Dear Senator Feinstein,
First of all, I would like to thank you for your many years of public service on behalf of the citizens of California. You have been a trailblazer and a strong advocate for progressive causes. Please accept my gratitude and thanks for all you have done and continue to do.
I am writing to express my grave concern about two of the President-Elect's cabinet choices: Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions. I would strongly urge you to do everything in your power to block these nominations.
I am a teacher of teachers. At CSU-Long Beach, I train future choral music teachers to lead and inspire musical growth in K-12 schools. Ms. DeVos is an illogical and dangerous choice for Secretary of Education. As written by my friend and mentor, Dr. Mitchell Robinson, "The news that Donald Trump has named Betsy DeVos as his choice for Secretary of Education is just another brick in the wall for Mr. Trump’s plan to turn the US into a giant flea market, selling off the bits and pieces of a once great nation for parts to the highest bidders." DeVos has zero degrees in education and has never attended a public school! DeVos supports voucher programs that would draw much needed funds away from public schools to allow students to attend local private and/or charter schools. As has been shown in recent studies, public schools are not "failing." But if we continue to deny them much needed financial resources, they may begin to. Education is not a business. Education is not about the bottom line or the highest bidder. Education is about relationships and people and love and passion-- things I believe Ms. DeVos knows little or nothing about.
Equally as dangerous is the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. As noted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, "Sessions has also been a virulent opponent of the dignity and freedom of LGBT people for decades. As Alabama Attorney General in the 1990s, Sessions worked to deny funding to Gay-Straight Alliances at state universities because of what he called LGBT people’s 'illegal, sexually deviate activities.'" Mr. Sessions is an extreme, dangerous choice to serve in the Trump administration. If Mr. Trump has a Mr. Sessions' "rubber stamp," there is know telling what irreparable damage may be done to the struggle for civil rights that has brought about so many progressive changes in recent years.
We need to move forward, not backward. Ms. DeVos and Mr. Sessions would come to Washington with dangerous extreme views, wreaking havoc on the lives of many ordinary Americans. Please, Senator, do everything you can to block these nominations.
Joshua Palkki, PhD
I sit on the rickety, creaky bed in my cabin with reasonably reliable hot water and I plan for rehearsal. I want to be my best self for these students—these amazing, bright, talented, funny, unique, kind, musical students. These young artists who have made the trek to the north woods to sing while their counterparts act, dance, paint, sculpt, draw, play—create.
“The opposite of war isn’t peace—it’s creation” – Rent (Jonathan Larson)
These words seem apropos as I walk through the woods back to the faculty village. Behind me, drawing students are working on still life outside their building. In the jazz bowl to my right, I hear phenomenal young jazz musicians learning to play as a big band. In the unit to my left, two young violinists practice a duet. The cacophony of sound around here is music to my ears. Beautiful a-synchronicity .
Today I told the students once again how much I love that they are so dedicated to their art and to creativity. They are “my people.” I wish I had had the courage to go to a fine arts camp when I was young. As the scared, shy, gay kid from small mining town, I could have used a good dose of arts camp. I thrive here. My heart is full and my senses stimulated.
Yesterday I was getting a ride to rehearsal and practicing my princess wave out of my colleague’s car window. As we drove past the art colony, one of the boys shouted, “I love you!” “I love you more!” I shouted back.
Yesterday in the middle of rehearsal two boys were showing each other some dance moves.
…Only at fine arts camp…
…a place where these kids can just be themselves. They can be creative. They can be fabulous. They can be a bit “out there.” And they’re OK. They’re sheltered. They’re protected. They’re loved.
This camp is a near perfect amalgamation of my past and my present. This part of Michigan is gorgeous—not unlike the north woods in which I was raised. The natural beauty of the place is too easy for me to take for granted. I write this on the beach on Blue Lake. There’s light cloud cover and a lovely breeze coming at me. Having this incredible collection of artist-teachers and students in a rustic setting not altogether far from my hometown is such a strange and fabulous anomaly.
My heart is full and a strong dose of my belief in humanity is restored.
Today the clouds never parted in upper Michigan. All day a grey, eerie feeling hung in the air--
and the weather outside mirrored how I’ve been feeling. Yesterday’s events in Orlando are being churned through the 24 hour news cycle and the details are everywhere. The major news organizations have descended upon Orange Avenue and the names of the victims are being displayed online and on TV.
Different waves of emotions have washed over me since I heard the news yesterday morning. I am angry. I am sad. I am disappointed. I am frustrated. I am confused. I am growing cynical because I know that the gun laws are not going to change. I know that radical extremism won’t be tamed, and I know that the hatred the fuels homophobia and transphobia is alive and well in far too many people.
Most of these victims were in their 20s—just starting out in life. Just trying to figure out their next steps or lay down roots or navigate coming out. Out for a night at the bar. A night mirroring countless nights I’ve had in my life. And for these people, this seemingly ordinary night out ended up being filled with unimaginable terror.
LGBT rights have become the focal point of the struggle for civil rights in the 21st century. We have seen marriage equality become the law of the land in all 50 states. We have witnessed the Obama administration stand up for the rights of trans students. We have seen LGBT people elected to public office at local, state, and national levels. And each of these victories has ignited more hatred on the far right—inspired more vitriol in those who are convinced that we are sick and wrong.
And what do we do? How do we continue to walk through the world knowing that, at some level, we’re increasingly less safe as queer folks? How do we continue to fight in the face of a deck rigged against us?
When I was a little boy I wanted to be an archaeologist. In high school I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to be, so I entered college as a double major in musical theatre and music education. I soon realized that dancing and acting are not strengths I possess. So, I completed my music education degree and headed out into the world as a public school choral music educator. I always thought my path would lead me to a D.M.A. (doctoral of musical arts) degree in choral conducting so I could continue to conduct and teach choral music/conducting at the college/university level.
My years in the classroom combined with my experience earning a master’s degree in choral conducting made me realize how much I love mentoring preservice teachers (undergraduate students) and how passionate I am about preparing future music teachers. So, when considering doctoral programs, the D.M.A. no longer seemed like the right fit, because it is a performance-based degree that would primarily provide training in music theory, music history, performance practice, and conducting. The Ph.D (doctor of philosophy) in music education, on the other hand, is a research degree that leads to a position in which one is a teacher of teachers. Luckily, I attend a university that enables a large amount of collaboration between music education and choral conducting (I’ve elected a cognate, or secondary area of study, in choral conducting).
The Ph.D is one of the oldest degrees granted, and is primarily a research degree. The core courses of the Ph.D program I’m currently in discuss philosophy, quantitative and qualitative research methods, measurement, and the psychology of music. This is all very different from my master’s program, which was very hands-on and performance-based. I came in with virtually no research experience and a lot of anxiety about the amount of reading and writing required by the Ph.D courses.
So I spent much of my first year being afraid. Afraid I was trying to be something I wasn’t. Afraid I was “just” a choral director trying to be a researcher. Afraid I will never be able to understand advanced statistics (if I’m being really honest I still have this fear). Afraid my writing isn’t good enough. Afraid I wouldn’t know what to study (or that the things I wanted to study had already been discussed). Afraid I would choose the “wrong” topics to research…. And the list goes on.
Luckily, I attend a university where I work with incredibly supportive faculty members and have a phenomenally supportive group of classmates. And, through my coursework and with many chats with eminently patient faculty members, I started to do some research, and started to put my work “out there” via conference session submissions and article submissions. And now, a year later, things feel a bit more natural. I still have some of the same fears I had before, but the act of doing research, reading and writing academic literature makes it a bit less frightening.
And, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I have some sure footing academically. I am doing research I care about and think is important. I am especially grateful (and, I won’t lie, slightly terrified) to be engaged in LGBTQ research. After many years of my own struggles with how public to be about my gay identity, I am standing up in very public forums and encouraging others in the music education field to have an open dialogue about LGBTQ issues in music education. This has been at once terrifying, exhilarating, and ultimately, quite healing.
It’s a funny thing-- how doing these difficult things: reading dense literature, collecting and coding data, then synthesizing all this-- has helped me calm down (a bit). Helped me realize that the work I’m engaged in is important, but it’s not rocket science. Helped me realize that there are other people out there who care about the topics I care about. Helped me realize that there’s such beauty in connecting with others in the music education community. And somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention, I’ve begun to find my “research voice.” It’s definitely still in its infancy. I’ve got a lot to learn. (I’ve got even more to read!), but I feel like I’m on a good path (I’ve given up thinking there is a “right” path). And for all of you who have helped me on this journey (you know who you are): thank you. I’m so incredibly grateful.
Full disclosure: this post is very much a product of my upbringing and my public school experience as a student. I am from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a fascinating and greatly misunderstood place. The UP has cultivated a culture unlike the rest of the state. Most “Yoopers” (yes, we do refer to ourselves this way) have never been to Detroit or Ann Arbor and don’t care to go. Even the story of how the UP became part of Michigan is quite humorous (the Michigan territory lost a battle with the Ohio territory and received the UP as a consolation prize). Culturally, we’re more similar to Wisconsin than the Lower Peninsula as evidenced by the multitudes of passionate Green Bay Packer fans (my father included).
My town has around 6,000 residents and is located 13 miles west of Marquette, the largest city in the UP and home to Northern Michigan University. In this way it is fairly unique as far as UP towns go as many are rural and very remote (consider Engadine, for example… where does one buy groceries?!).
The Ishpeming Public School district is where I started my schooling. My mother, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother all went through this school system. In the mid-1970’s, folks from Ishpeming township and surrounding rural areas broke off from Ishpeming to create their own school district (N.I.C.E. community schools), where I finished my schooling (I transferred to Westwood High School in 11th grade). Ishpeming High School once had over 300 students per graduating class. With the advent of the N.I.C.E. district and the uncertain nature of the local iron mining industry, enrollment began to decline. As the wealthier families moved to Ishpeming township and points west, the demographics and size of the Ishpeming district also began to change (IHS's graduating class is down to 60). Several years back, the district was forced to close C.L. Phelps Middle School (see picture below) and moved all middle school students to the Central School building (attached to IHS). All elementary students now attend Birchview Elementary, the only remaining K-4 school in the district.
Small districts like Ishpeming face a multitude of issues: educators who teach 2-4 subjects a day, shrinking budgets, outdated facilities (the IHS pool is a truly frightening place), cut backs in curricular offerings (IHS eliminated their visual art program), an aging work force, and the list goes on.
Those from outside the community often suggest consolidation with other districts (The Republic-Michigamme district just west of N.I.C.E. is an incredibly small district that has gone to a four day week to save money and stay afloat). What's difficult to understand about a town like Ishpeming is how important the high school is to the community. (My 83 year old grandmother still has breakfast with her graduating class on a regular basis!). High school basketball and football games are major civic events. High school sports players are local celebrities in a way. The pride of being an Ishpeming Hematite runs deep.... and the thought of consolidating with a neighboring district (while it may make financial sense) would be unheard of to most. Also, community members are well aware than in any consolidation, many teachers and support staff would be out of work. So, small districts keep on trying to maintain business as usual. My sense is that eventually there will be no choice. And this is likely not a bad thing in the long run, especially for the students.
This is not a new problem for Michigan school districts. Consider this story from 2002 and this report from the Michigan State University College of Education, and this brief story from 2011. It's a difficult issue and one not getting much attention, especially in wake of huge stories like Detroit's struggle with bankruptcy. It's not a sexy story and it's a complicated issue with even more complicated solutions.
As an educator and future teacher educator, it's a fascinating question to think about districts like this since large urban and suburban districts have been a constant in my life for the past decade (a constant in most of our lives I'd wager). How do we encourage future teachers to work for small, rural districts? Should we? Experiences in rural communities is outside the realm of experience of many Michigan undergraduates. Perhaps one point of influence I'll have at MSU is to make people aware that places like Ishpeming exist.
The longer I spend in the K-12 classroom the more I think that bullying is the single largest problem in American education today.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the documentary Bully on Netflix. I sat and wept watching stories of kids in rural America dealing with hatred, isolation, anger, and fear. These kids are just trying to discover and express who they really are and facing daily abuse for it.
One responsibility I have as a middle school teacher at my current (high-end suburban private) school is to present twice a year at 7th and 8th grade chapel. A couple of weeks ago, I told the students about experiences I had with bullying beginning in 7th grade when a boy came up to me in home ec. class and said, "everyone thinks you're gay." It all went downhill from there. There was much teasing, taunting, and some pushing (I was lucky). By sophomore year of high school I felt completely isoated and ended up trasferring schools (a decision that changed my life for the better for many reasons). As a freshman in college, I ended up with a homophobic roommate and had to move into a different dorm. As a sophomore in college, I ended up with another homophobic roommate and had to move dorm rooms. As a public school teacher in California, I got called "faggot" multiple times a week at my urban middle school of 1,100 6th-8th graders. Bullying has long been a part of my life. How does it end? How can we eradicate this hatred from our schools? Kids can't function at school if they don't feel safe being who they are.
Adolescents feel the need to put each other down as a way to feel better about themselves. How is this culture created in our schools? How can a school tackle this issue? I've heard horror stories about schools trying "zero tolerance" policies that severely punish relatively minor offenses. In most schools (in my limited experience), the problem is a lack of buy-in from the whole school community. How many teachers in America hear "faggot" being used as a durragatory term and never do anything about it? We need to equip teachers with clear boundaries and strategies for talking with students about using foul, offensive language. As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper about school violence and found that verbal bullying is a form of "low level violence" that is often an indicator of future more serious violence. I believe this to be true. It's conditioning-- if a kid can call another kid "faggot" within earshot of another teacher and nothing happens, they'll do it again... and then to more kids. If a kid can call fifteen kids at their school "faggot" (and get away with it), maybe they'll start pushing kids into lockers or tripping kids in the hallway (methinks the hallway and the school yard are where most bullying occurs). It escalates from there.
What terrifies me is that in schools like the one I taught at in California, there are far bigger fish to fy to than one kid calling another a name. Administrators were dealing with gang fights, drug dealing, weapons, and a myriad of other challenging issues. Bullying goes to the bottom of the list.
This is a huge issue and I don't know how we tackle it. I do believe it needs to be a top-down decision in K-12 schools. Administrators need to be able to speak openly about bullying (not shying away from using words with their faculty that may make some folks uncomfortable). We need to let teachers know that (no matter what their religious affiliation or personal beliefs about homosexuality), they must intervene when they hear hateful words. There must be consequences. And we must teach our adolescents to respect and celebrate one another's differences.
Side note: I saw the cherry blossoms at the tidal basin this week! Tuesday I took public transit to school and headed down on my way home. It was breathtaking. I'm so lucky to live in DC. What an amazing city.
Today, I drank coffee and finally finished edits on the article based on my master's thesis project. It's entitled The Influence of the Kalevala on Contemporary Finnish Choral Music. I absolutely loved the process of researching and writing my thesis back in 2011. Briefly, the Kalevala is a 22,000-line epic folk poem published in the early nineteenth century. It's a written transcription of ancient runic texts and melodies collected from Finns in the countryside. Finland needed something to unify its Finnish speaking populace as nearly seven centuries of Swedish and then Russian rule had nearly obliterated authentic Finnish language and culture. Several modern composers (as well as Jean Sibelius, Finland's most famous and well-known composer) have drawn on runic singing/poetry traditions in their modern compositions. The thesis (now article) explores works by Pekka Kostiainen, Jean Sibelius, Juha Hilander, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. This morning I submitted the article to the Choral Journal. I very much hope it gets picked up for publication.
Now onto find new topics for research and writing!!
A day in the life...
I am a middle school choir and handbells teacher. My day is spent playing piano, waving my arms, and running around like a crazy person. I love my job. Here's an anatomy of a typical day for me:
6:50 a.m. Leave home. Commute to school via the George Washington Parkway, where I drive along the Potomac River and have views of the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, and Georgetown University.
7:15 a.m. Arrive at school. Check email, take care of last-minute details for Community Sing.
8:15 a.m. Community Sing. This event happens four times a year and involves the student body, faculty, staff, and parents all singing together. Yesterday I was the emcee. Great fun ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in three parts sounded amazing).
9:20 a.m. 7/8 Women's Choir. Among the pieces we're working on is "A World We Cannot See" by Jim Papoulis, a new commission we're part of through Chorus America. The girls adore the piece, as do I.
10:10 a.m. Fifth Grade Choir. These kids are hysterical. So much fun.
11:00 a.m. Check email, last minute preparation for the rest of the teaching day.
11:10 a.m. Lunch
11:15 Fire Drill (which just happens to be during the 15 minutes I have to eat lunch)
11:25 Quickly scarf down remainder of lunch.
11:30 Fourth Grade recess duty
12:20 7/8 Men's Choir. We're working on two Laura Farnell pieces (love her stuff!) including "She Walks in Beauty," one of the greatest pieces I've taught yet.
1:05 Sixth Grade Choir
1:50 7/8 Handbells. We're playing a transcription of "Clocks" by Coldplay. It's hip.
2:30 Check email, prepare for Music Man rehearsal
3:30 My colleague stopped by with her two year old daughter. So cute!
4:15 Music Man rehearsal
6:25 Depart Norwood
7-8:15 p.m. gym
8:30 Dinner/finish up re-arrangement of "Lida Rose" for Music Man
9:00 Catch up news and send a couple of personal e-mails
All in a days work! It is crazy to me how different my day is from someone who works in an office. I spend my day making music and laughing with wonderful, creative kids. I am an extremely lucky man.
This is the future home of my thoughts on various topics, mostly relating to choral music and music education.
Current projects you'll likely be hearing about:
-I'm adapting my master's thesis into an article I'll be submitting to the Choral Journal. It's about the influence of the Kalevala (Finland's 27,000 line epic folk poem) on select 20th century Finnish choral music
-I'm writing a response to an article in the December 2012 Music Educators Journal about El Sistema.
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment section of this blog. Thanks for reading!
I sing. I conduct. I teach. I read. I love argyle. I wear mismatched socks. I drink a lot of coffee. I run. I want to make beautiful music always.