Featured Teacher Jenna Solberg


Guess what? March is Music in our Schools Month, and appropriate in my opinion. If you live in the northern half of our country you always feel relief as winter fades and spring approaches. If you live in the southern half you look forward to earlier and longer sunshine. Time to get out of the stale indoor air and filter your lungs and watch the trees and plants build buds on their way to flower. Birds return to sing and the bees start to hum. Nature begins the making of cheerful music in March, and some genius decided to acknowledge music in schools.

I love music - old, new, and different - but I didn't fully appreciate music until recently. My dad was born in 1946 and he loved rock n' roll. We listened to all his favorite golden oldies from the Penguins to the Platters to Elvis Presley. We used to pretend to be the vocalists in those bands with Sharpies as our microphones and he showed me how they moved on stage and flipped the mic from hand to hand and spun around to impress the crowd. What a great memory. He preferred the Rolling Stones to the Beatles and I eventually learned the social history of that debate. He forced me to see Johnny Cash when I was fifteen and, although reticent at the time, I'll never surrender gratitude for it. I took piano lessons, played the electric bass when I tried to be in a high school band and I still play a few songs on his 40-year old acoustic guitar that hangs near my desk.

Music has always been a part of my life but I didn't realize the value of "the chops" until 2014. In 2014 I developed an ear for old hip hop. For years I wrote that genre off as crude, but it's about struggle and beauty and life, and they recorded those lyrics atop classic jazz. Once I extracted the jazz sounds my curiosity took me down a rabbit hole. The chef in my restaurant was a performing jazz guitarist and he started feeding me records to explore. For the first time I was appreciating musical skill rather than vocal song and presentation. Guns n' Roses have a great big sound and captured a generation for a long time, but their instrumental skills pale (Slash is pretty solid, actually) in comparison to Miles Davis. You can't identify that genius until you spend hours listening to lots of jazz music. All music is brilliant and beautiful and unique and there is so much to try and enjoy and with which to enrich your life. 

That's the abridged story of my path to music appreciation, a journey which will last the rest of my life, that I explained to Jenna Solberg as an introduction to our discussion last Saturday. Jenna, our Featured Teacher for March, teaches music and drama at Cataldo, my K-8 alma mater. Her first application out of college became her first teaching job which has been her home for twenty years. She told me friends have asked her if she'd be interested in the benefits of other districts and programs but that she is too happy at Cataldo. Most folks aren't lucky enough to get the best job first, and if they do they don't necessarily recognize it as the best due to lack of comparison. Jenna knows.

First I asked what is her primary goal for her K-8 students and she has two - to instill an appreciation for music and to offer an opportunity to discover a passion for it. Jenna loves and has always loved it. Her parents were artistic and she started on the violin early. She knew she wanted to teach but hadn't considered teaching music and drama until her senior year of high school when she recognized the logical symbiosis of her musical passion and love of working with kids. Then it all came together. I explained sheepishly that band kids had a dorky reputation in my high school, which I didn't have an opinion about, but that I wish now I had been one of them. Just think of the love affair I'd have been having with some magical instrument for the last 25 years if I had caught the bug earlier. She admits that stigma is palpable, but she can only continue to spread her excitement for music and creating it.

I wondered if she can spot a talent fairly early and the confident answer was yes. She doesn't have parent/teacher conferences with every parent of K-8 students so she doesn't interface with them often, but if a student has a penchant and desire for an instrument she lets them know about the great opportunity. This brought me to ask about how she keeps track of an entire student body. That's 300 students. Jenna said it has been difficult but she has developed a tracking system. One of the benefits of having the whole school is in keeping every student from year one to year nine. She doesn't have to get to know all of them and their learning styles each term and year. Tied to this, she gets to watch them all grow up for nine years. Recently one of her first students has returned to the school as a teacher - how cool is that??!

We started talking about standards and assessment. There are no state tests for music or drama. I wondered how to assign grades when they aren't bound by any guidelines. Maybe music is their passion, maybe they can't carry a tune, but the main criteria is based on the student's effort to accomplish their grade level national music standards. Regarding curriculum she directs me to Orff Schulwerk, "an approach to building musicianship developed by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman." Jenna became aware of the Orff method while earning her degree at University of Portland and was fascinated with the playful aspect. When she moved to Spokane she immediately sought out the local Orff Chapter and joined, and she would like to eventually earn Orff certification. She explained that the first while she had little to go off of but relied on the Orff lessons and felt her way through teaching music and music appreciation. She found her groove after two years. I think that must be true of elective subjects - there is no outlined format so the teachers have to build their programs. I would probably be that kind of teacher - I love building things from scratch.

One adversity as a special teacher is in lacking collaboration. She's the only music and drama teacher at the school. She doesn't have a teaching partner like the third and sixth grade teachers. She can discuss those struggles with the other specials, physical education and visual arts, but she's on her own for music. She loves professional learning gatherings with music and drama teachers in the region. She says they get together and sing and dance and have fun together while learning new strategies and concepts.

This last year has been tough. Her classroom doesn't work for the distancing rules, so she can't use her instruments to teach. She calls herself a backpack teacher these days because she carries everything in a backpack to each class's homeroom. She's had to adjust her curriculum accordingly. She made music kits for all of her students that were portable by backpack so they could have implements with which to work. They were just a few days from performing Aladdin, which they spent months rehearsing, when everyone was asked to stay home. They delayed and delayed and tried remotely practicing until they finally had to give it up. Some of the kids were eighth graders who have lost the chance permanently. Pretty heartbreaking. A silver lining though: remote learning drove her to musicplayonline.com, an online music education site chock full of curriculum (songs, videos, games, worksheets) developed by Denise Gagne.

Click to watch a short YouTube introduction to the MusicPlayOnline site

We had to discuss the eternal battle for justification of music education. I remember hearing about schools and districts cutting the arts in favor of core subjects years ago. She says it's an ever-present conflict. This could drive me into a hot debate over American values but we don't have to go there. I understand that science drives our economy much more than music, but just imagine living without it. Imagine the silence and bleakness of a world without music, dancing, performing, and without well-developed artists who've spent their lives evolving the arts who were once inspired by someone to follow their zeal.

I have great respect for Jenna for committing herself to teaching a subject that's sometimes on the chopping block, but I don't think it's hard for her to make that commitment. She loves it. She gets to spend every day passing on something to which she's deeply connected, she gets to be creative with a whole school full of kids, she gets to go dance and sing with her colleagues. Sounds like the best job ever to me. She probably agrees with a big smile. Music can always make you smile!

Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and a terrible painter.

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