Elizabeth Tanner McAnally: Urban Educator Opens Students to the World of Music ☆

Elizabeth McAnally holds an MA in Music Education (’91) from TC and has taught students K–8 in the School District of Philadelphia for the past 20 years. She currently teaches General Music and is co-director of the 180-voice choir at Wilson Middle School.  She serves as cooperating teacher for music education students at Temple University and Philadelphia Biblical University, and provides demonstration lessons for new teachers in her district.  McAnally has presented at a myriad of conferences and participates in many professional development workshops.  She is an Editorial Board member for the MENC (The National Association for Music Education) online journal General Music Today, and her published work appears in Teaching Music, General Music Today, and in curriculum guides for the Philadelphia Orchestra.  She is a contributing author of Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom (V. 1) and is the author of Middle School General Music: The Best Part of Your Day!.

Please tell us what it is like teaching in Philadelphia today.

It’s never boring!  I teach in Northeast Philadelphia in a very diverse community.  I teach at a middle school that has about 1,200 students with at least 30 native languages represented in the student body.  It’s a very diverse population, ranging from kids whose families have been in the neighborhood for generations, all the way to a student who came to my class last week just having arrived from China.  It is interesting to be a part of.  My students bring such a worldview with them.

What do you teach, and who are your students?

I’m teaching Music to English Language Learner students, I’m teaching Music to Learning Support and Emotional Support students, along with the regular school population.  Like most music teachers, I see everybody.

I’m a general Music teacher and a Choral Director.  We have a large choir of about 180 students.  They have choir during the school day, but I don’t know how much of that we’ll be able to continue next year with the budget crunch, but we’re going to try.  When I teach General Music, I try to hit all nine of the national standards.  We do a little bit of piano, a little bit of singing, a little bit of music history, some listening, some composing.

Is music something of a universal language, where your students from other countries, despite language barriers, can participate more freely?

There are some things that are easier to participate in.  I tend to promote a lot of conversation and discussion in my classroom.  Rather than saying, “here’s how it goes,” I’d rather think carefully about asking questions that lead them in the direction that I’m hoping they’ll go. That does make it hard sometimes for students who are not fluent in English. But then other parts of music are much easier: they can strengthen their English language skills by singing, and when they are learning to notate music, those symbols tend to be a common language.  I suppose this may be true of all the classes these students go to:  some things will be easier than others.  It is important as a teacher to adapt and be very welcoming and friendly to those students so they feel that this is an okay place for them to be.  It can be very overwhelming, for those students.

What does being a part of the choir mean to the students in your school?

There are music magnet schools in Philadelphia, but mine is not one of them.  Mine is just a regular, neighborhood middle school and it can be very difficult to continue those types of performing groups.  It depends on how supportive your administrator is as well as a lot of other things.  I’m lucky in that there is a long history of choral music at my school and I’m adding the next chapter to it.  I am continuing the tradition and adding my own interpretation, along with my colleague and co-director, David Shapiro.

As for what it means for the students:  Some of the kids stay with us for all three years, through sixth, seventh and eighth grades, so there is a real sense of identity.  What’s interesting is that the choir members cannot easily be pigeon-holed or classified.  They tend to be from diverse cultural backgrounds; they have diverse interests (some choir members participate in sports, many are involved in student government).  Some of them are outgoing, popular kids.  Others are more shy and reserved.  What we are particularly proud of is that we have boys who sing. Any middle school choir teacher can tell you how hard that can be. A good third of the 180 students are boys.

So what’s your trick for getting the boys to participate?

We recruit kids so they feel they have an important voice in the program.  And we recruit them in groups, so they are with their friends.  Plus, we give them the opportunity to shine: With some traditional choral music, it can be hard to find parts that are comfortable for middle school boys with changing voices to sing.  So sometimes they’ll get really boring parts that aren’t fun to sing.  So we look for music where the range is comfortable for them and the parts are interesting.

How does a student’s confidence come into play?

There is a whole different set of skills required for instrumental music.  When you are playing in a band in front of an audience, there is a music stand in front of you, between you and the audience.  But when you are singing, there is nothing between you and the audience.  It is very personal.  Because of that, building confidence is a huge part of what we do.  We want students to sing with a good, strong, energetic sound that is age and developmentally appropriate.  When they come to us in sixth grade, sometimes they are very shy singers, and by the time they leave in eighth grade they won’t stop.  They are a really interesting bunch of kids.  What I’ve always said about our choir kids is that what makes them really good singers makes them very good talkers.  And sometimes they don’t stop!  It is really exciting to see that progression.  We are awfully proud of the choir work we do at our school and I think is really meaningful for the students.

I really love working with the choir, but I’m also very passionate about the general music classes, and giving kids a chance to feel like the music world can include them.

There is a dialogue in Music Education that says you shouldn’t give kids “dessert” first, because then they won’t eat their broccoli.  Or, if you teach kids popular music, they won’t have an appetite for the classics and eventually an entire canon, an entire tradition, will be lost.  What is your opinion?

The whole dessert and broccoli approach is a black-and-white way of looking at it.  I think there is some middle ground to be had there.  My feeling is when I’m looking for music to introduce my students to, whether it is music they are singing, music they are listening to, or music they are playing, I’m looking for music that I think my kids can connect to.  What I have found is that if you approach things in the right way, my kids will react positively to just about anything, whether it is Beethoven or Bobby McFerrin.

I try to teach thematically with my General Music classes.  Last year, the theme was “what inspires you?”.  The idea was to focus on music that was inspired by something else.  We started with Francis Scott Key and the National Anthem (inspired by history).  Then we looked at Bobby McFerrin, who wrote a song called, “Freedom is a Voice” (inspired by an ideal). We looked at Ferdie Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite”, which was inspired by a place.  We looked at Ravel’s “Boléro”. Angélique Kidjo has a really fascinating take on it that puts lyrics to the melody. I was looking for variety and things that I thought the kids could connect to and went a span of 200 years.

I find that if I prepare my kids carefully and give them the right thing to listen for, or the right hook, or the right way to make that connection for them, then they are going to give it a good listen.  And at the end, if they say to me, “this isn’t my favorite kind of music, but it is interesting,” or, “I can really respect what the composer is doing here, even if this isn’t my favorite,” then I feel like I’ve accomplished something because they’ve expanded their notion of what the world of music is.

As for popular music, in General Music class, I don’t spend a lot of time on current music for a couple of reasons.  One is the fact that the student body is so diverse.  If I have 33 kids, there are 33 different music favorites.  Secondly, I feel it is my job to teach them something they don’t already know.

What do your students like to sing?

The kids love singing Bob Marley.  They like singing some of the Do-Wop hits from a couple of decades ago.  If it has a fast tempo and a strong rhythmic component, they’re probably going to really like it.  But beyond that it is hard to make any generalizations about my school because they are so diverse.  Now if I were teaching in a school where there was one common culture among all of them, then I might approach things differently.  I have a lot of respect for teachers who use popular music as a way to connect with their kids.  There are a lot of teachers who have done it very successfully and in a legitimate way.  As for, “do we stay away from popular music and give them the classics first?”:  what I am just looking for is music that I think kids can connect to and that will open the world of music for them.  And hopefully they leave with something they didn’t know before they walked in the door.

TC students present at conferences all over the world, and starting out can be really nerve-wracking.  You have so many years of great experience doing presenter sessions and we’re hoping you can share some tips, please, on how to get good and comfortable in this milieu.

That can be difficult!  It is really scary at first.  I spend a lot of time preparing, which is how I handle my own nerves. The first session I ever presented was at a national conference, which was maybe not the smartest place to make your debut.  I started off and there were maybe 25 people in the room, and I felt very comfortable with that.  About 15 minutes later—apparently the keynote had gone over a bit—all these people came in.  And by the time I was done, there were 95 people in the room.  It was a little scary!   But then I realized that I was saying things that were meaningful to people, and that was a real confidence builder for me.  In terms of preparing for presentations:  I work from an outline, and try to have something for everybody.  Know your audience and what they will find valuable.

What do you talk about, and what do you personally derive from presenting?

Most of the presenting I do is on one of two topics: Either Middle School General Music or Urban Music Education.  Those seem to be two areas where there is not as much support for teachers as needed.  In terms of preparation at the college level, or teacher education, those are two areas that I think are not getting a lot of attention.  There are a lot of young teachers who are being put in the position where they don’t know what to do, and it is very much a sink-or-swim situation.  I know I was certainly in that situation my first year of teaching.  I had been married for about three weeks at the age of 23.  We moved to a new city where we didn’t know anybody except each other.  We found a tiny, hole-in-the wall apartment on the first floor—not a smart move—in a questionable neighborhood.  I chose my school from a list of schools, based on a one-page description.  I didn’t know the city at all.  So I picked a school with a parking lot and a Music room.  That was the sum total of what I knew about the school.  When I started, I really didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing.

Presenting at conferences is a really great opportunity to share what you are doing with colleagues.  People are crying out for useful, usable ideas.  Some professional development in the education world is not very practical for music teachers.  So when one goes to an MENC (Music Educators National Conference) conference, or a place where music teachers are choosing to come, they want something that they can use tomorrow.  I find that really exciting, to be able to share some ideas.  We don’t all have to re-invent the wheel all the time. And I make no pretense to knowing all the answers or having the best answers, but, I can say, “this is working for me.  Maybe it can be adapted to work in your classroom”.  And then it becomes a conversation. It’s not so much me saying, “this is what you should do”.  It’s more, “have you considered this?  Maybe this may work for you.”

As busy as you are, what motivates you to present and to continue to collaborate and work with new teachers?

Well, that’s a good question, because sometimes I don’t get a lot of sleep.  Going through and trying to verbalize what I do and why I do it is an important process.  Because you can plan a great activity that the kids love to do and it goes really well.  But when you are done, you’re thinking, what did they actually get from this?  What was the purpose?  When I need to answer those questions, it makes me much more careful and aware of what I’m hoping my students are really getting from their experience in my classroom.  For me as a professional, it challenges me to keep my game as sharp as possible.  Listening to new ideas rather than teaching the same way I did the first day I walked into the classroom, and always trying something new.  As cynical as in-service teachers might get about new ideas and new methods, there’s always some nugget that can improve my practice.  So that’s the first thing: it really keeps me on my toes.  The second thing is that I think it is very important, in the whole notion of school reform and professional development, for in-service, practicing teachers to be a part of that process.  When we leave that solely to the professors, no disrespect intended here, then we get a lot of theory and not necessarily the hands-on “is this going to fly with my kids?” ideas.  And the third reason is that we are not always good at mentoring in our profession.  There is not a lot of opportunity to learn from an experienced professional.  Now don’t get me wrong, as a young teacher I was surrounded by caring, helpful educators.  But I was the only music teacher in the building when I just started out.  So I suppose what I want to provide is what wasn’t available to me.

What did you get from your TC experience that uniquely prepared you for where you are today?

I received my Master’s at TC, and that is where my direction for Urban Music Education began.  I applied to the Philadelphia school district from the career office at TC.

I took some interesting classes outside my concentration:  Curriculum Development, Urban Education, and Aesthetics with Maxine Greene.  It was great to have that flexibility to take classes outside of Music.  Oh, and I studied with Robert Pace, the great piano educator.

You mentioned the Arts coming under the chopping block in light of tight school budgets. What are your thoughts on the matter?

It is a scary time for Arts educators.  School budgets are frightening, and Arts are on the chopping block.  I hope institutions like TC, with history and power behind them, can help remind us how important the Arts are for urban kids.  Music, drama, dance—this is real and meaningful for kids.  In an environment ruled by test scores and performance, when kids come to the Arts they remember what learning is all about:  curiosity, collaboration, problem solving, more than one right answer.  The Arts are irreplaceable and would be such a missing thing in kids’ lives.  I had a student a few years ago who was either suspended or late every day—unless she had choir rehearsal.  That’s just one anecdote, and there are countless others like it.  And I’m hoping that institutions like TC can put their research behind stories like this and use their voice to keep the arts in the schools.

McAnally includes Angélique Kidjo’s “Lonlon,” a take on Ravel’s “Boléro”, in her curriculum.  To hear this Beninoise singer’s song, click here.

To visit the MENC (The National Association for Music Education) site, click here.