In Spring 2023, Allyn Phelps (Assistant Teaching Professor of Music) and CVPA music education majors, Steven Brum, Vanessa Cabral, Katie McGann, and Bronwyn Pearson joined the Our Sisters’ School, an independent, tuition-free middle school for girls in New Bedford, to volunteer with the school’s music program.
In Fall of 2021, Sarah Herman, the head of the school, reached out to Professor Phelps about the possibility of a collaboration between CVPA music majors and their middle school students. Instead of having one music teacher for the school that rotates among all the different classes and grade levels, Our Sisters’ brings in multiple music teachers that offer a variety of musical options from which the students can choose: dance, sound producing, singing, songwriting, or lessons on an instrument (handheld drums, percussion, steel drums, ukulele, guitar, flute, saxophone, and clarinet).
CVPA students Steven, Vanessa, Katie, and Bronwyn are taking a course on secondary music education methods with Professor Phelps. In that class, they learn about music teaching and learning with adolescent children. The class focuses on many theories behind learning and teaching, and, above all, it gives an opportunity to students to put these theories into practice. To pass this class and for eligibility for an initial Massachusetts teaching license in music education, students must complete several hours of school observations in addition to regular class work. In fall 2022, the students observed music teachers in the New Bedford Public Schools. This semester, Professor Phelps tried something different. Instead of simply watching and taking notes, Our Sisters' encouraged the UMass students to jump in and start teaching. Each student is actively involved in helping under the guidance of an Our Sisters’ music teacher, as well as independently leading portions of lessons.
So far, the collaboration has been fruitful on many levels. Having the opportunity to get their feet wet as novice teachers is unique. Ordinarily most music education students go through traditional music programs, with band, chorus, orchestra, and jazz. Most students are quite familiar with making music in large groups of people led by a conductor. While these traditional practices have proven to be useful, they don’t always give students access to the breadth of musical skills needed for successful teaching in educational settings. Indeed, according to Professor Phelps “there are many other ways to engage in creating and teaching music. Our Sisters’ provides another model of music education where students are in small groups and have a substantial choice over how they craft their music education. For UMass students, it helps open the imagination of what music education could look like, and it's a place to experiment with different teaching techniques and approaches.”
It is also important to note that Our Sisters’ School is committed to equity, justice, and belonging. As a professor, Phelps always tries to forefront equity, justice, and belonging in his lessons so that music education students leave UMass Dartmouth with an eye towards creating inclusive, engaging spaces “where each student is accepted in their whole being and doesn't have to check core parts of themselves at the door in service of fitting into some arbitrary music class culture.” Indeed, “Music can be a practice of freedom,” according to Phelps. He adds, “Music can be a place to belong. But it can also be a practice of conformity and rejection. We must work and keep reminding ourselves that equity, justice, and belonging in music spaces is not a destination—we never arrive at the perfect classroom—but we are on a journey and striving towards something more equitable and just.” It is crucial for the CVPA music majors to hear this message in their theory-laded college classroom and then to see it practiced at Our Sisters’. Phelps hopes that this collaboration will help “CVPA music graduates question the status quo in music education and stand up to injustice in the countless forms it takes.”