The Community College and the Educational Assistant

October 1, 1972

Next door to the International Student Center, where the record player runs full time with gamelan orchestras and African drums, where students in dashikis lounge beside students in turbans or saris, where laughter is as likely to punctuate conversations in Urdu as in Japanese—next to that center is the large music room. Its windows overlook the swings of a playground for small children and a blue-and-red geodesic dome. Inside the large classroom, more than thirty women of various ages, shapes, and sizes combine forces (rhythm instruments, singers, and actors) to perform all the verses of "Over in the Meadow" (. . . "lived an old Mother toad and her little toady One").

"Jump, said the Mother," sang one group.

"I jump, said the One," sang another group, and a giggling grandmother hopped happily across the front of the room in imitation of a baby toad. The class finished the song, all ten verses, with ten different animal imitations, breathless but glowing. The course called Music for Children, PCA 505, at Staten Island Community College of the City University of New York, was in full swing.

Staten Island Community College serves its community in every possible way. It provides intellectual stimulation, social warmth, and a babysitting service for mother-matriculants. When the Island public school system found itself without funds to hire new music specialists but with an abundance of willing paraprofessionals already on the payroll, it turned to SICC for practical help. The education department began to train the educational assistants in general teaching methods and the music department furnished a special adjunct professor in elementary music education. After the two-year Associate in Education requirements have been completed, the students can complete their teaching certification requirements at Richmond College nearby, a four-year member of the CUNY system. This special music program is unique to the neighborhood of Staten Island, but a similar general training course has started at Fordham University in the Bronx and may be duplicated in other financially pressed areas.

The truly remarkable aspect of the Educational Assistant Program is the character of the student. She is, nine times out of ten, a woman (one man enrolled accidentally) with children of her own in the same school system as her work. Her stake in public education is thus very high indeed. Her own High School education is far enough behind her that its academic effects, for better or for worse, have long since blunted themselves in the kitchen. She is warm in personality and strong enough to cope cheerfully with a husband, home and family, plus school job, plus after-job classes at the College. Thus she must be a student of strong motivation. Part of this motivation is probably financial—she wants to add to the family income, of course. However, primarily she wants a better education for her children than she was given. And therein lies the chief problem for the paraprofessionals of the class as well as for the few college undergraduates who wandered into Course PCA 505 with a vague leaning towards the teaching profession.

Public education has already failed most of these women, and they do not want it to fail their children. Many of them cannot spell correctly at this point in their lives. (Some are immigrants, of course, but that is a different set of problems). Nor can they write a simple sentence. Obviously, since they are intelligent and capable people, it was education that failed them rather than the other way around. They have proven themselves in life itself, a test which should be the ultimate measure of all education.

Four members of PCA 505 spelled poem as "pome" consistently throughout their written lesson plans. Seven misspelled "children" in various ways. Nevertheless each of these women easily grasped various philosophical concepts of education and both traditional and experimental systems of music notation. The same young minority student who wrote "After the [they] had sang the song a couple [of times] I would invite the [they] to come and see me play it on the piano," had, as a matter of fact, learned from scratch to read simple music at the piano, on the autoharp, and with a recorder; and she used this skill to present a song to a first grade class with ease late in the semester. There is no possible doubt about the failure of her schooling to motivate her to learn to read and write English.

As a methods course in teaching music to grades K-4, Music for Children PCA 505 emphasized the child's natural pleasure in learning, first in the arts and then in communication of these arts. A teacher who can preserve this pleasure for each individual child can reach and hold many more previously uneducable youngsters.

Very few class members had any knowledge or experience of music before the semester began. Two had sung in a chorus in High School, one was taking singing lessons in the SICC music department but read music only slightly. The main problem, then, was to teach fundamentals of music at the same time that methods of teaching music were being taught.

It seemed most logical to present Music for Children in the exact way in which the class would eventually present music to children. Much more ground had to be covered here than for first grade, but the actual teaching method could be absorbed largely by osmosis and imitation, with a minimum of time relegated to its theory. The ladies had only to pretend to be first grade children, and then later to pretend to be the teacher.

Each paraprofessional worked regularly with at least one certified teacher in her job, and studied her personal presentational style for non-musical subjects in daily classroom situations. The humanistic approach to education was thus already familiar to most of these students.

What remained most important then was to teach the class itself to read music exactly as each teacher would present music notation to the children.

First came the easy song itself, sung and learned by rote. The teacher dramatized the word-ideas and then the musical elements by various means. Pitch levels were emphasized by hand levels, board work, diagrams, pictures, and eventually by the staff itself. In a Kodaly-Orff type sequence, walking and running and clapping all clarified the rhythmic elements and led directly to recognition of rhythmic notation. Percussion instruments added timbres to reinforce beats and describe dramatic elements, thus deepening the student's basic sense of meter patterns.

Once the fundamentals of music notation were clear, the paraprofessionals gained the necessary skill in reading by means of a spiral approach to drill. The student played melodies on a recorder or flutophone of his own, picked out pitches on the piano (the music department at SICC was blessed with seven small electric pianos in the classroom), and located a simple harmonic accompaniment formula on both piano and autoharp. During this process, many songs became a part of her general preparation for teaching. Eventually she also learned to prepare unfamiliar songs by reading them first on an instrument for pitch and rhythm, then singing, and last adding chordal accompaniments. All good graded series of classroom music materials aid the teacher by suggestions for the enrichment of her presentation, once she herself has learned the appropriate songs.

What about the teacher who cannot sing? There was no musical prerequisite for PCA 505, so non-singing was indeed a serious problem, but not insoluble. An older woman who does sing frequently has a low voice while the children have high voices (and should be discouraged from singing in the chest range as long as possible). For such situations—either total vocal deficiency or the range incongruence—educational publishers also provide simple singing records to coordinate with the class music books. If the teacher joins in the musical experience in every other way, mouths the words of the recorded song-poem and moves to the rhythms, her class will learn the songs almost as fast as the class of the teacher who sings well herself.

At first, personality problems intruded somewhat on this methods class. Women who have grown up through the old educational system tend to be inhibited in public, fearing failure and ridicule. Once this class learned that praise was the first rule of teaching, and that disapproval was never expressed to small children nor to them as acting-small-children (only alternate possibilities of answers or actions were suggested), the class began to enjoy the work. By stressing the rich creative possibilities of the individual child, each paraprofessional began to develop her own creative responses and rejoice in them. The typical hooded expression of the modern New Yorker, seen on white and black faces alike at the opening session, yielded to alert interest and eventually warm smiles and laughter.

PCA 505 had another serious problem. To save commuting time, the class was scheduled for four consecutive hours starting as soon as the public schools let out for the day and lasting through the dinner hour. For tired scholars, a two-hour lecture is often a difficult ordeal. A three-hour class is a kind of torture for many graduate students and their professors. Obviously the length alone of Music for Children would present difficulties.

First of all, the class voted to save up the normal seven minute space between periods and add them together. Somewhere around 6 P.M. we took one break and adjourned to the cafeteria. At the beginning, it was difficult to resume class promptly, but by the end of the semester, various students were returning early to obtain added time at the pianos or the autoharps.

By applying the principle that change obviates fatigue, we were able to work without boredom throughout the long period. A lecture might follow a song complete with dances and dramas, a flute session might follow a rhythm band. Creative movement to express musical terms might follow a showing of painting reproductions from the Museum of Modern Art to illustrate the theme of the first song. Constant enrichment of poetic and utilitarian response to the music itself kept the mind fresh and active, while physical response prevented torpor. All of the devices a good teacher can imagine to refresh her first grade class worked equal wonders with mature paraprofessionals—and maybe even better. Many a professor in graduate school could heal his seminar doldrums by taking a page from the elementary schoolteacher's book. On your feet! Stretch to a crescendo! Drop to a sudden piano!

Added dividends from this class were enormous. Thirty-three disparate women and girls became close friends. Expected momentarily for the whole last month, one baby was born to universal rejoicing during exam week. One musical widow (with two children) dieted carefully during the short dinner break, lost fifteen pounds, met a new suitor, and married him at the end of the semester. Three-fourths of the enrollment decided to complete a four-year education degree, and two faltering PCA majors decided to become music education majors. These were the human interest stories.

The academic results were even more dramatic. Each student had planned a complete semester's unit in music and was prepared to teach it, a unit related to the social studies level of one class between Preschool and Grade IV, her own choice. She had complete lesson plans and music for between five and fifteen songs, detailed additions of games and plays, suitable instrumentation and notation of rhythm instruments, related poems, art reproductions, orchestral pieces for listening exercises, and even related artifacts and projects. Each member had presented one lesson plan in actual practice with the encouraging participation of her peers as moppets and the professor as observer. Beyond the teacher preparation, she herself had begun to read music on three instruments, had gained a familiarity of elementary harmony in the keys of C, G, and F, and had acquired a contemporary philosophy of education. All without pain!

The most important person, perhaps, in the world today is the elementary teacher in any of the fine arts including music. This is the person who can reach and encourage our children in their most formative years. Those children who have been lost to academic approaches in the past can often be reached by the arts. Once the child responds in any way to art, he can be motivated by that art to communicate in words. With communication and individual appreciation, every normal human being finds himself happier in his world and better able to live his life productively.

Yes, the elementary music teacher has tremendous potential for improving mankind—obliquely, perhaps, but definitely. And the educational assistants in PCA 505, far from being unqualified helpers in the schools, may well turn out to be the strongest teachers of all. Certainly their personal strength, warmth, and experience, combined with the knowledge they are working so hard to master, will contribute mightily to their present and future communities through the communities' most precious members, their children.


PCA 505 used the following printed material regularly in class assignments, but many other texts in the same categories would serve equally well.

Dennis, Brian, Experimental Music in Schools. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Golding, Sally and Lucille Landers, Melody Makers. Far Rockaway, N.Y.: Carl Van Roy, 1962 (Now Peripole Co.).

Nye, Robert and Bjornar Bergethon, Basic Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Teaching Materials

Discovering Music Together Series. Chicago: Follett, 1967.

Grades K-4, Teachers Guides and Recordings.

Making Music Your Own Series. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett, 1967.

Grades K-4, Teachers Guides and Recordings.
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