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Social Justice in Music Education: Choral Music Educators

Updated May 5, 2022
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Social Justice in Music Education: Choral Music Educators essay

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Abstract

Social Justice in Music Education is the enactment of identifying social indecencies that teachers observe daily in the music classroom. Seen as a public figure to their students, music teachers are influential, especially in this democratic society that relies heavily on the school system to educate the next generation of judicial and political domains. Music educators must recognize and act upon the power that they must enact social change. This way, educators can decolonize to the next level by implementing classroom practices that support high level thinking. This can be done by taking into consideration and valuing the diverse learning of students before making any curricular decisions. One must acknowledge and display that they value their students’ input, culture, and background and what they bring to the classroom is important for creating that social justice classroom. Comment by PK Freer: Where did this definition come from? This needs a citation (not here, but in the body of the paper). Comment by PK Freer: How is it possible to educate a domain? We educate people ABOUT issues – we don’t educate the issues. Comment by PK Freer: This is a point of view on which people may disagree (some music teachers feel their most important responsibility is to teach music, not to specifically teach for social justice). You’ll need to acknowledge this in your full paper. Comment by PK Freer: I don’t know what this means. Comment by PK Freer: This sounds as though “low level thinking” is that which is in opposition to your point of view. Can’t people who disagree on issues both employ “high level thinking”? You’ll need to provide clear and unassailable definitions of such terms in your paper.

The focus of teaching is not on what music teachers teach or how they assess, but more importantly on the quality of relationships with our students. Amid much talk of educational reform that focuses on pedagogy, curriculum, and policy, when teachers do not pay attention to students’ personal and social characteristics, students can become marginalized from the process of learning, not only via race, class, and gender, but also socially. A study by Jorgensen (2007) showed that teaching music in schools requires teachers to acknowledge both societal and cultural barriers (Jorgensen, 2007). A great deal of research has focused in areas of complex sociocultural discourses pervasive and challenging to gay African American band students (Carter, 2013), but what about the choral students? This specific area has been neglected to address the relationships that are created to accommodate a positive learning environment for a chorus classroom. To appreciate the effects of a positive learning environment, we must examine in detail the choral music educators who embrace their student’s day-to-day lives of social inequality in their schools and communities. These teachers go against the norms of allocation and stand up for their students’ social equality rather than allowing a division. In this context, the term ‘social justice’ is a loaded term in the affirmative action sense of something needing to be re-mediated for a certain group of people (Jorgensen, 2007). Comment by PK Freer: Citation needed here, since this is a point of view rather than a fact. Comment by PK Freer: Jorgensen’s article was not a report of a research study. Therefore, the conclusion you state in this sentence is not accurate. Jorgensen DID seek to provide justification for this perspective, however. Please rewrite more accurately. Comment by PK Freer: Not needed since you already cited this earlier in the sentence. Comment by PK Freer: You are signaling that “social justice” is focused on gay African American students. Is that what you mean? You might write more broadly in this introductory section. Comment by PK Freer: I completely disagree. There is a large and growing body of literature focused on the LGBTQIA community in choral music education. It looks like you have not searched for or included many resources published since 2014. Most of the relevant literature in this area has been published since 2014. Please locate and include this literature in the next draft of your paper. Comment by PK Freer: I don’t know what this means. Comment by PK Freer: This sentence is a direct quote from the Jorgensen article. If you don’t place it in quotation marks and then cite it correctly as a direct quotation, then you will have plagiarized. You must thoroughly examine your paper for such instances and rewrite accordingly.

Why should educators be interested in social justice? Historically, research has aimed to provide a connection to other things that can relate to a particular group of people. For example, social justice in the classroom can be interconnected with other aspects of life: rituals, religion, and a plethora of activities that hold a special place to people (Allsup, 2012). The educator that sees their students eight hours in a day can clearly transfer a message of moral and ethical standards in a classroom than some parents that only see their child in the evenings and weekends. It is the educator that stays connected with the social anatomy and characteristics of human life and culture in a child’s life. Teachers who ignore social justice increase the chance of division (i.e. race, sexual orientation, cultural and economic capital). Instead of dismissing the thought of even contributing to the status of social injustice with their own classroom, educators must take a stand as educators. In regards to today’s generation, ignoring social inequality is out of the frame of reference. With that, the question is: Are music educators following the status quote or are they willing to let it go? Comment by PK Freer: This source is not in your reference list (though you do have a co-authored article with Allsup and Sheih for 2012).

The Research Process

This literature review will first cover social justice in education from the views of highly respected educators and philosophers. The inquiries of teaching beyond musical engagements and embracing social change will also be addressed. Findings of studies experienced by general educators and music educators will be developed, along with detailed subtopics from a historical timeline of social change in general education and public schooling, and then through music education. What will also be included is an in-depth review of Bennett Reimer’s immense values of music education “what does art do for people” (Bradley, 2012, p. 124.). The rebuttals and opinions of respected philosophers and authors’ opinions will also be investigated with their explanation. Comment by PK Freer: By what criteria are they determined to be highly respected? (They might not be highly respected in Spain, for instance, so you need to define what you mean here.)

The research strategies were determined after carefully identifying the problem and selecting concrete evidence to support the issues addressed. Thinking philosophically, research became easier, creating open-ended questions on social justice in education. From the researchers’ perspective, collecting data, along with finding quantitative research was difficult to find. However, there were qualitative research studies that addressed the general educator’s experiences with suitable details of social justice in the classroom. As seen from the teacher’s perspective, a review of common acts in and out of the classroom and from the student’s views are also in the review.

The majority of the literature readings are from the late twenty-first century. Also included are writings from Samuel Winkley Cole and William Tomlins from 1903 to 1966 that address the historical background. Their educational opinions will also be revealed (Mark, 2008, p. 110-111). In the research process, typing in Google Scholar “social justice in music education” there were few findings, but after identifying a philosophical perspective, “social justice in education” was evident in research. The use of article and literature reviews are referenced often in this review in order to cover different parameters on the topic of social justice in music education. Articles from Music Education Today, Music Educator’s Journal, and Journal of Research in Music Education were actively used within this review. References from Music Education: Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today (edited by Michael L. Mark) or The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Music Education (edited by Wayne Bowman and Ana Lucía Frega) were also core supporting resources within the review.

The criteria of this literature review began as a broad idea, then was narrowed into subtopics within the topic of social justice in music education. The main idea of each section is written through different lenses: philosophically, curriculum content, and research data experiments.

What Is the Problem?

The problem or issue is that there is social injustice in schools, but music education as a part of school can help embrace the minority that society has misled in a different direction. This is a special connection that music educators strive to make with their students. As an example, imagine seeing a male student come to school dressed as a girl. The first thing that may come to mind is that this is a distraction. Questions about intentions of the student’s behavior begin to arise. How do educators handle normality verses immorality? Why do we as human beings still make others feel uncomfortable for being themselves?

The authors imply that “students who attend schools of a low socioeconomic status have less access to the arts and that schools with a higher percentage of minority students are more likely to experience deep cuts in music and the arts” (Allsup & Shieh 2012). Disparities, or inequalities, are evident in America. In school, music educators are more prone to noticing the minority verses the majority. It is up to the teachers to defend and nurture the minority (special ed, gays, etc…) and realize that the experiences students encounter can limit their success in school. Comment by PK Freer: Starting here, many of your paragraphs have extra spaces after them. This is because you probably cut-and-pasted from documents where your spacing settings were different. Check the format of your entire paper to eliminate these extra spaces.

According to Allsup and Shieh (2012), it is “the lack of social and economic diversity that drains vitality from important classroom discussions” (Allsup & Shieh 2012). Instead of avoiding the discussion, music teachers should educate themselves on the values of your students as well as teaching them. It may be useful to be classified as a teacher that thinks “outside of the box.” Comment by PK Freer: Page number needed because it’s a direct quotation. Check each direct quotation in your paper to be sure you include the correct page numbers in the citation. Comment by PK Freer: No need to place the citation here since you’ve done so elsewhere in the sentence. Please check every similar instance throughout your paper and adjust accordingly.

Teachers that engage in social justice through their teachings not only must ensure that their students thrive academically, but socially as well. By promoting social justice, teachers can assist in helping students develop a positive social and cultural identity (Esposito and Swan, 2009).

Allsup and Shieh (2012) state that education is a public endeavor with an obligation to enter the public space (Pinar, 2004). This is where the starting point for social justice begins for the authors, understood as a principled, even public, response to a perceived hurt or act of injustice. Just as education cannot be conceptualized apart from justice, there is no schooling apart from social justice, a claim shared by many (Dewey, 1909). All are acts of noticing, listening, seeing, and responding. It is an insistence on what Maxine Greene calls “wide-awakeness”—an open-eyed and open-eared engagement with the larger social fabric of our lives, and the diverse and ways that students reveal who they are through the work that students and teachers do together in the public space called school (Greene, 2000). Comment by PK Freer: Why are there two citations here? Comment by PK Freer: Which authors? Pinar, or Allsup/Shieh?

There is no teaching for social justice without an awareness of the inequities that surround us, and a sense of indignation or even outrage at the “normal state of affairs”. To provide an example of this, the authors use Jane Addams. It was a sense of social injustice that led Jane Addams in 1889 to create Hull House, which was a settlement for immigrants and the working poor in west Chicago (Addams, 1910). In Addams’s case, she experienced a kind of moral awakening, recognizing that a distance existed between the state of “what is”—the indecent treatment of workers in the factories and slaughterhouses of industrial Chicago— and a belief in “what ought to be.” All children ought to be safe, well fed, and educated. All adults ought to have housing, the opportunity for good wages, and a sense of well-being. Noticing and naming the problems of her time led Addams to action. She established a settlement house, which eventually blossomed into a de facto kindergarten, art and music school, and also a community college (Allsup and Shieh, 2012). Comment by PK Freer: This entire section appears word-for-word in Allsup & Shieh 2012. Comment by PK Freer: All punctuation goes within the quotation marks, not outside the quotation marks. Please check through your entire document for this and make the corrections as needed.

Brought up in a privileged family and raised to hold domestic values, Jane Addams’ courage and commitments were a surprise to most in her social class. To see beyond the normal state of affairs for Addams was the result of an independence of mind, one cultivated by a love of reading and travel through which she became engaged with the larger world and finally able to notice and then name—the problems of industrialism and the working poor (Pinar, 2009). For some people, the dedication to work in social justice comes from an active pursuit of this kind of independence and openness, coupled by a deliberate engagement with our public spaces. For others, the dedication for social justice is immediate, because as historically marginalized people, the awareness of inequity is forced plainly upon them. For others, noticing the treatment of these students by their peers—relentless and unmediated bullying that finally caused them to go public and take a stand—is the first act of naming a societal wrong (Allsup and Shieh, 2012).

The fact that different incidents open different traumas speaks to the different ways our society is experienced. Beliefs about what is normal (and what is not) limit the ability to perceive the world as if it could be otherwise. The imperative to look beyond is shared by all school educators, but the development of this capacity into a broader public awareness is far from easy. It requires the development of a disposition that chooses to seek out what others ignore, and one that considers the varied forms that discrimination and injustice may take (Allsup and Shieh, 2012). Comment by PK Freer: Same – all directly from Allsup/Shieh

Disparities are more easily noticed but require attentiveness or wide-awakeness. As human beings, there are noticeable differences in opportunity or treatment for particular groups of people. To access a high-quality music education is what instigated a series of conferences and research agendas over the past decade (Jennings, 1994). It has become all too familiar to the music education community that students who attend schools of a low socioeconomic status have less access to the arts and that schools with a higher percentage of minority students are more likely to experience deep cuts in music and the arts (King and Zucker, 2009).

More subtle are policies of unfairness or injustice that stem from the marginalization of certain groups of people. These are ways in which people are effectively dehumanized because they are not represented or given voice in a particular space, or they are excluded altogether. Allsup and Shieh (2012) note that at a 2008 conference at the University of Toronto called “Engagements and Exclusions in Music Education,” attendees were asked to consider issues of social justice in music that many had not considered: the portrayal of women in popular music, the opportunity for African American youth to take part in classical large-ensemble programs, the treatment of Native American traditions in music classes, the silence surrounding students who identify as queer, the exclusion of students with disabilities from instrumental music programs, and even the question of whether children understood as children (and not as pre-professionals, voice parts, members of a feeder program, say) might be valued by music programs. The researchers note that as a profession, music teachers need to examine the factors that lead certain students to avoid music classes, to avoid speaking up in our music classes, or factors that lead parents to avoid entering the school for concerts or Parent-Teacher Association meetings. These factors are often the result of systems of marginalization that relegate people to the “outside” of our classrooms, schools, and public spaces (Allsup and Shieh, 2012).

Allsup and Shieh (2012) believe that none of these issues that have been pointed out ought to be considered “normal” no matter how commonplace they sound—no more than it was “normal” in Jane Addams’s time for women to be considered incapable of voting, or for children to be sent to work in factories and fields. Noticing inequities, and identifying them as such, takes a great deal of quiet courage. The very act of noticing sheds light on our own teaching techniques and attitudes. Allsup and Shieh (2012) ask: Why do teachers sometimes still feel apologetic about the place and purpose of popular music in teacher preparation programs? Why are many music teachers afraid to admit that they do not know how to provide accommodations that work for many students with special needs in music classes? Why do music teachers continue to resist talking with the school’s most active parents about worries with inclusiveness? If music is an elective, who is selecting it, and who is not? Who is auditioning into university schools of music, and who is not? The researchers believe, as did Jane Addams, that music teachers’ dedication to openness relies heavily on fighting institutional bureaucracy, and that education must continue across a life span of investigating the sociopolitical issues that dramatically influence student lives.8 Like Addams, music teachers are pushed to find fresh ways of understanding as well as to engage with those included and excluded in our various communities (Allsup and Shieh, 2012).

It is important to recognize that while it is necessary to name injustices done to groups of people, this can also result in affixing labels to individuals, regardless of intent. Each human being lives uniquely at the intersection of multiple cultures and multiple selves, some privileged, some not. While it is an individual’s right to name (and rename) themselves, it is another thing to be labeled by someone else. Even good intentions can reinforce stereotypes. There is never one way to be Asian, or gay, or Mormon. There is never one song that fits an ethnic label, never one musical practice that encompasses an entire culture. The composites that may label people make labeling increasingly problematic. Because of this, and because of working with students daily, our own perspective coupled with the capacity to listen to the perspectives of others are key to the work of social justice. Social justice is, after all, a social act. It is work that is inclusive and generous, and it requires the inclusion of those we wish to act with: our students and communities (Allsup and Shieh, 2012).

To listen to students is to allow them to enter the music curriculum with music teachers as agents of change. Students are not in classes just to learn musical skills or established traditions; they are in music classes to help shape musical traditions and social traditions that live and breathe and transform the world in which we live. According to Allsup and Shieh (2012), musical traditions are never more important than the people who are called on to realize them. They state that while music teachers may strongly believe in the musical and social benefits of school-based large ensembles, like band, chorus and orchestra, these are artistic forms that must be made relevant to immediate and future student needs, even if it means altering a practice or pedagogy. Allsup and Shieh (2012) note that the band room has near-limitless musical and social capacity (Allsup and Shieh, 2012). Guitar clubs, composition classes, and rock bands can be added to an already existing line of auxiliary groups that have found a home in the contemporary band room, such as drum lines, jazz combos, and chamber groups. By diversifying the band room space—metaphorically and literally—the authors state that music teachers are helping young musicians become independent learners and lifelong music practitioners (Allsup and Shieh, 2012).

Allsup and Shieh (2012) also ask: How else to respond to and possibly repair what music notice through classroom spaces? They suggest that this question is tricky in some ways, because the idea of responding and repairing highlights the situational nature of social justice. The researchers do not believe there are specific lessons and activities that constitute “a social justice experience,” specific lessons that can be taught irrespective of the particular students involved, the particular school and its community context, or each of us as teacher-individuals who hold particular perspectives. The problem that confuses many music educators is that they want to know exactly what social justice looks like in a music classroom or rehearsal setting, and how it is implemented. A concert trip to a nursing home may be advertised as socially just, but not if it is done for the purposes of public relations or pity. A traditional band program (one that plays Mozart and Holst) may not look or sound particularly radical, but may operate pedagogically according to radical values of inclusion, fairness, and equal opportunity (Allsup and Shieh, 2012).

These examples are starts, creative responses taken by music educators as we begin to find ways of taking control, of claiming power in our professional lives and the world around us. They are examples of noticing, of listening to our students and our communities, of taking action. The moment we accept that music teaching is more than the teaching of sound and sound patterns alone—that there is the moment that music teachers enter into the realm of a public pedagogy. It is a calling that is apparent in the project of public education, an education for public spaces, for living together. Allsup and Shieh (2012) summarize by stating that as music teachers, the big questions of time belong to them, and to students as well. They are not to be left for others to decide, and music teachers cannot respond to them until accepting the call to move from isolated classrooms and sealed traditions and into a public space (Allsup and Shieh, 2012)

According to Slater (2015), social justice means developing democratic activism. Democratic activism is preparing young people to analyze and challenge forms of discrimination that they, their families, and others may face, on behalf of equity for everyone. This paper addresses what social justice is, and how it can be applied in a middle school choral setting.

Social Justice

According to Hooks (1988), social justice means meeting students where they are, asking and getting them to ask questions about their world, and troubling their ideologies behind those questions and answers. Then and most importantly, acting out in response to those thoughts. Teachers need to look past talking about issues and instead talk back at them (Hooks, 1988).

Teaching for social justice is a philosophy of education centered on the promotion and instillation of said philosophy in students. The aims are to equip learners with the skills and experiences necessary to promote social change and increase equality among individuals. Rather than a distinct subject area with set objectives and standards, social justice (when done correctly) is embedded in all subject areas (including chorus). When effectively implemented, social justice should provide equal learning opportunities for all students, help foster respect among individuals, and empower individuals to notice and challenge the inequalities and injustices in society (Levinson, 2009).

Teaching for social justice has the common goal of preparing teachers to recognize, name, and combat inequality in schools through culturally relevant pedagogy, anti-racist pedagogy, and intercultural teaching (Wikipedia, 2015). Educational equality is a primary goal of teaching for social justice and refers to the practice of providing students of all backgrounds with access to a quality educational experience. Brighouse (2005) notes that educational equality encompasses both relationships among individuals and interactions among social groups.

Educational benefits (also called educational opportunities) comprise an important part of educational quality. There are two types: instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental benefits are educational goods that students gain in the way of curriculum and content. Intrinsic benefits may be less obvious, but are still highly beneficial to students. Intrinsic benefits may include the joys of playing an instrument, drawing, or singing in a chorus. The failure of educational systems to provide educational goods of either type (when failure is not due to family-related decisions or circumstances) would then be a violation of educational equality (Wikipedia, 2015).

Historical Background

In 1903 at the National Education Association Convention, Dr. Samuel Winkley Cole, author and professional education leader stated, “The real purpose of teaching music in the public schools is not to make expert sight-singers nor individual soloists… If they become an end and not a means, they hinder rather than help” (Marck, 2008, p.111). The early music educators began to realize there is a greater realm to teaching music and teaching beyond the music making. In 1966, it continued with Dr. William Tomlins, a professor and director of the Apollo Club, a highly respected choir. Tomlins stated that “A boy whose powers are merely physical is but a fraction of his true self. Add his mental powers and still you have only half your boy, for besides what he knows and does there is what he is” (Marck, 2008, p.110). Tomlins elaborated more by explaining how a child’s individuality is merely a reflection of themselves (Marck, 2008).

To address social justice in the classroom, a teacher must develop an appropriate curriculum that addresses educational inequalities for students, while also teaching students about social inequalities in society, and how to proactively address them. An example of teaching social justice in the classroom with regards to a diverse population is to incorporate different cultures into the curriculum. This provides opportunities for students to learn about their own cultural identities as well as their peers. Incorporating different cultures into the curriculum creates pride, respect for each other’s culture, and may also deconstruct negative stereotypes associated with the students’ identities. Incorporating different cultures into the curriculum also contributes to a positive classroom culture and may inspire group work (Wikipedia, 2015). This is an important part of addressing social injustice because it gives students an opportunity to recognize the value of others in the classroom. This strategy allows students to learn from their peers by hearing and discussing ideas that are different from their own. This encourages students to advance to a more sophisticated level of social and academic skills. Through communication and relationships with their classmates, students can clarify their own values, attitudes, and in the process, develop a healthy frame of reference for their own identity (Johnson and Johnson, 1990).

Shaw (2012) asks the questions: How do our music curricula embrace or exclude our students, and what can teachers do to widen the circle? She begins by analyzing how to respond to different types of culture in the classroom. Culture refers to “a dynamic system of social values, cognitive codes, behavioral standards, worldviews, and beliefs used to give order and meaning to our own lives as well as the lives of others” (Gay, 2000). The conception of culture used in this article assumes that in addition to being shaped by culture, individuals can serve as agents for shaping culture (Erickson, 2005). The idea that people can influence culture is essential to the belief that teachers and students can affect social change (Shaw, 2010).

Cultural concerns have become increasingly important to the many teachers charged with the responsibility of teaching students from cultural backgrounds different from their own. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that from 2000–2001 to 2007–2008, the proportion of public school enrollment composed of white students decreased from 61 to 56 percent (Aud, Fox, KawalRamani, 2010). However, in 2008, the majority of public school teachers—about 83 percent—were white (Coopersmith and Gruber, 2009). These statistics suggest that the diversity represented by public school students is not reflected in the population of teachers, which indicates a need to develop pedagogical practices that meet the needs of students from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Erickson’s observation that everyone is cultural and multicultural suggests that all teachers have a responsibility to attend to the culturally influenced strengths and needs of the individuals in their classrooms (Erickson, 2005). Comment by PK Freer: Not in your reference list Comment by PK Freer: Not in your reference list

Choral music education, with a strong foundation in the Western classical tradition, is often approached from a Eurocentric perspective. While upholding a rich Western classical tradition is an achievement that should be celebrated and continued, educators should also be aware of ways in which choral music education can be prone to ethnocentricism in its practice. Because singing provides an accessible avenue for both validating students’ own cultural backgrounds and teaching about diverse cultures, choral music education has the potential to be at the forefront of making music education as a whole more culturally responsive (Shaw, 2012).

Selecting Repertoire

According to Shaw (2012), many choral teachers approach curriculum and instruction from a “repertoire-at-the-center” perspective, making repertoire selection a logical point of departure for infusing choral music education with culturally responsive practices. It is contradictory to tout music’s power as universal but then rely heavily or solely on Western classical music in the teaching of the subject. While many educators acknowledge a need to diversify the curriculum by including repertoire representative of many cultures, identifying where to begin can be overwhelming. Culturally responsive teaching, with its student-centered focus, suggests starting the repertoire selection process by considering students rather than by perusing a publisher’s catalogue. To guide this process, components of Gay’s definition of culturally responsive teaching might be transformed into questions that inform repertoire choices: What music would build upon students’ prior experiences? What pieces would capitalize on their cultural knowledge? What selections could students experience through their preferred learning styles? Which would showcase their culturally informed performance styles? (Gay, 2000). Instead of thinking of culture as something distant and removed, one way that culturally responsive teachers can attend to the culture present in their own classrooms is by including repertoire that honors their own students’ cultural heritage (Shaw, 2012).

Ladson-Billings (2002), teaching from a repertoire that is relevant to students’ different cultural backgrounds assists in developing students’ cultural competence, which “refers to the ability of students to grow in understanding and respect for their culture of origin” (Ladson-Billings, 2002). Developing cultural competence through music gives opportunities for students who have a disconnect between home and school ways to navigate between those cultures, to be bicultural, and to be bi-musical. Fordham and Ogbu (1986) state that some African American students equate academic achievement with a loss of their African American identity, viewing doing well in school as “acting White” (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986).

Ladson-Billings indicated that culturally responsive teaching “develops a relevant black personality that allows African American students to choose academic excellence yet still identify with African American culture” (Ladson-Billings, 1984) . Music teachers can capitalize upon music’s role in conceptualizing and projecting one’s identity to help all students develop a “relevant personality” (Shaw, 2012).

Several factors complicate the process of determining what music represents students’ cultural heritage. An individual belongs to multiple social groups defined by variables, such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and religion-that interact in complex ways to make one’s cultural identity highly individualized and personal (Banks, 2005). Ladson-Billings coined the term “culture of reference” in order to refer to the cultural group (including ethnic and racial characteristics) with which one most identifies (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Teachers must consider that students’ cultures of reference may be different from their cultures of origin and that they may identify with multiple cultures. They must also avoid essentializing culture by assuming that all people belonging to a social category are culturally similar (Erickson, 2005).

Among the most important experts with whom teachers can consult with are their own students. Delpit observed that “The teacher cannot be the only expert in the classroom. To deny students their own expert knowledge is to disempower them” (Delpit, 1995). Using music from students’ cultures is one way to empower students by allowing them to serve as experts. Teachers could channel students’ expert knowledge by asking them to coach pronunciation of languages in which they are fluent, assist the class by providing information about the music’s cultural context, or take a leadership role in evaluating the cultural validity of the choir’s performances. Shaw states that allowing students to share the role of expert does not mean that teachers turn over control of their classrooms; but instead that they model a receptive attitude and lifelong learning by occasionally learning from students instead (Shaw, 2012).

Developing Sociopolitical Competence

Music teachers cannot be content to focus solely on musical content and avoid potentially controversial issues related to race, ethnicity, and culture. They must also be prepared to handle uncomfortable conversations that may arise as long-held beliefs of students are challenged, assumptions are questioned, and stereotypes are confronted. Students should be guided to recognize and challenge systems of oppression, inequality, and social injustice, a process Ladson-Billings called “promoting students’ sociopolitical competence” (Ladson-Billings, 2002). For music teachers, this translates into a need to go beyond simple exposure to diverse music and to guide students to discuss, interrogate, and dive deeply into related sociopolitical issues (Shaw, 2012). Approaches to music education that reduce music to its constituent parts allow for the avoidance of social implications and issues (Woodford, 2005). As an example, Shaw (2012) states that it is possible that a choral teacher could teach an African cultural song with attention to its melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, and formal characteristics, but could completely avoid the song’s connection to social issues in Africa. This would result in an incomplete understanding of the song and a misguided attempt at culturally responsive teaching. It is not suggested that music teachers should transform into social studies teachers, abandoning musical content and concerns, but rather, they should attend to students’ musical and sociopolitical development as positive reinforcement (Shaw, 2012).

One way that choral teachers can promote students’ sociopolitical competence is by selecting repertoire and materials that open dialogue. As an example, one of many songs or hymns could be used from the Civil Rights movement. The selection of a song from this period may lead to discussions of the movement, which could lead into discussions of present-day human rights issues. Students could also analyze how social groups are represented (or not represented) in classroom materials or by other forms of media. By using these analytical skills, students could make progress towards developing the sociopolitical competence required to recognize and challenge stereotypes, racism, and oppression. In other words, these analytical skills that are developed could be used to examine social justice within the choral classroom (Shaw, 2012).

Choral teachers can also go beyond discussion and analysis of sociopolitical matters by empowering students toward social action. Abril (2009) profiled a teacher who did just this when students questioned her decision to program a song called “La Raspa” for an upcoming concert, arguing that the piece portrayed Mexicans stereotypically (Abril, 2009). When students voiced their concerns, the teacher assigned students the responsibility of deciding whether to perform the piece. To help influence their decision, students conducted a poll of parents, friends, and community members. This example models several characteristics of teachers who develop students’ sociopolitical competence: they avoid positioning themselves as the only expert, while encouraging students to take responsibility for deciding appropriate action. They also open up conversations that may extend beyond their own classrooms. Teachers can further empower students by engaging them in the role of social critic through music composition or have students write program notes, opinion pieces, or blogs from a critical stance (Shaw, 2012).

When making curricular decisions, consider, value, and build on the diverse prior learning experiences of students. This can be as simple as knowing a little bit about every student’s background, such as if they are coming from another school, or if they have an interest in a particular area. Acknowledging and showing that you value what students are already bringing to the classroom is an important step in creating a classroom for social justice.

Many arts organizations include social justice as a part of the vision for their work. However, what constitutes social justice is oftentimes a theoretical idea rather than a clearly defined set of outcomes. When community projects, schools and arts organizations strive to address social justice through the arts, the reference is made to an umbrella idea that covers a host of unique inequities that affect highly individualized communities. Student choirs in schools are just one example that rely on marketing their broad focus on social justice in order to retain support. Many organizations rely on an assumption that the arts are uniquely qualified to address issues of social justice, and chorus is no different. Choral music making necessitates the creation of community and does so with the most raw, organic, and natural mechanism for artistic creation, which is the human voice.

Before any arts organization lays claim to work towards social justice, they must be able to convince themselves and others as to why their media is uniquely able to achieve such goals. In defining this for the choral community, choirs are uniquely inclusive, offer a common language for dialogue and create new opportunities for collective action. Chorus is inclusive because singing is the most organic means to create music, and has far fewer barriers to entry than most other communities. The common language spoken in this community is music that students sing. Music gives individuals the opportunity to communicate with others in a way that oftentimes can be more intimate, more meaningful, and more accessible than other social interactions. Because no students are turned away and communication is innate, unique communities form that naturally move together towards goals-often, the goal of musical excellence in a concert performance or competition. It is these characteristics that position choral music making as a unique opportunity to address issues of social injustice: Choirs are some of the strongest organic communities whose mindset tends to move together towards collective action.

With social justice and chorus, it is all about group work. Teachers instruct singers about balance, blend, hearing each other; and sharing a vision of working together in order to literally make the selections come alive. Choral students are taught that every voice matters, and that each individual is a “color,” essential to the completion of a painting on the choral pallet. Chorus is the only place where individuals can come together and share something that is totally unique (individual voices) with a group of people whose names may not even be known. Sharing something so personal (the individual unique voice), in addition to also being accepted, and valued for the contribution that that student is making, is social justice. Chorus is not just teaching singers about balance-it is about teaching them that everyone needs to be heard, and heard equally. When choral teachers teach blend, they inform students that these are the colors “coming together” on the canvas to form a perfect picture while creating the perfect tone. No single individual (color) should be heard above the others.

Singing together crosses all boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and even language. From grade school to high school, students are equipping themselves to find out who they are, and establish themselves in that identity. Their sense of self is always growing and changing, and during this time, egos become very fragile. It is important that students have a place where they can develop and feel valued and celebrated during this time.

According to Hoffman (2008), decades of research show that when parents are involved in their students’ education, students have higher grades, higher test scores, higher graduation rates, better school attendance, increased motivation, better self-esteem, lower rates of suspension, and fewer instances of violent behavior. In order to encourage parents to buy into teaching social justice in chorus, it requires that choral teachers have parents understand exactly how important their role is in having their students become successful in school. This approach can be modeled on Epstein’s (1995) six steps of parental involvement, which include:

  • Communicating- Establishing regular communication between home and choral activities is regular, two-way, and meaningful.
  • Parenting- Parenting skills being promoted, recognized, and supported by the teacher and the school.
  • Student Learning-Having parents play an integral role in assisting with student learning.
  • Volunteering- Parents are welcome, with support and assistance sought.
  • Decision-Making and Advocacy- Having parents become full partners in decisions affecting choral curriculum.
  • Collaboration with the community- Community resources are used to strengthen the program.

These structural components to engage parents and encourage buy in are essential to student success. Leading for social justice with parents must entail a proactive, honest and informed approach. In addition, the teacher must also be emotionally prepared to remain calm when confronted with irrational, ignorant, or mean parents and community members in conversation (Hoffman, 2008).

Dryfoos (1990), Kenny and Romano (2009), Lerner (1995), and Reiss and Price (1996) have suggested that the most effective, culturally relevant programs that are oriented towards social justice include targeting program participants in all aspects (planning, implementation, evaluation), from start to finish. Programs oriented towards social justice build on the strengths of the community and intervene with larger systems, in addition to targeting interventions to the individual participants. However, when social justice programs are successful in reducing symptoms but not in securing community buy in, it is not surprising that one may find ambivalence about regular participation, overall satisfaction or other indices of acceptance (Horne, Cornye).

Another way to create student buy in for social justice is to create opportunities for students’ voices to be heard. Students should be taught how to participate in a discussion. Teachers can encourage both sharing one’s own ideas and responding to the ideas of classmates. The teacher’s role is to use questioning that can help students make connections between the big ideas that inform the lesson content. In the choral classroom, taking the time to analyze the text how a piece of music could form a connection with the student’s reality. Classrooms can also provide time for collaboration toward a common goal. Students could be taught to be ‘academic siblings.’

Teachers can also assess materials in the classroom. Does the music, time-period, and other curricular materials present one specific narrative? If they do, revisions should be in place just to be sure that materials include examples from diverse aspects of society, including ethnicity, religion, language, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status, all presented in a non-stereotypical manner. (citations?)

To summarize, social justice is recognizing and acting upon the power that teachers have for making positive change. Teachers do this every day in many ways. In order to take that idea to the next level, choral teachers might include classroom practices that will make this dynamic explicit. That being said, it may be a good idea to give students opportunities for seeing how positive change happens and how they can be both actors and leaders in creating change. (citations?)

It is also important to note that many of the practices that demonstrate a social justice orientation are also reflective of best practices in teaching. Social justice is not just an ‘add on’ for classroom activities or just a “theme” to a concert. Teachers must remember to maintain high-quality content instruction and create a classroom with a social justice orientation. Also, a social justice orientation is not just appropriate for chorus, but for all classrooms. This isn’t something that just gets done in diverse classrooms, or classrooms that lack diversity, or urban classrooms — or any other special category of school. It is simply a way of teaching and being that supports high-level thinking and learning throughout our lives. Understanding the effects of teachers on student learning is vital. A teacher cannot teach under the assumption that “equal” means “the same.” Students come from numerous cultures, languages, lifestyles and values, and a monocultural framework is not a “one size fits all” that will meet all students’ needs.

Philosophical Perspective

While performance-based disciplines such as music education have unique capabilities to contribute to issues such as a radical social change, economic justice, and utopian cultural politics, music education philosophy often hinders the possibilities by presenting answers in ways that close dialogue, instead of addressing and exploring questions (Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith, 2008, xi). Viewed as a set of answers rather than a process of continually emerging questions, philosophy may lead to dogmatic adherence to pedagogical beliefs and methodological approaches. According to Bradley (2012), philosophy “colonizes” when it intimidates those that engage in critical thinking (p. 411). Bradley also points out that where philosophy is conceptualized and presented as a product, it is often assumed that only some people can think philosophically, while the majority requires philosophy to be done for them. Philosophy in music education can be conceived then as a verb, an action in which everyone concerned with music education at all levels should be engaged with. It has the capacity to revitalize and decolonize both thought and practice in music education.

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Social Justice in Music Education: Choral Music Educators. (2022, May 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/social-justice-in-music-education-choral-music-educators/

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