On campus, Chip is known for many things: his masterful assembly-moderating skills, his talented music-making abilities, and, most importantly, his classroom environment—a place in which students are encouraged to take risks, try new things, and expand their horizons. In this interview, Chip shares the intentionality behind the Middle School music curriculum, his hopes for his students as they progress from 5th to 8th grade, and the ways in which he has been inspired by those whom he teaches.
When designing your curriculum, what kinds of skills and/or learning experiences do you prioritize?
We use the essential question/UBD framework to design curriculum, and, as we get into the older grades, there's a big focus on: What can I do as a performer to make the ensemble sound good? We begin working on that in the younger grades, but, as students get older, we're really being intentional about being part of a group that's playing and giving kids the opportunity to explore different kinds of instruments and music so they can hopefully find something that interests them. In 5th grade, we look at African music—drumming and xylophone music in particular—and get into more complicated rhythms and poly-rhythmic playing, as well as having more complex arrangements. In 6th grade, we look at the history of American popular music; we start around the turn of the 20th century, and kids learn about different time periods and genres and learn to play different pieces. The goal is that they are exposed to many things and find something that they're interested in. We also do a research project where they pick an artist with my help and study that artist; it's very driven by the students’ interests. In 7th and 8th grade, we have the mods, which offer the students a chance to choose their arts classes. In music, we offer digital songwriting and guitar, which are more independent and student driven. And, of course, in the spring semester, we have the musical, which is the capstone experience of the music and arts department in which every 7th and 8th grade student participates. The singing and group work they've done since they were younger all builds up to the musical.
What growth do you want to see students achieve as they progress through Middle School in your class?
I hope that they will continue to develop opinions and find things they like and don't like and think about why. With art and music, it's hard sometimes to pin down what you like about something and why, and expressing that and reflecting on it is important for everybody, not just students. So, that is one area of growth: the motivation to think and reflect more. And then there's the concrete musical skills: playing more complicated arrangements with more overlapping parts and continuing to develop their creativity through improvisation and composition.
What academic and/or life skills do students gain from studying music and the arts?
There are links to math that we know about and organization, sequencing, and close listening that are important. Developing the ability to pay attention and focus while making music also translates to the ability to pay attention and focus elsewhere. The neural connections that happen when you do something hard and problem-solve can be used for anything; it helps your brain grow stronger. So, there might not be a one-to-one correlation between your Model UN speech and your ability to play a 5-against-4 poly-rhythm, but your brain is developing the skills to do hard things through both of those.
What is unique about the Middle School arts program at Green Acres?
The most unique thing about it is the musical. The fact that, for decades, we've had every 7th and 8th grade student involved sets us apart. They get to be part of something bigger than themselves. Finding that it's not all about you, but about the ensemble, is an important lesson to learn. Our kids tend to rise to the occasion really well, which speaks also to what happens outside of the art department. They advocate well for themselves and work hard balancing a lot of work. It's a big undertaking and everyone being part of it makes it so special.
In what ways do your students inspire you?
I think about myself in Middle School: Would I have been advocating for myself the same way that they do? Their willingness to advocate for themselves and their risk taking inspires me. ❖
Interview conducted by Talia Fishbine. Originally published in Middle School Beat Vol. II No. IV in May 2021.