Actively listening to our students is the most important teaching strategy there is. We can decenter ourselves as teachers when we focus on what our students have to say and share every day, in and outside of the music classroom.
As educators, we can create necessary space in our music classrooms where students can be heard not only by us as educators, but also by their peer musicians. We cannot listen to our students only to respond to what they have to say; instead, we must listen simply to better understand our students and who they are.
Actively listening to our students requires us to hear the silences of our students as well. Instead of adhering to traditional music education class structure where one music director, conductor, and/or teacher leads and students respond and only speak or share when instructed to do so, we can actively empower all students to share their voices.
When students are encouraged to share who they are, we can then notice who is sharing their voice, ideas, and music in class and who is not.
It is important to note that speaking up and voicing our opinions is a Western societal norm.
In many non-Western cultures — the global majority — using one’s voice to speak up is not the norm. Understanding this nuance does not account for all silences from students, but it can allow us to better recognize the importance of understanding each student’s positionalities and cultural norms.
Questions we can ask our students to better understand them may include:
– What does using your voice mean? – What is the value of your voice? – When do you use your voice? – Why do you use your voice? – What does using your voice mean to you in the music classroom?
When we notice students who are not speaking or sharing, we can build opportunities for peer sharing without being under the duress of the teacher’s gaze. As educators, we can also allow students to ask us about who we are — in and outside of our educator roles.
The vulnerability in sharing who we are with each other is critical in building community in music education.
Written and published in NAfME Teaching Music August 2022.
I am strong. I am capable of more than I think I am, because I have the strength within me.
I am a listener. I listen to my students, families, and myself — fully, intently, and wholeheartedly. I listen to what is said aloud, and also to the silences of words unspoken.
I am an amplifier. I amplify my students in our world, not by “saving my students” nor by “being a voice for the voiceless”, but rather by holding microphones and megaphones to what my students share with me and each other.
I am a leader. I lead my students and colleagues in my classroom and in our world. We lead together in education and beyond.
I am a community builder. I build the community in and out of my classroom alongside my students. I am a part of the community that I help build each day.
I am a lifelong learner. I learn each day from my students, my environment, and our experiences together, and we learn from each other as we grow together.
I am powerful. I can decenter myself as a teacher yet I will still have power as a teacher. It is my choice how I choose to use my power each day, in every moment. With my power, I can empower my students.
I am a change maker. I create change in every moment I am with my students and my community. I create change with my students. I change with the changes I help make with my community.
I am important. Who I am is important. What I do is important. I am important.
When you looked at my face And shied away from my gaze People were terrified in 2020 Of my mask and two eyes Used to regard me by my Asian persuasion I remind us that we’re all part of one nation We’re spreading animosity, said the Black Eyed Peas Can I have some peace, survive with my black eyes please Let’s come together as a world, let’s inspire Yet still I rise shouts to Maya Angelou, and Yuri Kochiyama It’s time for some introspection Take a look at yourself for that personal reflection Remember the sun doesn’t shine in only one direction And instead of hate, we can shine in one direction [and make some corrections]
Memorialize Lives Heroes Sherose They rose, They rise, we rise Still we rise, to remember and celebrate these lives
(The victims’ names are currently not shared due to reports of family members wishing to keep the names private.)
We remember them alongside so many fellow Asian American lives lost, and we will honor them today in our community and our joy.
My name is Alice Tsui (spelled T-s-u-i, and pronounced TSOY) and I am an actively anti-racist and decolonizing public school music educator in Brooklyn, New York. I am a lifelong New Yorker, grew up in Brooklyn [went to public school in NYC] and I am an ABC – American born Chinese daughter of two immigrants, two immigrants who are my elderly parents. I serve predominantly Black, Brown, Latinx elementary school students in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
In February last year, I was walking upstairs when a 5th grader stopped me and said “Ms. Alice, someone said you had Coronavirus.” I found out that it was another 5th grade student of mine who I had taught for many years. This week, a 4th grader called me “China” in my face. In those moments, I could feel my extreme rage – not at the student, but at the systems of our world that have led my students to say this. I was mad at the toxicity of systemic racism that we breathe in, and specifically – white supremacy for dividing the two Black girls who said this and me, an Asian American teacher [and woman] in this world.
A month ago, when I started to see the rise of anti-Asian violence yet again, but this time specifically against elderly people, I discussed anti-Asian racism with my fourth grade class. One of my 4th graders, a Black boy, told me “It [Asian hate] won’t be on the news until there are more people who die.” What does this say about what my Black and Brown students have already internalized about our society? I saw this same student this week who said “it’s on the news now”, but I reminded my students that it is important to question how the story is told, who is telling it, and what isn’t being said. Another 4th grader asked me if my parents were vaccinated and I said yes, they are, but I am scared for them to be outside and so I ask them to stay home as much as possible – because they’re Asian.
These are a few of the many, necessary conversations on race and racism that must occur in ALL schools – elementary, middle, and high schools. My call to action to you, everyone here, is to find the emails of the principals and teachers that either you, yourself, have gone to, are connected with, or are in the neighborhoods you live in, and not just the Asian neighborhoods.
These are the demands that are listed out in a letter I have already written and are available in a letter with resources at bit.ly/aapilettertoschools
Acknowledge and teach Asian American history, lives, and arts – including and beyond Lunar New Year
Create mental health spaces for AAPI educators and children to feel, process, and heal without the burden of educating others on [their trauma] and what racism is
Empower classmates and colleagues of AAPI community members to learn and speak against anti-Asian racism
Our children are counting on you.
Last year, one of my Asian American students said “To me, what Black Lives Matter means is that Black Lives are brightly illuminated. I want her to know that her Asian American life is also brightly illuminated. To the 13-year-old Asian American boy attacked by a group of teens throwing basketballs at his head in Flushing – your life is also brightly illuminated.
To my Asian American community, I see you, I hear you, and we are HERE. To my fellow Asian American educators – take up SPACE. To my fellow AAPI women, I feel your pain and my heart cannot stop feeling grief, and my racially occupied mind POUNDS with rage. I am here with you. I am worthy of safety, respect, and love. You are WORTHY of safety, respect, and love. To the allies, accomplices, and co-conspirators, I see you as we stand together in solidarity – and I hope you are doing everything you can, including the action item I named before, to support us beyond this moment.
To all AAPI children, including the children of the victims, I am here for you, and you can feel whatever it is you are feeling. Please cheer for the AAPI children who are bravely here today. As a teacher, and a fellow Asian American person, I want to tell you that you matter. Your feelings matter. Your identity matters. Everything about who you are matters. You shine so bright with your GOLDEN LIGHT.
Everyone, say this with me, for our children – “I shine bright with my golden light”. Teach the AAPI children in your lives to say this – for themselves.
I didn’t know what an affirmation was until I started teaching them to my public elementary school students, because no one ever told me or taught me that I mattered. I share these affirmations with you all for yourself, ourselves as a community who is healing, and a community that can celebrate our AAPI joy because our community that is GOLDEN:
I am worthy.
My voice matters.
We are GOLDEN.
We are WORTHY.
I want to end with this final note. My parents emigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They are in their 70s and 80s now, and after working so hard their entire lives to support my brother and I, I cannot stay silent, and I must speak out to protect my family, and all our families, so that they do not need to live in fear. I must use my voice, because I know my voice has power. Our voices have power. 加油 【Jia you – Add oil, let’s go!】
(This is a transcript of my speech made at the Stand Against Hate Rally in Chinatown, NYC on March 21, 2021)
I (currently) do not walk outside with as much fear as I did in March, April, and early May. I am not completely stressed by the idea of running errands alone, nor do not feel like I need to have my two medium-sized dogs with me when I am out. The fear still exists, but I suppose not quite at the same level. Now I can, with privilege, negotiate what is more terrifying again: COVID-19 or anti-Asianness.
Don’t get me wrong – anti-Asian sentiment is still unfortunately alive and well in the “United” States. I am reminded by it whenever I see the “kung-flu” headline that seems to keep resurfacing in tweets, public statements, “news” reports, and presidential rallies. The videos of the Asian woman who was burned with acid outside her home in Brooklyn, NYC and the elderly Asian man being attacked in San Francisco will forever be stamped in my mind. And so many more. I will never unsee the horrors of this reality.
As AAPI month came to an end, solidarity with Black folx was of necessary and immediate urgency. I almost laughed at all my own “issues” I’ve had the past few months because really, my personal confrontations with racism felt like uncooked pieces of rice in a larger bowl of atrocity noodle soup.
I am an Asian American music educator teaching Black and Brown children in New York City. I’ve founded the music program at my school. I’ve seen my children grow up. But most importantly, I will never truly understand what it means to be a Black and/or Brown person. Never. I also know that for some readers, racist judgements (#urban #titleone #poor #lowincome #badneighborhood #unsafe #achievementgap are a few) were made upon reading the first sentence because you are already trying to envision who I am, and who my kids are. I’m no savior. I refuse to be, and I will never be.
My elementary school students and I talked about the anti-Asian hate openly. My students didn’t understand why it was happening, but yet, some blamed the bats that people supposedly ate. As the only Asian-identifying educator in their schooling thus far, I constantly feel the responsibility to share who I am and my AAPI identity with my kids. “I do not eat bats”, I shared, “and not everything you see or read may be true”.
After the killing of George Floyd amongst many others, my first 8:00AM Orchestra class online included the following questions and statements from students:
This was not a time for me to teach them ANYTHING about “Orchestra”. These statements didn’t just last for that hour. They came up again and again in the days and weeks afterwards, all the way through the end of the school year. I was and continue to be the learner because We Obtain Knowledge Everyday.
I recently attended a professional development entitled “Empathy, EQUITY, and Excellence; Inviting Diverse Perspectives on Repertoire and Responsiveness”. My immediate reaction to any workshop on equity is one filled with hesitation, caution, and skepticism – especially because of how loaded the term “equity” can be, and how often it unfortunately can be misused (especially when equity is interchangeably used with equality). I quickly felt grateful, however, for a person of color as a keynote speaker – especially having sat through so many workshops where a white person would colorfully use the buzzwords of “equity,” “equality,” “diversity”, “justice”, and “inclusion” (to just name a few) to almost fill their quota of saying the words loud and proud.
Keynote speaker Dr. Danielle A. Brown, founder of My People Tell Stories, helped me feel less apprehensive upon defining equity, diversity, and inclusion as separate entities that must cohesively exist in our teaching. Dr. Brown then continued to discuss a concept of “universality” – specifically universality and the music educator:
“There are two ways that the concept of universality will work against you as a music educator:
you believe in the concept that ‘music is universal’
you believe that you have overcome the ‘music is universal’ concept
I felt guilty right away. I have definitely uttered those words “music is universal” with nothing but good intent that we could all “speak the language of music” – but good intentions are not good enough, and I know that good intentions do not mean the actions are free from harm or wrongdoing. Then this slide came up on the screen:
“Universality of Dominant Culture
Be careful that your use of the word ‘universal’ is not merely a euphemism for ‘superior’ or dominant culture.”
My mind was blown! Music was and is not universal. Music is not universally understood, and how music functions in each community, culture, and society varies. It made sense, but I could only focus on the number of times I have personally labeled the music I have taught as being “a way for all people to communicate”, even though I do not represent all people, all cultures, all ideas.
When our workshop separated into smaller group work with fellow educators, we were first asked to create playlists that represented our own identities. That seemed fine, harmless even because we were speaking our individual selves ONLY.
It was as if I was almost waiting to be triggered in this work when we were then tasked with creating playlists of repertoire selections. After putting up my selections of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera (for legato, tone, and self-empowerment), “Own It” by Black Eyed Peas (for harmony, articulation changes, and self empowerment), and “Duke’s Place” by Duke Ellington (for unison playing, and jazz to be included in the traditional orchestra setting), the following selections came up for me to write on our chart paper from my fellow orchestra teachers:
“African Adventure” by Robert Sheldon with this description:
“When it comes time to celebrate the musical colors of Africa, combine forces with your string group and percussion ensemble on this stylish concert work for the developing ensemble. Repetitive rhythms and a catchy melodic hook propel the piece forward as it develops momentum and dramatic flair. Substitute Orff instruments for the melodic percussion for an even more authentic timbre. A guaranteed favorite!” (J.W. Pepper).
“Hanukkah Habenera by Tim McCarrick:
“‘Carmen’ meets Hanukkah in this remarkably clever combination of The Dreidel Song; Hanukkah, O Hanukkah and Bizet’s famous Habanera from his most famous opera! It all works amazingly well, with shifts from minor to major, a seamless bass line, and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor! What a hoot! Highly recommended! (J.W. Pepper).
“Dragon Dance” by Michael Story:
“Celebrate the Chinese New Year in style with this original tune, and be ready for cross-curricular study. Close your eyes as you listen and you will see the performers, carrying the paper dragon on poles, fluidly mimicking its movement.” (J.W. Pepper).
I could feel my hand begrudgingly writing these especially horrid selections up, as if there was some permanence and upholding of the racist status quo that I committed by even charting them up. It seemed as though my fellow orchestra teachers felt proud of their answers, and “inclusion” of repertoire they believed to be representative of their students.
Dr. Brown warned,
“Don’t assume students will always identify with their cultural heritage.” (Brown, 2019).
Is it really “inclusion” if each piece was written by a white man?
It is really “diversity” if the only allusion made to culture was in the title and then peppered into the description as if it were seasoning on a dish?
What killed me the most, though, was when one teacher eagerly stated,
“I teach ‘Dragon Dance’ because I think my Chinese kids like it.”
There’s nothing like something hitting you personally, and that hit me really hard. If I was that Chinese kid in your class, did you even ask me? Did you even find out more about what dragons symbolize in my culture? Did you ask me if I, or my Chinese peers, identified with Chinese culture? Did you even WANT to know all these things, or were you just giving yourself a pat on your back for being “inclusive”?
I grappled with this catastrophe – of teachers who lived under this false pretense of “doing good”, perhaps even with that good intention, but actually perpetuating harm to their students. I wanted so very badly in that moment to speak out, but felt so silenced by the overpowering whiteness that permeated in that room which would have made me out to be “that one girl of color who is a young teacher and just angry.” (And yes, I say girl because unfortunately my word often continues to be degraded due to my age). Yet, I myself have been that person who at first “taught hip hop” because I thought black kids could “relate” to it – without even asking. Who was I to say that someone was wrong? Who am I to SPEAK OUT?
At the end of this small group work, I could only bring myself to cross out that line I charted that “Dragon Dance” was “representative of Chinese kids”. I re-wrote:
“representative” of Chinese kids.
I continue to wonder what would have been the right move in that moment. I can’t help but feel simultaneously guilty to have upheld the status quo, but also continue to feel protective of who I am and what I share, and my own growth in understanding this important, necessary work.
To my fellow music educators, and educators at large – consider the following as a first step:
Ask. Ask your students first about who they are, what they identify with, and what they perceive to be part of their identifiers. It isn’t always race, ethnicity, and gender, and don’t assume their answers because it is DANGEROUS to assume. Perhaps more importantly, listen to what your students say. Don’t just ask for the sake of asking.
After all of this, I could only conclude that music really isn’t universal.Do not blanket what you perceive to be music that is cultural OVER me as if it is some protective shield through which we can connect under.