I was a music teacher at a private school for two years before deciding to teach public ‘high’ school. What I did not know at the time was that the school that I was assigned to was the guinea pig for ‘universal education,’ which meant that any student, no matter their ability, was given the opportunity to attend high school.
Students were assigned to classes depending on their ability, but the same curriculum was taught no matter which class the students belonged to. I taught music to students at all levels. The students in most of my classes were excited that music was introduced into the curriculum and they were ready and willing to learn.
Students with the lowest intellectual abilities and/or students with behavioral problems were placed in this particular class. Half of the class was older than I was at the time and most towered over my ‘slim’ frame. For weeks I dreaded going to that class. The students constantly used obscene language while I was in the class and they paid no attention to what I had to say.
I often thought I was wasting my time and decided on several occasions to leave the class halfway through my teaching session. I call these students the forgotten ones because like I did initially, many other teachers forgot them. They would not go to a classroom of violent, ill tempered, ill-mannered students.
What I did not know at the time was that many of these students were physically and verbally abused, abandoned and left to fend for themselves in a village known for its history of violence and drugs. I decided that my approach to the students that no one believed in and no one paid any attention to needed to change.
I couldn’t teach the same material I did in my other classes, half the time they didn’t understand one thing I said in the class. At that point, I decided change was needed and got permission from the head of the school to modify my curriculum for this particular class.
That week, for the first time I asked the students ‘what did they want to learn in this class?’ At first I got grumbles and ‘what do you care?’ until a student shouted out ‘rap music.’ It was the first positive response I had gotten and I went along with it.
The next class I brought a burned CD with ‘clean’ rap music I had gotten from my brother to the class. It was the first time I got the students to pay attention in the class. We listened to two rap songs with different beats and I asked them to clap the beats they heard; the student who got the most correct beats got the CD. I used this as an entry to teach different notes and their counts and brought a pizza to class to teach fractions.
I constantly thought of ways to bring the material in a different format for these students that would keep them engaged. I enjoyed the challenge and it not only helped with this class but it helped with my other classes as I became more creative with them as well.
I offered ‘free’ music classes for students who wanted to learn to play the piano after school, started a choir and got a group of students to participate in an island wide music school competition. We did not get first place but, third place was just as good as first place to me.
The more programs I had, the less time the students got to stay on the street. I started developing bonds with these students, they were more respectful and most importantly, they wanted to do better.
Creativity helped me to reach students I thought were unreachable, and ‘the forgotten ones’ still call me ‘Miss Alexander’ ten years later.