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School teacher changing tune of music education

January 29, 2019

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — RaJhon Chism had his pick of a ukulele, guitar, a tubano drum or a keyboard. He could have played chords or beat drums.

But his music of choice came from a simple pencil beaten strategically on a clipboard.

It was a sound that any child could learn to make whether their school had the budget or not for the large collection of ukuleles that lined the back wall in Michelle Lewis’ music classroom.

It was a lesson that Chism and his three partners could teach children who may not have music teachers of their own.

That was how Lewis began the year at Bloom Elementary School — by challenging her fifth grade students to think about how they could help other children.

What happened next is so powerful, it moves her to tears when she talks about it. That class will record a podcast this month to teach music to students who may not have strong — or any — music education programs.

And it’s so inspiring, it’s caught the attention of educators on a national level.

Lewis is one of five recipients of the Music Education Innovator Award from the Give A Note Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to grow and strengthen music education opportunities for students, schools and communities. The honor comes with a $4,000 grant that she’ll use to amp up technology in her classroom.

The annual award recognizes creative music programs that attract students who may not typically enroll in music classes. Lewis has dedicated two decades to teaching music but also to shaping what it looks like in the classroom. Over the years, she’s taught at Brown School, Shawnee High School and Western Middle School, but most recently, she oversaw every music program in Jefferson County Public Schools as the music curriculum specialist for the district.

Last year, though, she felt drawn back to the classroom.

“I saw opportunities for music education to look a different way, and I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “I never even imagined this. I never planned for this to happen, it just sort of evolved very organically.”

The idea is to increase access to music education by switching up the traditional curriculum and changing the approach to teaching.

You can hear the change at Bloom if you stand just outside the door of Lewis’ classroom.

It’s still as loud as you’d expect a music room to be, but it’s not necessarily coming from children singing songs or playing instruments.

Often, it’s coming from collaboration.

Her first graders are taking the lessons they’re learning about wildlife in their core classrooms and creating public service announcements about how to stop forest fires. Her third graders are rewriting ” Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes,” which have themes like death and captivity tucked in them, and giving them positive messages.

It was the fifth grade podcast project, though, that really caught the attention of the Give A Note Foundation, said Juliana Lee, strategic development director for the organization.

“She designs her curriculum around her students and their interests and their needs,” she said. “She’s willing to learn with them and that really stands out to me. I love that her kids want to connect with other students throughout the country.”

On a Tuesday just before the start of the winter holiday, her fifth graders funneled into the classroom and gathered on the floor in front of their teacher. She started with a breathing exercise that she called a “compassion activity” and had them talk through the meaning of the word “resilient” and how it applies to learning.

“So if you’re in class and you’re trying to learn something new, try it another way if you don’t get it the first time,” she told them.

Then she let them loose to do just that.

One group of girls cozied into a corner and began writing a script for teaching vocal warm-ups. Another group headed for the drums. Chism and his team picked up pencils from a cup and began tapping.

They’re taking the skills they’ve learned from Lewis throughout the year, and they’re showing they understand them by being able to teach them to other students.

“I saw opportunities for music education to look a different way, and I wanted to make a difference. I never even imagined this. I never planned for this to happen, it just sort of evolved very organically.”

Michelle Lewis music teacher

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