to fix them. More and more students were falling into depression and anxiety, which of course only increased with the pandemic.
As a chorus teacher, I knew that students found the arts to be an expressive outlet and a safe place. We all know, and have even been, those students/people who sing their hearts out as a soothing balm and a catharsis of sorts. I also knew when students came into our chorus room, many felt they could be honest about how they were feeling or what their struggles were. For these truths, I was glad. However, the hopelessness continued, and I wanted to find a way to help.
How could I help? I’m a mid-thirties music teacher in a rural community. I have no political degree, no science background, no obvious “power.”
If you find yourself nodding along, thinking something like “Yes, I see these issues in my students,” or “Gosh, I’m not some sort of activist who can fix the world for them” – never fear. We are human. We don’t have to have all the answers. But chances are, in some capacity, your students would like to see a change in the world. They would like to have a glimmer of hope. How do we get there from here?
Professor David Orr said, “Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.”
I came up with an idea for my chorus curriculum, which I started enacting this past year. The idea is this to empower the students to create change, using the power and platform of choral singing. In this way the students can create their own hope. Their hope is created not only by solving problems that they see, but also by realizing that they have a voice (pun intended) and the ability to continue solving problems throughout their lives. To become solutionaries.
Solutionary, noun: a person who identifies inhumane, unsustainable, and unjust systems and then develops solutions that are healthy and equitable for people, animals, and the environment. – from the Institute for Humane Education
I’ll provide an overview here of how our Solutionary Chorus Curriculum works, and get into more detailed in future blog posts.
My first step, of course, was to run the whole thing by my administration and make sure that I was operating within the parameters of the school rules. One facet of this project that is very important, for the students but also to protect both oneself and the school, is that it must be student-led. If I were to choose a cause for the students, rather than them choosing, the case could potentially be made that I were forcing ideas on the students. I actually wanted the curriculum to be student-led, anyway, so they would really be tackling issues close to their hearts.
After I had the green light, I asked the students for ideas. We covered our white board. Then I took those ideas and made a survey for them to vote on their cause. They chose LGBTQ+ awareness and respect.
After the vote, I shared the results with parents. Students are able to participate in chorus without doing the project part, but only 7 percent of the chorus/parents opted out. I made an assignment for the students to research and share something positive about what had already been done in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. It is important, when working towards a cause, to not feel as though you’re all alone and no one else cares, which is why I started with this assignment. We had a good-news sharing class in October.
The next assignment, in November, was to identify an area in which they would like to see change. This was a wonderful and eye-opening assignment. There was a lot of talk about education, about pronoun respect, general awareness and respect by peers and teachers, and even of legislation. I assure you, through all of this we also were preparing for our winter concert. Starting after holiday break, the students worked in groups based on what they said they wanted to change. They worked on finding a solution. Some students came up with a fully formed educational plan for their peers, which they presented to the principal. Some made awareness and acceptance posters. Some wrote to their local senator. As a result of the students’ efforts, a fellow teacher and myself will be providing teacher training around respect for gender identity and pronouns.
We gave our spring concert, and now we are preparing for our LGBTQ+ themed fundraiser for The Trevor Project. All the songs are either on the theme or by LGBTQ artists. In addition to choral pieces, there will be small groups doing pop numbers they chose. The Trevor Project, again, chosen by students, provides counseling support to LGBTQ youth. I encourage you to check them out. We’ll be promoting the fundraiser through the local news and of course with posters throughout the school.
Did I solve all of my students’ problems? YES! Just kidding. No, but these students have hope. They have a cause to work for, they’re making a difference in their world, and they’re proud of themselves. LGBTQ students feel validated and encouraged.
What will we do next year? Save the walruses? Anti-racism? The options are endless, but whatever it is, it will be what the students want and what gives them the most hope.
Bethany Perkins Hall teaches middle school chorus in Cumberland, Maine. She performs regularly as a soprano with the St. Mary Schola early music ensemble, and is in the Masters of Education program at Antioch University/Institute for Humane Education. In her free time, Bethany enjoys yoga, taking her dog to the beach, conversing with her cats, and getting her husband hooked on Bridgerton.