How I Teach

Why this Bronx music teacher uses science — and bananas — in her classroom

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
Melissa Salguero uses technology and science experiments to teach her music class at P.S. 48 in the Bronx.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Melissa Salguero returned from spring break to find that thieves had raided her music classroom.

Faced with empty instrument cases, torn drum heads, and missing recording equipment, Salguero did the only thing that felt right. She grabbed a guitar and held music class in the auditorium of her school, P.S. 48 in the Bronx, while police dusted for fingerprints.

“It was important to me that they had music that day to show the kids that we can survive anything,” she said.

A marching band devotee in high school and music lover since childhood, Salguero spends three hours a day commuting from Connecticut, arriving by 7 a.m. for early-morning band practice. During the school day, her classroom can feel like a science lab as students learn about sound waves and electricity through experiments — such as when Salguero recently connected a banana to a computer in order to play it like a piano.

Most of the materials she uses for these lessons are donated. Salguero has raised more than $200,000 for the music program at P.S. 48, including $50,000 presented to her on the Ellen DeGeneres show. This year, she is one of 25 finalists nationally for a Grammy Music Educator award. The winner will attend the Grammy Awards.

Here is why Salguero asks her students for “brutally honest” feedback on her lessons, builds pianos out of playdough, and makes sure to remember birthdays.

Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What do your students get in music class that they can’t get in any other subject?

Music education teaches my students the value of working together and the sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards performances. In my music class, students are able to express themselves, explore the questions they may have, and develop their curiosity for learning.

When you went on Ellen, she described the neighborhood your school is in as “scary.” What do you you wish people understood better about your students?

It is a rough neighborhood, but I see potential in every one of my students to rise above their circumstances. I want people to understand how music education can foster a love for learning, especially in Hunts Point. The kids are bright, talented, and have so much to give; their voices just need a chance to be heard.

Why do you mix science with music?

Science helps my students better understand musical concepts because they’re encouraged to try to understand how things work. Some musical concepts are abstract, such as a sound wave. Performing experiments in class gives them something concrete to explain these abstract concepts. Performing experiments teaches my students resilience because if something doesn’t work out as planned, there’s always another way. For example, instead of my students becoming discouraged if something doesn’t work, they problem solve and think of new ideas.

What is the best compliment you’ve gotten from a student about your teaching?

I love when my students tell me how I helped them overcome a fear. Because of my core teaching values, I encourage my students to make mistakes and to keep trying, and this is where they gain the confidence to overcome their fears.

What does being nominated for a Grammy Educator Award mean to you? What would winning it mean?

Besides the accolades and the cool trophy, it means that music education and the work that music educators do is important and is being recognized on a national level. I’m just one music teacher in a world of many. There are so many music teachers that are changing so many lives. If I can help spread the message that music education is important and is worth supporting, I would love for that message to be a global one.

Why did you become a teacher?

The leadership skills I learned in high school and college music programs help shape the person I am today. I want to help my students discover who they are and I want to help shape them into tomorrow’s leaders.

What does your classroom look like?

If you were sitting in my room watching a lesson you would probably see lots of students asking questions and lots of cogs turning inside of their heads. I foster a curious culture in my classroom that encourages students to ask questions: What is that? How does this work? What is happening? How are you doing that? When the students drive the lesson the engagement is 100%. They are driving the bus I’m just the tour guide.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My humor and my patience get me through each day. If a teacher can learn to laugh and be patient, it is a recipe for a great classroom culture. Students want to feel respected, and sometimes they unaware how to achieve this.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

I love teaching my “Science of Sound” unit; I get to see students be amazed with some of the experiments. For example, I have used nothing but a needle and a piece of paper to play a record and we have made pianos out of playdough.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Every student is different, and it is my job to ensure that every student has the unique tools they need in order to be successful. I teach concepts from many different angles and give my students different methods to demonstrate their understanding of the subject. If a student still doesn’t understand, I ask myself what I can do differently.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I often ask my students for “brutally honest” feedback on lessons. I’m not scared to admit to myself that my lesson ideas might not be as engaging as I thought. It’s important for teachers to reflect and adjust their future lessons accordingly.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Part of being a good teacher is knowing your students! I sincerely care about them whether that is in the form of: remembering birthdays, writing positive notes home, or maintaining communication with parents. Above all, it’s important to me to give the students 100% of my attention when they speak to me. It damages the relationship when the students feels that you are not present and their voices are not heard.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a student that had some really extreme behavior problems in school. Before getting to know her, because she was labeled as a “bad kid,” I had preconceived notions about her. I decided to take her under my wing and mentor her. We worked on positive ways to express her emotions. I helped her write songs and we even recorded a CD. She had somebody that was willing to invest time in her, and I noticed a drastic change in her behavior. I learned that every student, when given the opportunity, can do great things.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.” – Dr. Kevin Maxwel

‘It feels like losing a family’

This Memphis poetry team is the best in the state. But they will scatter as their school closes.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The GRAD Academy poetry team, from left to right: Olivia Randle, ShuKyra Harris, Alesha Griggs, Belle Edgeston, Timothy Moore, MarQuita Henderson, Zakyah Harris.

MarQuita Henderson had a vision for how her senior year of high school at GRAD Academy Memphis was going to go.

The 11th-grader was going to continue leading her school’s award-winning poetry team, which she believes changed her life. She was going to graduate with her best friends. She was already working on a poem to perform at graduation.

But all that changed in January, when GRAD Academy announced it was closing the charter school in South Memphis in June because of high costs and low enrollment. The school enrolled 468 students this year in a school built for 2,000. GRAD opened in 2013 as part of the Achievement School District, a state-run district tasked with turning around low-performing schools.

In a city with too many schools and too few students, school closures have been common in  Memphis, mostly because of low enrollment and poor academic performance. At least 21 schools have closed since 2012 in the local district, Shelby County Schools. Over the past year, four schools in the state-run district have announced closures.

“It’s hard to think about us not being together next year after we spent so much time thinking about being seniors together,” MarQuita, 17, told Chalkbeat. “But I think, at least I did poetry here. I have a new confidence in myself. There’s a voice in me that wasn’t there before.”

MarQuita is one of six students on GRAD’s poetry team, which was founded three years ago and is led by Timothy Moore, a creative writing teacher. The group was named the best high school poetry team in Tennessee this month by Southern Word, a statewide poetry competition.

The team has become incredibly close knit, they said. They have traveled outside of Memphis for poetry competitions, spent hours editing each other’s work, and doing homework together. They lean on each other if they are having a bad day, need some support, or just want to hang out.

“I didn’t really know anyone on the team when I joined this year, I just knew being on the poetry team had been my dream all of high school,” said Alesha Griggs, 16. “But now, it’s like I can’t imagine not knowing these girls. And we’ll lean on each other now more than ever, because we’re going to new schools where we don’t know anyone else.”

Moore, who has taught at GRAD for four years, tries to make sure the conversations around school closures include the voices of those most affected — the students.

“As a team, we’ve been able to work through some of the anger and hurt that came with the announcement our school was closing,” Moore said. “We’ve had a space to do that. So many students don’t. But I still worry, will another teacher look after them next year? Did I do enough for them?”

The six friends will be split between three high schools — Hillcrest, Middle College, and Craigmont.

Most of them live in the neighborhood surrounding GRAD Academy, where school closures are all too familiar. The school is housed in the former South Side High School building, which was converted into a middle school and then closed in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

“I was at South Side Middle School when it closed,” MarQuita said. “So when I heard GRAD was closing, my first thought was, is this our fault again? It feels like losing a family.”

Unlike in many school closures, GRAD Academy officials said they weren’t closing the school because of floundering academics. It has the greatest percentage of ASD high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.  But “higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs” were cited by GRAD officials as the main reasons to close.

For poetry member Belle Edgeston, that reasoning wasn’t enough.

“The reason, that it was such a business decision… still bothers me,” said Belle, 17. “We were the future 12th-grade class. That meant something to us, especially in being able to mentor younger kids in poetry.”

All six poetry members said being on the team has had a significant impact on their lives  — especially under Moore’s leadership.

“This is my first year with a 4.0 GPA,” said Olivia Randle, 16. “I didn’t think that was possible. But I also would have never dreamed of us winning state, or of getting to travel for poetry. Mr. Moore made us think more of ourselves.”

Tamala Boyd-Shaw, the executive director of GRAD Memphis, said she’s proud of the confidence and experiences students have gained as part of Moore’s team.

“The students’ poems are often about struggles they endure as students in their own communities and families,” Boyd-Shaw said. “It’s allowed them to reflect and be proud, not just of what they’re saying, but of who they are. My hope is that all of our students land in schools next year that gives them opportunities like this.”

The girls hope to keep practicing together next school year, even though they know scheduling will be hard. Moore said he was hopeful they will keep competing, either as individuals or as a team.

“We’re going to become masters of group apps and Skype,” Moore said. “But I know we’re really going to miss writing as a family together after class. It’s funny, I’m a 36-year-old man, and I’m surprised at how much they taught me. They helped me find my own voice.”

Watch students Kyla Lewis and Olivia Randle perform “Systematical Fear:”

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.