The Five Lessons I Learned In Prison And How They Made Me A Better Teacher
As I was putting away my things and saying goodbye to my students, one of them said something that I will never forget. We had just finished playing Lil Wayne’s, “How To Love” on pianos and guitars when this student looked at me and said, “I’m gonna miss music class when I get out of here.” What’s remarkable about this student’s statement is that “here” doesn’t refer to a school or a summer camp, but it refers to a juvenile detention center—a place where youth are stripped of freedom and independence—and this student is actually going to miss something from it.
In my journey as a prison music educator, I’ve taught incarcerated adults at the Decatur Adult Transition Center and incarcerated youth at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center. In this article, I’d like to share five lessons that I’ve learned from teaching incarcerated people. These lessons could help teachers connect with their students—particularly those who are considered at-risk—because they can help teachers reach out to a broader spectrum of learners. These lessons are intended to assist teachers in recognizing that all students, regardless of previous experience or current circumstances, have the potential to achieve greatness. It is my hope that these ideas will find themselves into your own classroom.
(Please note that my use of the word “prison” encompasses my experiences at state prisons and a juvenile detention center.)
Lesson #1- Know Your Students’ Cultures
Every child is going to learn differently – a combination of experience, biology, and culture. In order to be successful, educators must seek to understand their students’ backgrounds in order to get a handle on how they perceive information and learn. This includes knowing where students are from, what their cultural values are, and how they communicate with others. Once teachers learn about their students, they must use their knowledge to their students’ benefit. However, prior to that, teachers must believe that no cultural hierarchy exists. This part is difficult for many people because even the slightest stereotypes and prejudices are often misleading.
I came from a culture that completely contrasts that of my students’ at the prison and juvenile detention center. Despite these differences, I made a point to connect with my students by asking about their lives and backgrounds and sharing stories from my own life. I’ve found that this informal communication creates strong bonds between teacher and students. This knowledge also helps me to develop my teaching style, adapt it for my students, and design our classroom activities. Lastly, I feel that my students become more engaged when I take the time to know and value their unique attributes and contributions.
Lesson #2- Adapt Your Activities For Student-Centered Learning
It seems like many music teachers are afraid to implement student-centered activities because they think that it will lower the credibility of the curriculum, inhibit the growth of musicianship and musical skills, and diminish the importance of having a teacher—when, in fact, it does the opposite. As music educators, we’ve established specific goals for our curriculums to meet the national standards of music education. These standards are quite straight forward, and I think that most educators can agree that they are legitimate goals that should be taught in music classrooms. From what I’ve observed, though, many of our large ensembles fail to meet several of these standards because many music programs are heavily focused on performing, leaving little time to cover important issues related to identity, culture, and history. In short, the role of the “director” takes the place of the “teacher”, and, outside of developing the muscle memory to play the third clarinet part, many students fall short of their musical potential. Moreover, I’ve found that many music teachers, through their adherence to professional standards of quality classical music, dismiss the importance of valuing the musical and social culture of their students. Based on what I’ve learned in prison, this is a dangerous practice: A failure to recognize a student’s opinion is a failure to recognize a student as a unique person. Identities can be strengthened when interests are built upon, and identities can be weakened if interests are ignored. Therefore, student-centered learning is critical for providing a meaningful education and fostering personal development.
While teaching incarcerated men at the Decatur ATC, I learned that people do not participate passionately if they’re not interested in what’s being taught. Keeping that in mind, I designed an activity that asked the CCJDC students to write a rap in a group setting. Here is what the students came up with over the course of two classes:
I’ve listed all of the national standards that the JDC rap covers to show that student-centered learning is both effective and within the goals of the profession. Here are the national standards that we covered:
|1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music. Our students sang through rapping. Sometimes we would have soloists rap particular verses while everyone participated in the chorus.|
|2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music. In class, we added drum accompaniments.|
|3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments. In order to create our vocal and drum rhythms, the students had to improvise and experiment first.|
|4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines. Our students created an overall form with their lyrics by separating them into stanzas. My guidelines were to create A, B, and C sections, and to keep the lyrics within the chosen topic.|
|6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music. Our students analyzed their lyrics to improve them. They also listened to and analyzed other songs prior to creating this rap to understand musical form.|
|7. Evaluating music and music performances. Students evaluated the recording of the rap through discussing what they liked and didn’t like. They also evaluate their performances.|
|8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts. Writing lyrics allowed us to teach poetry.|
|9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture. The entire rap is about the culture of JDC.|
As you can see, we incorporated 8 out of 9 of the national standards with just one activity. The only standard that we didn’t cover was “5. Reading and Notating Music,” which is the most commonly covered standard. While we could have included the fifth standard by extending this activity and notating the accompaniments and rhythms, that would have been outside of the goals of this project.
Lesson #3- Create A Nurturing Environment
Students need to feel comfortable in order to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions without the fear of being ridiculed, harassed, or embarrassed. If students are not given an environment that nurtures personal growth, then their learning will be inhibited. Music classes make students particularly vulnerable because most music is created through expressing emotions, which can be difficult or even terrifying for anybody. Therefore, it is up to the music teacher to create a setting that empowers and rewards students for self-expression, participation, and critical thinking.
At the CCJDC, our environment is very friendly and we respect everyone for who they are. Moreover, we don’t force our students to do anything against their will. Our activities are designed to be fun and manageable for all skill levels, and everyone wants to participate because we set them up for success. We also radiate positive energy and give our students constant encouragement by recognizing every accomplishment. Our students respect us just as we respect them, creating an open environment where people feel comfortable communicating. By doing all of these things, we create a setting that facilitates learning and personal development.
Lesson #4- Create Positive Experiences
Many of us became music teachers because we were inspired by our teachers and the experiences that they provided. I’ve found that the previous lessons are ingredients to creating positive experiences because they lay the foundation for classroom success. When music classes facilitate positive moments, teachers become more than classroom leaders—they become fellow human beings who are full of compassion. Even greater, teachers become symbols of hope, safety, and inspiration, helping students to develop their personalities and grow as individuals.
As a prison educator, my main goal is to use music to give my students positive experiences by giving them a genuine sense of accomplishment. I do this by praising and recognizing their achievements in the classroom. While it can be difficult to know how successful we are at truly impacting a child’s life, the experiences that my students and I have had at the JDC seem to be making a difference. Often times, before an activity, a student will say, “I can’t do this,” only to change their tune at the end of class – smiling and getting excited when they realize that they can. Moreover, I’ve received comments like, “This makes me feel like I can actually do something,” which is inspiring to me as a music educator because I can see how music participation benefits students—particularly those with low levels of self-efficacy and self-esteems.
Lesson #5- We Teach Music
Through my experiences working with incarcerated students, I’ve realized that our current music classrooms often exclude students from low socioeconomic families because instruments, lessons, and other expenses simply cost too much money. It has made me ask questions like, “Do we need a 50-piece concert band to make music?” The answer, as any laptop DJ will tell you, is “No.” While there are many meaningful opportunities to make music in our large ensembles, I want to join the chorus of music educators who are calling for the expansion of our curricular offerings into popular genres. There are going to be limitations to any music program – time, money, access – but recognizing the value in all styles of music will allow us to reach more students and provide them with meaningful musical experiences.
A change in music education begins with asking ourselves what we do. And, while we may be temped to say that we teach band, choir, or orchestra, the reality is that we teach music. Until recently, my arts program had not used any outside funding at all, though we had access to popular instruments like guitars, ukuleles, keyboards, and drums. We could also teach songwriting, lyric analysis, and critical listening skills as long as we had paper, pencils, and a sound system. Compared to a $3,000 sousaphone, these tools are a cheap alternative and allow students to make a lot of music.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that large ensemble programs should convert to general music programs. I am suggesting that music teachers need to be certain that their programs are not excluding students based on socioeconomic status or culture. Simply put: Every student deserves to learn music. I say this since I’ve seen music’s positive impact on my students, and it hurts knowing that they never had the opportunity to study music before entering a correctional facility. I hope that music educators will read this article with an open mind, because giving more students opportunities for musical growth could change lives—and possibly keep students out of incarceration in the first place.
I’d like to give special thanks to Dr. Mary Cohen, Dr. Jeananne Nichols, Nick Jaworski, Corinne Jones, and Jackie Pendola. I’ve learned a lot from each of you, and I would not have been able to write this without your support.
Alex Moroz is a student in music education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Currently, he is the director of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center Arts Project and a student teacher in Chicago Public Schools.