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RPS 205 choir teachers scale up to teach life skills

Dylan Ladd (far right), a teacher in the Creative and Performing Arts program at West Middle School, directs a performance late last year.

Dylan Ladd (far right), a teacher in the Creative and Performing Arts program at West Middle School, directs a performance late last year.

It was the Monday after the spring concert, but Dylan Ladd did not let students in the Creative and Performing Arts program at West Middle School off the hook.

Ladd, a first-year teacher, told his Advanced Choir students they would do run-throughs of the songs they performed in the show.  

One student protested: “It’s the last two weeks of school!” There were yawns. Gum had to be spit out. Friends had to be separated. Ladd persisted.

A more traditional teacher might have resorted to repetitions, each time correcting a section that was anemic or off-key.

Ladd, however, believes teaching music isn’t just about drilling songs until students get it right. It’s about building a tool box with skills for music and life: Communication. Collaboration. Critical thinking. Problem-solving.

Bonnie Spurling, fine arts director for the Rockford Public Schools, was Ladd’s choir teacher at Huntley Middle School. He called her out of the blue last summer, asking if she remembered the sixth grader in the Wall of Thorns protecting the palace in “Enchanted Sleeping Beauty.” More than a decade later, he told her he was applying to be a music teacher at West.

Ladd got the job. In his first year, he and another West music teacher, Daniel Beetstra, have set a clear example to their students that music requires collaboration. Brian Doering, dean of fine arts for the district, described the approach as giving students the skills to decipher music and recognize their voices as instruments.

If something sounds off as the group practices, Doering said, the teachers challenge students to figure where it went wrong on their own.

Students value that. They also value the respect for their potential.  Ladd has taken students on field trips to see “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “School of Rock” in Chicago. He also knows how each student learns, said Marley Pederson, an Advanced Choir student and an eighth grader in the CAPA program.  

Madelyn Hibbs, who’s also in Advanced Choir and is an eighth grader, would like to work on Broadway. She said Ladd takes her ambition seriously. He connected her with one of his friends who just finished touring with “Motown the Musical” so the two could talk. 

 “He makes you think you can do it,” Hibbs said.

Fine arts programs in RPS 205 are growing partly because of dedicated teachers like Ladd and Beetstra. Enrollment in fine arts has increased 25 percent since 2013-14 and 8 percent from last year to this year.

Developing students as musicians–rather than merely rehearsing—is more complicated but it pays off, Doering said. These teachers focus on the process, not the product.

“Good teaching is good teaching,” he said.

Mary Kaull is strategic communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. Click here to subscribe to this blog. Also, please like RPS 205 on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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