Gideon Pond teacher connects students with culture through music
Songs are important. Everyone has a favorite song, and usually has a story to go along with it. When they first heard it, what it means to them, why they like it – these are all important parts of a favorite song. Music provides a soundtrack to our lives, and it also has a cultural component, a historical meaning, and personal connection. Students at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville are getting new ways to share their songs, explore cultures, and connect with their classmates with help from their music teacher, Becca Buck.
Buck is in her 11th year of teaching at District 191 with the past seven years as the music specialist at Gideon Pond. She was recognized with the district’s Spirit of Excellence Award in 2020 to celebrate her work that exemplifies the best of what the district seeks in its employees. With both a Bachelor of Music in K-12 Vocal Music Education and Master of Arts in Music Education from St. Thomas University, Becca has a strong foundation in the Kodály method (pronounced koh-DYE), which is an approach to music education rooted in the idea that music should be a social and cultural experience. In her pursuits of higher education, she found ways to use song collecting to create strong classroom connections and explore the cultures of her students.
“Song collecting is when you go into a community to ask about songs, record them, transcribe them, and dive into the history of the song, where it came from, and what it means,” said Buck. “My big push in music education is using repertoire that reflects the student body, which for my classroom meant expanding the use of Somali and Spanish songs and expanding on those cultures.”
Using the theory of “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” coined by Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, which explains how children see themselves reflected in materials (mirrors) and can see others and learn about their lives (windows), Buck began seeking out songs from her students. Once the students are comfortable with her and their classmates, she asks students to share songs they sing outside of school and builds units around those songs.
“Music class is not just a place that students go, but a place that has been created for them,” said Buck.” The standard music curriculum is very whitewashed with a strong history of racism in American music, and it felt violent to bring that music to my students instead of connecting with them and their cultures. Watching how it has impacted students has only fueled me.”
Ms. Buck’s Recommended Listening: “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan - “This is the Gideon Pond anthem and the artist is a Somali-Canadian musician with a great story to tell that really connects with so many of our students.”
Working with liaisons and translators like former Gideon Pond teacher (and 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year) Qorsho Hassan, Becca learned more about the meaning and context of songs and often learned about an unending amount of variations. A song like “Kuu Kuun Lamnia” which was shared with her via a colleague and a student, opened doors to more variants and correspondence with a Somali researcher who determined there are three main versions of the song, with thousands of different variants depending on time and region.
Another song that students learn is the Somali lullaby “Huwaya Huuwa” that Buck has transcribed for classroom instruments like xylophones and recorders. Careful not to appropriate the music or the instruments it would be traditionally played on, but rather celebrate it, Buck has found that students are excited to share their stories, and a window into their culture with their classmates. The music curriculum at each grade level has components that continue to build on each other while also teaching composition, improvisation, group work and collaboration, as well as using multicultural music to connect to cultures.
“It is important to me to do this work in an appropriate way to make sure that everyone is comfortable talking about equity and anti-racism because these cultures have not been excluded by chance,” said Buck. “My place as a white woman is to not cause any damage or micro aggressions and to have my students feel like they are partners in the classroom and with their classmates.”
Students are exposed to a variety of musical techniques including different rhythms, tonal structures, and styles of singing. Words like “weird” are not used in Buck’s classroom, instead discussing music as “different” or “interesting” and even giving positive body language and to be curious about different cultures. Using these different styles of music to dive into musical elements like rhythm, melody and sound allows for students to really express themselves while learning about beats, instrument and timbre exploration, syncopation, and a variety of singing styles.
“I had one student who did not speak much English but wanted to share a song in Spanish. They suddenly opened up and stood in front of the class giving hand gestures and explaining the song in a way that really got through to the class,” said Buck. “The experience of having a student share a song with me is so meaningful because that is an important piece of their culture and the excitement is amazing.”
Ms. Buck is now working on a book of Somali songs and games along with Qorsho Hassan, and the duo often present their work “A Culturally Relevant Kodály-Inspired Classroom with Emphasis on Somali Culture" to music educators. She continues to collect songs from home visits and community connections, and has an impressive library of recordings to prove it.
“Students feel like they have ownership in the curriculum with choice and voice,” said Buck. “Fifth graders who have been with me their whole elementary school career are now so passionate about music and sharing songs. That really fuels me as an educator.”