As a child of lifelong educators, I spent the entirety of my time in high school and college stating that I never wanted to be a teacher. I’d seen the challenges they faced when dealing with students, parents, colleagues, and the systemic pressures from the education system at-large, and I didn’t want any of that. When pursuing my degree, I was entirely focused on my artistry—teaching could only be a distraction to my focus on music.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic changed my artistry path, as it did for probably every other artist. The pandemic inspired me to look into other interests and pursue unique ways that the arts could be incorporated into my life. I spent my final semesters at Muhlenberg College honing my vocal technique while simultaneously researching education inequities and child development—another passion reignited by years of virtual arts education. After these studies, and with the guidance of some ArtistYear and Muhlenberg alumni, it became clear to me that a service year with ArtistYear was the right fit. The only thing I would have to forfeit was my teenage belief that “I would NEVER be a teacher!”
My service through ArtistYear has helped me redefine what it means to be a teacher—or my preferred term—a teaching artist. When first applying to ArtistYear, I envisioned that I would be stationed with a music teacher in a music classroom all day, assisting or co-teaching music lessons based on my partner teacher’s curriculum. Being a Resident Teaching Artist (RTA) through ArtistYear requires adapting your view of both your own artistry and your own teaching style to fit the needs and interests of your school community. My service site, Bayard Taylor Elementary, required a completely different approach than what my imagination initially offered me.
Taylor Elementary serves approximately 200 students aged PreK-5th grade in North Philadelphia. At the beginning of the year when I discussed the needs and expectations of what I could do at Taylor, their principal, Mr. Laver told me that he wanted every student to have something—whether that is an art form, a sport, or a subject—that motivates them to learn each day. Because Taylor also doesn’t currently have a full-time general music instructor, I had to rework my expectations and offer much broader learning opportunities than I initially expected when entering my service year. The first couple months at Taylor were spent learning about the school culture and the interests of students, and then with the help of school staff, I created an action plan for incorporating the arts into different spaces of the school. As the Music and Theatre RTA at Taylor, I get to spend my day on my feet, moving from class to class as I serve students by teaching a variety of performance arts skills.
On a typical day, my morning almost always starts with one of my push-in music classes. I independently lead general music for all of Taylor’s PreK-1st grade classes, where we learn about the fundamentals of understanding music while also practicing music appreciation. The best part about teaching music classes is the variety: one week we could be singing protest songs for Black History Month, the next week we are line dancing to Dolly Parton. After music classes, I teach 4th & 5th grade students in small (four or five student) pull-out groups where we do Reader’s Theater. In Reader’s Theater, we practice public speaking and expression while also learning about new subjects. Reader’s Theater allows my students to encounter a variety of topics; we’ve looked at texts including outer space, historical figures, and most recently have been reading the original Brothers Grimm version of Puss in Boots. Lunch periods are spent leading music literacy lessons, where small groups of students from 2nd-5th grade opt out of recess once a week to learn about the piano and reading music. I wrap up each day with after school clubs that I either lead or assist with, including 1st-2nd & 3rd-5th grade drama clubs, the Taylor Community Dance & Music Ensemble, and even a yoga club.
Aside from all of my regularly scheduled classes, I also get to assist with other events that are integral to the school community and the students’ arts experiences. In January we took our drama clubs to a live, professional performance of Charlotte’s Web after touring the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, all hosted by our club sponsor ASAP Drama. Students left their first live professional theater experience in awe of the work put in by the performers, and with many questions that I had the pleasure of answering on the bus ride home. I’ve assisted with school assemblies by helping students prepare different presentations to the school. One of my favorite memories will be of teaching the students the Eagles’ Fight Song in preparation for the Superbowl. Students were already very excited for the Super Bowl, but working on the fight song with them so they were ready to perform it for our whole school elevated their sense of community spirit.
Participating in a service year has given me the space to identify my own purpose for teaching music, and how my teaching and my artistry are connected. We must continue bringing music and other art forms into the classroom because they provide a space for us to express in our everyday life. Each week, I spend time with my students listening, dancing, and singing music that brings our voices together and gives us the time to feel the joy of being together. Even on tough days, we still get to have moments where we experience a little bit of relief by experiencing how music surrounds us each day. I believe that one of the most valuable things I’m teaching my students is to simply acknowledge the presence that music has in our daily life and recognize that life would be just a little duller without it. Now I realize that without teaching, my life would be a little duller too.
Abigail Sherman is originally from Red Oak, IA, where performing with her family in their small-town theater led to a passion for connecting with communities through music. Abigail graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Music, Theatre, and Psychology. In her music, Abigail’s primary studies are in opera and musical theater, but she loves to learn about other musical styles, with other interests including improvisational jazz, renaissance & baroque singing, and choral music. She is serving as an ArtistYear AmeriCorps Resident Teaching Artist in Philadelphia, PA.