Stories and insights on excellent education.
It’s not uncommon for a percussion thunderstorm to roll through the kindergarten music classroom at Success Academy Union Square. The lightning strikes with a sharp crack, and the thunder rumbles ominously, and the scholars eagerly raise their hands to take turns as the source of all the commotion.
According to Union Square Principal Jennifer Waldman, these kinds of exciting occurrences are to be expected with Joel Klein — singer, pianist, and music teacher extraordinaire — in the classroom. Principal Waldman says that you’ll also find an inspirational and cheerful atmosphere (in spite of the thunderstorms) as Joel encourages confidence in even the most beginner of musicians.
With a master’s degree in music education from Teacher’s College, Columbia, Joel joined Success three years ago as an associate teacher in our Teacher Residency program. He quickly progressed to become the lead music teacher at SA Union Square, and has been putting his expertise and passion to work by introducing scholars to the world of notes and rhythm.
Joel believes that every well-rounded life should include an appreciation of music, which is why he dedicates himself to jamming on buckets with fourth graders and dancing to Tchaikovsky with kindergartners. Scholars are introduced to music fundamentals, while growing as confident and creative leaders. Here, Joel explains what brought him to Success and why he believes in the importance of a robust musical education.
What drew you to teaching at Success?
I always wanted to be a music teacher, which is why I studied music education. I didn’t have any classroom experience, though, and most teaching jobs required some before hiring. I discovered the Teacher Residency program at Success, which brings in people from different backgrounds — even those who may not have studied education — and trains them as associate teachers across multiple subjects and grades.
I worked alongside lead teachers my first year, which was great introduction to life in the classroom; it got my foot in the door, taught me classroom management techniques, and helped me hone effective teaching skills. Success really helps build the skillsets of people who want to make an impact, but it also provides opportunities for us to work towards our career objectives. My principal knew about my passion for music, and when a music teacher opening became available at Union Square, recommended that I interview. I’ve been teaching music here ever since.
What might we expect to find in a Success Academy music class?
Our music program is so creative and collaborative. Each teacher brings personal expertise to the lessons, but we also draw on each other and from shared curriculum resources. Back when I was an associate teacher, my principal encouraged me to observe music classes at schools across the network and take note of their techniques. One teacher created songs for scholar transitions between activities, like moving to the“share squares” on our rugs. The song immediately caught my ear, and I use it regularly. I love to sing and I’m always trying to include moments of rhythm throughout the class; I try to make every second as musical as possible:
“Come into the share square first you stand. Come into the share square hand in hand. Once you get all ready perfectly square, just bend your knees and slowly sit there.”
I use the solfège scale — Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti — to practice music theory and melodies with our younger scholars, while older grades play songs on instruments like recorders and ukuleles. I’ll challenge a scholar to create a melody and sing it to the class, who try and mimic as closely as they can. Our lessons draw out a variety of skills; we’re empowering scholars to use their creative juices by building their own melodies, challenging them to take on leadership roles by standing in front of the class to sing, and pushing everyone to hone their active listening skills so they can repeat the melody with accuracy.
What impact does music have on scholars? Why is this an important part of the curriculum?
In our bucket drumming class, we remind scholars to keep a steady beat. There’s a tendency for all people, whether student or adult, to rush when they play the drums. We fight that urge by selecting a scholar to lead a song and asking everyone to match the pace. Last week, I asked one of our shy scholars to lead for the first time. She was fantastic! It turned out to be one of the best times we’d ever performed, and you could see how proud she was. It was such a nice moment to see how focused they are and how they internalize what we talk about — while also experiencing the fun of drumming on buckets! Music offers liberating and confidence-building opportunities for young learners.
As a teacher and a musician, my greatest goal is to have scholars learn to enjoy music. I want them to be thrilled about making and listening to songs. I realize that probably not all of them will grow up to become musicians, but I strongly believe we all need to have music in our lives. If I can instill that joy in scholars at an early age, I hope that they’ll carry it with them, in addition to whatever other passions they decide to pursue.
What advice would you give to someone considering the Success Teacher Residency program?
I am so grateful to Success for hiring me as an AT, which gave me the teacher training necessary to excel in my current role as a music teacher. It’s a rigorous program, but if you stick with it and persist, you’ll be amazed at where it might lead — maybe even right to your dream job.