From Erie Philharmonic Long Term Residency Director Sarah Lee
“Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child,
and one teacher can change the world.”
- Malala Yousafzai
It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to sit down and try to describe what the past 6 months have been like for all of us involved in the Erie Philharmonic’s Long-Term Residency. Starting at the end of August last fall, 60 days seemed to stretch on for such a long time; and yet here we find ourselves wrapping up the final day of the program. What I do know is this: when I read the quote spoken by Malala Yousafzai, above, I am reminded of just how great the impact of education is, how it is a vehicle for change in a community. I believe strongly that music has been this vehicle for education throughout the entire residency for these preschool students. Let me explain!
I will never forget the first day we (my co-teacher James Reinarz and I) walked into the preschool to begin the first day of our residency: it was the third day of preschool for almost all of the 50-60 children we would work with. What we now understand is that it wasn’t just the first day of preschool for many of these kids; it was a first American experience for the many refugee children attending this school. Many of the kids had not been in the country longer than a few months, weeks, or even days. We met children that first day of the residency from all over the world: the middle east, Africa, eastern Europe, Mexico, and of course the many refugee children from Nepal. We didn’t know that day that these children had probably never been in a building like this before, that they had possibly never been alone in an English-speaking setting before. That many of them were absolutely terrified and confused about what was going on, so much so that a few couldn’t even make it to the bathroom in time (it was an event-filled first day!). Sincemany refugee families don’t sign up early enough for us to get this information before the year begins (as they don’t understand how the system works), we didn’t know any of this important information ahead of time; we only realized as the morning went on, with much surprise and no preparation for it, that many (many!) of these children did not speak English, and that they were scared. What a surprise it is to walk into a classroom of 18 children where 16 of them don’t speak English!
But let me tell you something you probably already know: music is a universal language. Of course everyone knows this! But I wish I could explain to you how real this was for us on a weekly basis, how we were able to watch kids transform from quiet, fearful children that didn’t understand a word of English to dancing, expressive, creative, singing, children that soaked up English like sponges and loved to laugh. How some children (right here in Erie) have such disruptive home lives that the only way they know how to react is aggressively or loudly or with tears, but that “music class” was something that excited them, so they chose to make good (and difficult) behavior choices so that they could participate. The incredible break-though moments when a child, who hasn’t said a word in English (or any other language!) for the entire four months we’ve known him all of a sudden starts singing. Such joy! The moment when a child who we thought wasn’t able to understand anything we’ve taught so far is suddenly able to name all four instrumental families of the orchestra. Or a child who is so tired from whatever is going on at home that he can barely make it a minute (every class) without falling asleep is able to echo a melody, matching pitch perfectly with his beautiful voice and a big smile.
I can of course inundate you with the data that shows how successful the program was - yes the children grew in the many core standards taughtin the curriculum according to our assessments, and yes they all expanded their musical knowledge and appreciation; they may even be able to name more musical instruments than you! But since you weren’t able to be there with us every day to know and love these kids, I hope this is a small picture of just how big this program was, just how important it is for the future of our city, and just how special it was for all of us with the Erie Philharmonic. The work we were able to do hand in hand with the amazing staff and teachers at St. Benedict’s will give these kids many advantages as they move forward in their education to be successful, advantages that weren’t even a possibility before they came to the school or to this country.
Thanks so much to all of you who supported, both financially and with encouragement! I hope you will consider supporting us for the first time or again as we move to impact new preschool this upcoming fall!