Farewell Letters to Lee Pogonowski ☆
At an event called “Letters to Lee,” Milbank Chapel was packed with people who came to honor an educator they recognized as “a true mentor,” “profoundly in love with music,” and “one in a trillion.” After 30 years at Teachers College, Professor Lenore “Lee” Pogonowski is retiring.
For over two hours, attendees sang, played instruments, read poems, or simply spoke about what Pogonowski meant to them. Others read letters on behalf of those who couldn’t make it to the event.
“Dear Lee,” began the first letter, from a former student named Elissa Johnson-Green. “I came to Teachers College with a certain idea about music education. You turned that perception completely inside out.”
Teachers College professor Hal Abeles explained that Johnson-Green was not the only student who had her perceptions challenged: Pogonowski required that anyone in her classes think deeply and critically about music.
“New students were exposed to—maybe confronted with—new ideas for what it means to be musical,” Abeles said. But Pogonowski’s students didn’t complain. “I was surprised by how much they enjoyed this assault on their musical foundation,” Abeles said.
Lisa DeLorenzo is a former student of Pogonowski’s who earned her doctorate from Teachers College. “I and my teaching were transformed, thanks to Lee,” she said. DeLorenzo, who is now a professor at Montclair State University’s School of Music, said Pogonowski was a revolutionary educator. “She got students to think critically before critical thinking was a buzzword.”
Pogonowski always “had me thinking, and thinking about thinking,” said Gena Greher, who earned her doctorate from Teachers College and is now a professor and coordinator of music education at University of Massachusetts Lowell. Greher said Pogonowski’s challenge to educators was this: “If you’re not teaching students to think, why are you here?”
“She changed the course of music education in this country,” added Nathalie Robinson, an associate professor at Hofstra University who studied under Pogonowski for her doctorate. Robinson said that Pogonowski has advocated for a constructivist, child-centered approach ever since she began teaching. “She had ideas about music that were way ahead of her time.”
Pogonowski began her music education career as a public school teacher in Greenwich, CT, where she was invited to be part of the Manhattanville Music Curriculum Project (MMCP). The project began in 1966 as a way to improve music education in primary schools. At a time when students were merely taught about music, rather than taught how to engage in it, the MMCP’s creative, student-centered, and inquiry-based approach anticipated modern constructivist ideals by several decades.
At Teachers College, Pogonowski founded and directed the Creative Arts Laboratory (CAL), a professional development program established in 1994. The program was aimed at preparing New York City teachers of economically disadvantaged students to incorporate the arts into their core curriculum. Through experiential sessions in dance, music, story-telling, videography, and visual arts, students in CAL learned how they could use the arts to teach creativity and critical thinking.
At her retirement event, Pogonowski was praised not just for her innovative pedagogy, but also for her joyful approach to teaching.
“My life was revolutionized in a series of Wednesday and Thursday nights,” former student Richard Carr wrote in his letter. In every class, according to Carr, Pogonowski’s “infectious joie de vivre filled the room.”
Robinson concurred. She explained that after an evening with Pogonowski, “you walked out of the classroom and you were on top of the world- it was better than psychotherapy!”
Other speakers acknowledged Pogonowski’s originality and playful spirit. Greher said her classes with Pogonowski definitively proved that that “fun and learning aren’t mutually exclusive.” Once during a class discussion, Pogonowski illustrated a point by walking over to the piano and beginning to play. Greher suddenly realized her teacher was playing a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” She was surprised. “I’d never had a music teacher even acknowledge non-Classical music,” she said. “I knew this was truly going to be a different kind of school experience.”
DeLorenzo shared a story from when she was a teaching assistant in one of Pogonowski’s courses. After class one day, the two women decided to get some dinner. It was a chilly evening, so Pogonowski went to her office to get a sweater. Upon opening her closet, however, all she found was her academic regalia. Undaunted, she decided to wear the floor-length velvet gown out to eat.
“She’s one of a kind,” DeLorenzo concluded.
Associate Professor Randall Allsup, who earned his doctorate from Teachers College before joining the faculty, also commented on Pogonowski’s uniqueness. “I had simply never met a teacher like you,” he said, addressing Pogonowski directly. “You said, ‘yes’ and ‘why so?’ and ‘what do you think?’”
Allsup said Pogonowski showed a humanist approach to pedagogy. She taught that “people flourish when they are loved,” he said.
The picture of Pogonowski as a nurturer was echoed by several people. “As a colleague, I have no idea how anyone could have been more supportive,” said Abeles.
In a letter, former student Sharyn Battersby shared a story about an occasion when she brought her nine-year-old son to campus. Pognowski invited Battersby and her son into her office, where Battersby said she engaged the boy in conversation just as if he were an adult. “She talked to my son as if he were the most important person on campus,” Battersby wrote. That son is now an art teacher in Manhattan, and fondly remembers the conversation he had with Pogonowski.
Creative tributes to Pogonowski went beyond letters and speeches. Teachers College lecturer Marsha Baxter wrote a mesostic poem based on Pogonowski’s name that included the lines: “creative individuaList/ rouser of rebEls/ seEker of what music ed can be.”
Robinson performed a humorous sketch along with fellow Teachers College graduate Cindy Bell, who is now an associate professor at Hofstra University. Bell punctuated the sketch’s dramatic moments with a variety of instruments including a kazoo, a singing bowl, and an imaginary violin.
Toni Mirabal, who earned her doctorate at Teachers College, sang “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a song she performed as Queenie in a Broadway production of Showboat. She made several changes to the lyrics to honor Pogonowski, and concluded with a sentiment many in the room clearly shared. “TC without Lee ain’t no place to be. Can’t help loving that Lee of mine!”