Uncovering Eurocentrism and Racism in the Music Curriculum and Moving Forward

A quote stood out to me as a call to action from the chapter on Engaged and Inspired Learners in the book Building Equity: 

“We need a generation of young people who believe in the transformative power of advocating for others and uses its voice to resolve inequities that constrain human potential.”  (Smith et al., 2017)

I am going to describe some ideas that I want to develop in my teaching practice that I hope helps “…produce a generation of young people who care deeply about human rights, writ large and small.” (Smith et al., 2017)  Full disclosure – I learned about this idea of actively teaching to social justice in music without compromising the integrity of the music curriculum from an amazing workshop I took last summer on Decentering Whiteness in Music Education taught by Nyssa Brown and Karen Howard.

Aligning to Social Justice

I can infuse social justice in my music classes by creating alignment with the frameworks for anti-biased teaching from Teaching Tolerance, the Social Justice Standards with the Washington State K–12 Arts Learning Standards for Music.  There’s lots to gain in this effort to find connections with the two framworks. To do it I will need to have a working understanding of the four social justice domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action, and as my familiarity grows with the Social Justice Standards, the more facile I will become with integrating them in my daily teaching.  I am beginning to look at the lessons I’ve been teaching with this lens, I see that I already teach many of concepts from the Social Justice Standards.  The difference is it is not deliberate, well thought out or comprehensive.

Cultural Competency

When designing instruction, I want to work on  including all angles of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Triangle.   She talks about this equilateral triangle in a lecture for PBS Wisconsin which was streamed on June 30, 2020 – Building Culturally Relevant Schools Post-Pandemic with Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings.

The 3 sides of the triangle are:

  1. Cultural Competence – “Cultural Competence is really about being grounded in one’s own culture but extending it.” (Ladson-Billings) Acknowledging the culture that students bring with them, use these as bridges to student learning, and actively he them become fluent in at least one other culture.
  2. Student Learning – “Learning is about growth.” (Ladson-Billings) Putting growth, not achievement or test taking, at the center; and
  3. Socio-Political Critical Consciousness – “The job of the Socio-Political/Critical Consciousness is to ask the question ‘how is what I am learning in literacy, or math, or science, or social studies of any significance for the here and the now?’’ (Ladson-Billings) She calls this the “So What?” component.
A few early observations about in this work:

I think a lot about this question from the Building Equity Audit, Student Version #6 “Staff understand my culture and background”  because it is a weakness of mine. (Smith et al., 2017)  I simply don’t know my students and what they bring with them.  The cause of this is partly structural, i.e., work load and lack of time. I teach all the students in the school as a music specialist and see them with their full class for two 30-minute lessons per week. And so Cultural Competence has been largely a missed opportunity in my teaching. It starts with me knowing my students’ cultural backgrounds in order to understand what they bring with them to their learning and leveraging this by using this knowledge to find ways to get them hooked or to find ways to make music interesting as well as to meet their learning needs.  I need to make sure that the first part of the school year is devoted to Identity (sharing, learning, incorporating into the classroom culture).  Whatever strategies I use to accomplish this work needs to be impactful yet efficient in terms of class time.

I also need to engage in more purposeful and regular discussions with my students of the “Why” or “So What” of our lessons. I feel like I’ve done a good job with the “What are we doing?” and “How will we know if we can do it?”, but I don’t give enough information or time to understand “Why?”.  For example, why is what we are doing in music relevant to their lives in the long-term but also the short-term and in context with this moment in time?

It isn’t an easy reach to convey the “So What?” when we are working on learning protest songs around the theme of the Civil Rights Movement and connecting this to  Black Lives Matter, but the challenge will be to find relevant, anti-biased materials to teach other musical skills, music literacy and concepts.  Some of this work is going to involve making value choices around what I include or exclude, since I really need to deliberately and thoughtfully decenter the dominance of Western European practices and ideologies in my music teaching.

Smith, D., Frey, N., Pumpian, I., & Fisher, D. (2017). Building equity: Policies and practices to empower all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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