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New York City
December 2002

Students and Teachers Benefit from Music Instruction in District 75
By Marie Holmes

Margot Sorace, sitting at her keyboard, hits a few chords and then tells the class to stand. Before beginning to play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which the students are practicing for holiday concerts and caroling, she gives her students a brief pep talk. What should they keep in mind while singing?

“Be proud!” offers one ebullient performer. “Think good thoughts,” adds another.

On this particular day, the chorus class doesn’t lack enthusiasm. A few bars into the song, Sorace stops them. “When you sing,” she says gently, “you’re excited, but you also have to sing the right notes.”

They try again, noticeably more on-key this time, and then move on to “Feliz Navidad.” Several girls model the dance steps that they’ve put together to go along with the song.

Not all of the students are singing today. Several more severely disabled students enjoy the music from their wheelchairs, listening, watching, and occasionally smiling or waving a hand. One young man who is not participating sits in the back of the room, arms across his backpack. He quietly watches the other students belt out Christmas carols, attempting their dance steps, and smiles.

These high school-aged students attend P933 on the fourth floor of the enormous Long Island City HS complex. Like many of the other sites that District 75 oversees, P933 is housed in more than one location. District 75, the “city-wide district,” is responsible for special education services throughout the five boroughs, from services for hearing and vision-impaired students to occupational therapy centers and hospital instruction.

Primarily, says Sorace, the students in her chorus class are in special education because of emotional disabilities. “But they’re not mean,” she asserts, rather, “they’re needy.”

With the help of a couple paraprofessionals who sat next to the students, singing along with them, one of whom managed to keep a young woman’s need to change seats from becoming a distraction, the chorus class was, on this afternoon, incident-free. What her students’ special needs really boil down to, in Sorace’s words, is “a lot of nuturing.”

Yet modifications for varying levels of ability don’t necessarily trump learning content, particularly in today’s outcomes-driven environment. Sorace uses the Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz for Young People Curriculum, which District 75 has made available to all of its music teachers. She’s teaching them some of the jazz basics: call and response, riffs, grooves, improvisation.

It is this sort of “commitment to the arts” that earned the school district a Professional Development for Music Educators grant from the U.S. Department of Education, according to Andrew Buck, District 75 Director of Arts Education. With almost $1 million from the grant, plus city ProjectARTS and other funds, the district will offer professional development training to 20 of its music teachers, providing them with workshops and “Partnering Teaching Artists” (musicians who teach, as opposed to teachers of music). In addition, 20 paraprofessionals with music backgrounds who are interested in becoming music teachers will be selected to attend Saturday training institutes.

The arts receive plenty of attention in District 75, says Buck, because “they are part of our expectations for student learning as articulated by the New York standards—no different than anybody else.” At the same time, music and art lessons have a particular urgency for students with special needs, as well as their teachers. “The arts are a valid means of understanding and communicating about the world. Dance and music and the visual arts transcend language.”

Educators often tout the arts as a means for students who do not excel in math or languages to show their teachers, and themselves, that they have other talents. For students with limited means of communicating, art and music sometimes allow them to “speak” to their caregivers. Among the numerous works of student art on display in the lobby of District 75’s headquarters is a computer display of paintings and drawings, a number of them quite sophisticated, by autistic children. The teacher’s commentary about her students’ work reveals not only her understanding of her students but also how the artwork provides her with another way of understanding them.

For higher-functioning children, like those in Sorace’s chorus class, there are band, jazz and choir groups; lower-functioning children may receive arts instruction via music therapy sessions. Teachers are encouraged to integrate the arts into other subject areas. Buck cites the example of reading a book, such as Where the Wild Things Are, that contains many repeated phrases, and having students associate sounds with the poetic refrains, thereby enabling them to “perform” the story as the teacher reads.

With what Buck refers to as “medically fragile” students, music and arts education is sometimes more about quality of life than state standards. “Some of our kids are in pain,” he says, “[music or art] helps reduce some of that, helps release some of that.”

As for Sorace’s music students, they’ll be performing at a nearby senior center and at their school, and perhaps going caroling, under their collective stage name, the “Just Ourselves Chorus.”

“They picked out the name,” Sorace proudly reports.#

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