September 3rd, 2009

Making Books Sing: An Interview with Jenny Hartman

Popular alternative-certification programs like Teach for America have infused the country’s teaching force with young blood, but they are not the only option for young people interested in education.  Jenny HartmanSince graduating from Vassar in 2008, Jenny Hartman has been working in classrooms all over New York, with her guitar or ukulele in tow.  She works for a non-profit called Making Books Sing, which brings music and theater to schools where arts programming leaves something to be desired.

Read on to find out more about the challenges and rewards of arts education, and make sure to listen to Jenny singing one of the songs she uses as a teaching artist (you can listen at bottom of post).  She wrote it, with lots of help from the little one you’ll hear singing at the beginning of the track.

The Interview

Tell me briefly what you do for a living.

I work for a fantastic arts and education nonprofit organization called Making Books Sing.  As the Associate Director of Education, I work as a teaching artist and administrator, and am responsible for helping with tasks such as managing partnerships with schools, designing curriculum, doing assessment, grant writing etc.  This past school year I taught in over twenty classrooms in nine public schools, one kitchen in a homeless shelter, and in a family’s living room working with a group of home-schooled children.

Making Books Sing trains its teaching artists to be able to guide a class of students through the process of adapting a children’s book into a play or a musical.   This process can take 8-12 weekly visits in a classroom, and the series of sessions is called a residency.

Teaching artists lead improvisational-theater, song-writing and play-writing activities to explore plot structure, emotion and character, conflict, resolution, song writing, editing and revision.  More than just learning how to be “actors”, the students are learning about storytelling, being heard, building an ensemble and gaining confidence.

What led you to this kind of work, over other more traditional teaching work?

Last summer, right after I graduated from college, I was the intern for SAFE (Shelters, Art, Family, Education), another one of Making Books Sing’s programs.  SAFE is designed to engage homeless families in creative experiences. The visual art, song-writing and theater activities I facilitated in four different Bronx shelters were such great experiences.  I learned about the power of art and music as tools for building trust and community.  By the end of the summer, I was hired as a song-writing teaching artist.

I have memories of staying late after the workshops were over to continue singalongs, or to finish reading aloud a book that had particularly engaged mothers and daughters.  I was especially moved because the women who ended up staying late were often the same women who, at the beginning of the summer, were reluctant to be involved at all. The songs we (the residents, the staff within the shelter, the art therapist and art teacher I worked with) wrote together were real acts of sharing.

Vassar had a teacher preparation program for undergrads, so after interning for SAFE, I went back to Vassar to do student teaching in Poughkeepsie to complete my certification requirements.  Student teaching was a very important experience for me in terms of learning classroom management techniques and lesson-planning.   But after being a student-teacher, I was craving work similar to the job I had with SAFE.

How is singing and playing music with kids different than working with them in other ways?  Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to connect to students through music, and what you like about it.

I’m kind of a theatrical, high-energy camp-counselor-type who plays guitar and loves community-building activities.  I’ve learned how to bring play into the realm of academic experience.  I love work where, as the “teacher” I am never simply transmitting knowledge into student’s brains.  This is where music comes in.  In music and arts education, students are encouraged to voice their original thoughts and build on each other’s ideas.

Making music with kids has become key to my teaching process.  Whether I’m teaching kids math, soccer, cooking, or even how to be patient and quiet, I am still going to be using music and theater.  I think it would be really valuable if all pre-service teachers received arts education training.

I have learned that music and theater can act as powerful classroom management tools.  They should not just be considered frivolous fun.

Tell me a little bit about the specific challenges of this kind of work.

When I think of this past year of teaching, what pops in my head as a challenge is the commute to the schools.  Each school would be at least an hour and a half commute from my house or the office, because the schools that are most attracted to our programming are schools in the outer-boroughs that lack arts programming and need alternate strategies to help students struggling with reading and language development.

Challenges include potential tension with cooperating teachers, disillusionment with aspects of the public school system, differentiating lessons to constantly involve all students, and figuring out how to gather evidence of student learning.  For the most part, the challenge is not the students.  In schools where creativity is pushed out, and curriculums have become militarized, the students are hungry for a kinesthetic approach to learning, and the process of creating a play together is very positive.

What’s next for you in education?  What are your goals?

I am not sure what is in the future—I just know I have to get my Masters and I have to remain involved with arts and education.

Listen to Jenny sing with kids:


Learn more about Making Books Sing:

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