This week’s interview features Melissa Clark, a music teacher in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Currently, Melissa teaches 4th-6th grade strings and sixth grade general music. She also has experience teaching 7th and 8th grade strings. Melissa lives in the same town she teaches in, which has given her the opportunity to have her children as part of her orchestra program. In this interview, Melissa talks to us about the small shifts she’s made in her music classes toward student empowerment!
Empowerment Through Music Composition
Melissa’s district is fortunate to have 1:1 devices for their students, and that has helped with some of these shifts. One of the first projects Melissa did was a student composition project. Melissa provided the students with requirements and the students composed melodies using Noteflight. Over time, that project developed so the students composed entire pieces, then the orchestra would play the pieces (a great sight reading opportunity!) and eventually, they performed some pieces at the winter concert. The students who composed the pieces performed had the option to play along with their sections or conduct! It was a great example of students taking ownership of their learning and their music-making.
As the composition project evolved, Melissa encouraged students to submit their pieces to the New Jersey music educator association composition content, where students received ratings and meaningful feedback. In another iteration of the composition project, Melissa commissioned composer Reynard Burns to write a piece for her orchestra that included material created by the students.
Empowerment Through Student Leadership
In another example of student empowerment, a former student (now in high school) approached Melissa about starting a jazz club for girls at the elementary school. After meeting with the student, Melissa connected her with the administrators to seek approval. Permission was granted, and the club began meeting in late October! The student arranged for a guest artist to meet with the club members, planned games, and even taught the younger musicians some basic jazz standards!All the students had fun and Melissa simply served as the advisor, her former student planned everything.
It’s Important to Hear Their Voices
When it comes to empowering the kids, the most important thing is making sure you’re getting their voice in there, their expression, and just knowing what they’re looking for.
In general music classes, Melissa sees her student for one trimester each year. She starts each trimester with a survey, asking students to share their names, nicknames, pronouns, and favorite music. Students also share links to two songs – one that represents their culture and one that’s a favorite. During each class period, Melissa has the class listen to one of the submitted songs. Students love when their song is played, and everyone (Melissa included) gets to hear new music.
Benefits to the Students
Melissa has seen these shifts benefit the students in a lot of ways. In the club, for example, the elementary students have formed a great connection with the older, mentor student. She’s noticed students taking more initiative, and even beginning string players ask to be leaders in class. They are taking ownership in the music room!
Being an Empowered Educator
Eleven years ago, Melissa’s school district encouraged teachers to create Twitter accounts, and she loves the connections she’s made. She’s found Twitter is a great way to learn from other educators and share what she’s doing in her classroom. Even within her own school district, Melissa enjoys using Twitter to see what her colleagues are doing, to learn and grow with them. It’s been a great way to encourage connection and collaboration. Melissa also loves presenting at conferences and has met several music educators that way. Creating presentations is a lot of work, but she enjoys putting everything together, and finds it very rewarding if even one music teacher benefits from her presentation.
Melissa’s Advice to Teachers
Melissa’s advice to teachers is to work on relationships first. The students have to know who you are and your expectations, and you have to know them. Once you’ve established relationships, you can start to let the students lead. Keep the connections going and learn to support one another. Find out how you can support the kids and how they can support you.
Be sure to check out the full interview to learn more about how Melissa empowers her music students and get some great tips for your own music classes! Shifts Toward Empowerment
Connect with Melissa:
Interested in reading more about empowering music students? Check out these interviews:
- A Student-Centered Approach to Secondary General Music, With Rachael Sanguinetti
- Using Learning Centers to Promote Student Ownership in Music, with Levi Allison
- Creativity Through Music Composition (Part 2), with Robby Burns
Listen to the full interview on your favorite podcast platform, or here on Anchor!