Teacher sings mentor's praises

Peabody program lets music instructor share skill with pupils, peers

January 26, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Second-grader Shakira Rawles has fled the circle with a whimper, her lip busted accidentally by an overly animated classmate at the combined Bay-Brook Elementary School and Harbor View School in Brooklyn.

Now, just seven students sit on the blue rug, eyes fixed on music teacher Rebecca Ludwig as she leads them in singing an old sailor song.

While Shakira pouts and dabs at her mouth, Vicki Downer, a visiting teacher from Baltimore's Peabody Preparatory, whispers comfort into the girl's ear. She assures her she'll be fine, compliments her singing and gently prods her to rejoin the group soon.

"Kids often learn that if they're emotionally hurt, they can just sit out of life," Downer explained after class, as Ludwig nodded and made a mental note of the advice. "We need to put the responsibility on kids."

Downer is Ludwig's mentor, assigned to help her become a better music instructor as part of a 2-year-old program designed to bolster the music programs in public schools.

"The idea is to spread the methodology, the philosophy and the expertise throughout a larger number of schools in the system by mentoring people who are already doing the teaching," said Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute, which includes Peabody Preparatory school.

Expansion planned

Next year, more city elementary school music teachers will receive the same kind of one-on-one counseling. A grant of $100,000 over three years from the Texaco Foundation, along with other private donations, will allow Downer and a second Peabody instructor, Laura Garvin, to advise up to 30 teachers citywide.

The program's planned expansion -- Downer coached 11 teachers during last year's pilot -- comes as Baltimore schools plan for new state requirements that all Maryland students participate in fine arts programs.

Polishing the arts program

Sirota chairs a committee advising the Baltimore school system on how to improve its lackluster fine arts program.

About one-third of the city's 123 public elementary schools offer no formal music program, and just 15 have instrumental music, said Jill Warzer, the Baltimore school system's music specialist.

The city's offerings pale in comparison to those of wealthier districts.

In Anne Arundel County, elementary pupils from grades one through five receive one hour of general music instruction per week. Beginning in third grade, students have the option to learn a string instrument.

Decades ago, Baltimore City schools were a model of music instruction. Music classes were widely available and an accepted part of the curriculum. A shifting emphasis to science and technology in the 1950s began to change all that, Sirota said.

"Now, we have two generations of students and educators who have never experienced what a really coherent and substantive program in the arts can do to help a school system," Sirota said.

Those benefits, he said, include improved reading, language and math skills, as well as lower absenteeism rates and better work habits.

A wholistic approach

"We're not parochial about this," said Warzer, the city's music specialist. "We're interested in the whole child."

As such, Downer does more than suggest songs and comment on lessons; she also stresses the need to understand that students do not check their emotional baggage at school lockers.

Many of Ludwig's students at the Brooklyn school are poor or live with one parent. Those are ingredients that can spark developmental problems. Some joined the school at mid-year.

Adding to Ludwig's challenge, she teaches special needs students alongside other pupils.

A job stress-buster

Ludwig, who moved to Baltimore last year from rural Hollidaysburg, Pa., population 5,624, credits Downer with helping her control her job stress.

"There have been days when I thought, `How am I going to get through this?' " she said. "Then I say, `Vicki is coming.' "

The seeds of the mentor program were planted 16 years ago when the Peabody Institute, the Mount Vernon conservatory with world-famous faculty and illustrious alumni, began an outreach program by placing a teacher in Robert W. Coleman Elementary School near Druid Hill Park. All along, Peabody Preparatory Dean Fran G. Zarubick hoped to shift the focus to mentoring.

"This is a dream come true for me," she said.

Ludwig was so eager to work with Downer, the chairwoman of Peabody's Early Childhood Department, that they huddled in August, before the school year began.

A day in class

On Friday, they met at Bay-Brook for the tenth time, before Ludwig's bimonthly session with the second-graders. Downer sat off to the side, taking notes.

"Hel-lo, everyone," Ludwig sang as the class began.

"Hel-lo, Mrs. Ludwig," came the sing-song response.

For the next 50 minutes, the students sang and danced. In one exercise, percussion instruments played on a tape recorder while students pretended to produce the crash of the cymbals and the roll of the drums.

Then when Ludwig sang, "There was cheese, cheese, walking on its ", students took the cue and shouted back: "Knees!"

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