Music With Miriam

To Atwater Elementary music teacher Miriam Altman, a classroom should serve as an extension of the real world, with different cultures and perspectives represented and celebrated.
So when she had the opportunity to expand her music curriculum and bring in renowned guest artists from around  the country for workshops with her students, Altman jumped at the chance. “I’m one person with one experience,” Altman says. “I think it’s important for the students to see different representation of cultures, of people, of musical styles and musical genres. If music is this fundamental understanding of the human experience told through sound, then we need to be extremely diverse in how we approach that. If we are going to learn music from other cultures and we can’t travel there, we can do the next best thing, which is to bring the whole immersive, auditory experience to us.”  
School music programming fees and generous support from the Atwater PTO enabled Altman, with support from and Lake Bluff music teacher Liisa Church, to secure 10 guest artists for workshops this year. They range from dancers to drummers, representing genres from classical to hip-hop.
During each workshop, students hear a musician’s story and learn about how their identity impacts their music. They also participate in hands-on activities with the artists; for example, learning samba drums with Brazilian drum expert Marcus Santos, traditional Ewe dance with Ghanaian master dancer Nani Agbeli, and songwriting with award-winning Native American artist Kelly Jackson.
marcus santos
While the curriculum Altman teaches is standards-based, the standards are “more about the artistic processes and not as much about content,” which she says gives her tremendous leeway to teach to students’ interests. “I try to give the students a few differ-ent options for their projects because I believe that when they are given a choice, they take more ownership,” Altman says.  “I see more creativity and self-expression.  I feel like the projects create a lot of intrinsic motivation because the students know they are going to meet an artist in person who will be critiquing and assisting with their work.”
As overarching class goals, the students are prompted to ask themselves these question during each workshop: How does music show the human experience? What are my stories that are important to tell with music? How can I best express my stories through the instruments or tools available to me?
One class favorite was the session with Indian-American professional hip-hop producer Kiran Vedula, who helped the students produce their own miniature beats using a digital audio workstation. Says fifth-grader Stella Olsen, “My favorite thing was that it was mostly about us.

It’s about finding an artistic way to express who we are — we’re goofy, we’re creative, we’re funny.”

miriamIt’s this kind of student feedback that Altman says pushes her to keep exploring more authentic learning experiences and cross-cultural collaborations.

“It’s important to me that I hear every-one’s voice,” Altman says. “Next year, I hope to expand these voices to outside of the classroom and explode this learning out into our community.”

[Pictured: Top photo - Atwater students play in a drum circle with Brazilian drummer Marcus Santos who was brought in as a guest artist; bottom photo - music teacher Miriam Altman participating in the session along with with students.]