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Check Yourself A List for Affirming Classroom Spaces

Lorelei J. Batisla-ong, Ph.D. Conservatory of Music, Baldwin Wallace University
I write this for teachers who value the uniqueness of each student they work with. Teachers who understand it is our differences that enrich our classrooms. Teachers who recognize that expressions of humanity exist in our classes beyond what we have only known. Teachers who acknowledge identity as crucial for agency. This is for the teachers who not only say they want their classrooms to be inclusive, but who are doing the work to earn that distinction from the only people who can grant it - the students we teach.
I don’t write this to change the hearts of those who cling to the idea that acknowledging identity is divisive, nor for those who fail to reflect on the phrase, “music teachers should just teach music.” Because I do not teach music. I teach humans. And I do so in community, with as much to learn from them, as I have to offer. I name this now to allow those who cannot hold these ideas with openness and curiosity an opportunity to disengage, because there is no value in discussion when the point of entry is arguing the humanity of any student. Any colleague. Any person. This article functions beyond making a case for something as essential as a person’s dignity.
As a student of equity and justice I reject positions of neutrality because such a place (neutrality) does not exist. To stand aside for the veneer of non-conflict condones the status quo, the current state of things. Neutrality allows what’s happening to continue. So while nuance exists, there is no neutral position interested in access to music education for all within the current state of things.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
● Silence as a legitimate and useful way to begin ● Active listening is the accompaniment to silence ● Surround yourself with experts and listen (again) ● Feedback grows us or slows us ● Practice everyday
You will make mistakes. I will. WE all will. Let’s accept this and free ourselves from the pressure of perfection and the cage of fragility. No one is above critique, and more importantly, no one is perfect. What we have is how we proceed forward after making a mistake. I invite you to watch this video1
in which I am candid in processing the criticism of a term I created for and in collaboration with Decolonizing the Music Room (DTMR) to observe how I reacted to criticism. The term is BBIA (Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian) and is a broad descriptor for folks who experience racial minoritization.
I’m in conversation with deep thinkers, critical minds, and beautiful, big hearts. And I recognize for those new to their inclusive journey, entering spaces with folks who regularly analyze systems and oppression may feel intimidating. Teachers may hesitate out of fear of doing something wrong and/or being corrected. Hesitation may be the teacher’s first hurdle even before not knowing what to do. And so in lieu of a list of activities to replicate, we will focus on examining the affirming pedagogy (or lack of) underpinning inclusive musical activities.

Silence as a legitimate and useful way to begin this work

In the same way we encourage students to be discerning of style and expression, teachers should be active listeners during inclusive and equity discussions. When we listen to others expressing their lived experiences, when we listen to those who have expertise in DEI practices, when we listen to understand instead of listening to respond3, then we can make connections to why something is a best practice and the form of inequity it is responding to.
Do the work to name the power dynamics at play. Though understanding one’s positionality4 should be understood in any situation, this examination seems most applicable when using songs and materials of a cultural group for the classroom. But it is not enough to name your positionality when doing this. One must also examine power dynamics.
● What is your lived cultural perspective? ● From what cultural perspective are the songs/materials drawn? ● What is the relationship between the cultures and is there a historical precedent of oppression by one of the groups of the other? ● How do you feel learning this5? ● What instances of community building creates a reciprocal flow of materials, knowledge, and compensation between culture and your classroom? ● In your use of the song/materials what is the give/take balance between the culture and your classroom?6
I often share with music students that silence is as important as sound. When we fill silence with an immediate answer, we forget that in the beginning we need space to take in information and process. Intentional silence allows precious time to meaningfully react. Along with sound, consider action a part of the visual sound created. As you find best teaching practices, stand still, and take a beat to observe before you implement.
Stillness and silence grants time to critically analyze practices.
This reflection is silent. It requires you to listen outside of your perspective and consider someone else’s perspective. And when done effectively this work is undetectable, which makes this process less than glamorous. It is difficult work with little pay off for those who use public acknowledgement to motivate equity work.
I consider song lists that present the harmful histories of songs, such as Songs with a Questionable Past,7 a useful resource because the history of many songs has unintentionally (and intentionally) been lost. These lists model the behavior of researching and these histories should be learned by any music teacher. But I caution against using song lists for this believing you are also changing your pedagogy.
We should stop singing harmful songs. Full stop. But for us to gain a level of self- sufficiency and to reckon with the internal beliefs that created these songs to begin with, we should also make connections to why we shouldn’t sing a song, not only stop what songs we sing because a list says so.

Surround yourself with experts and listen (again)

One way to improve individual playing is to play in a group with better players than yourself. Find section leaders with a teaching spirit8 who offers guidance and advice and learn as much as you can from them. In the same way, there will always be people who know more about equity, who think about equity in ways not apparent to you right away. Thank goodness we don’t do this work alone.
Remember that teachers come in all forms. A stove may not seem like an obvious teacher, but when the burners are hot that stove has a lesson to teach. So take stock of who you read, who you follow on social media, who you watch on television. Be aware of the words and thoughts permeating your space. You may not see a teacher present, but you are still learning.
Examine if the representation around you is as diverse as the song repertoire you aspire to. It is more likely that racially minoritized students in US classes are taught by teachers who have different lived experiences and identities than their own9. It is important that those voices are centered in our actions.
Seek experts with a teaching spirit. Uphold the expertise of culture bearers whose expertise comes from lived experience. This includes the expertise students bring with them to your class.
Remember that if an identity is outside your own, no amount of study or immersion in a culture can truly reveal that lived experience. We may earn the respect of those in the community and prove ourselves worthy of the description of an ally over time, but we will never understand what it means to have that lived experience and we should defer to that positionality.
If folks are willing to give their time to teach, start with LISTENING to what they have to say. Don’t undermine their expertise. Don’t demand their time, or make them defend their perspective, or accuse them of withholding access to a group. And remember, you asked them for help, not to grant you permission to do what would make your life more convenient.
Offer to compensate experts (expertise is not only gained through academic credentials). Advocate for monetary compensation and leverage privilege to protect folks as they speak truth to power. It is easy to forget that while we amplify minoritized voices, they speak and act with no protection from physical and emotional abuse. Minoritized experts run the risk of losing promotions. They are criticized for being too sensitive, while non-minoritized colleagues are often praised for innovation. The time to thank someone for their bravery is not in the safety of a text message after the meeting. The place is out loud, during the meeting, while it is happening. Write checks. Leverage privilege.
Feedback grows us or slows us Here, our points intersect. If (and when) you receive feedback from someone who has EXPERTISE, revisit SILENCE and active LISTENING. In your silence, hold initial reactions as valid. You feel how you feel. But then look to your response for clues if you are using feedback in meaningful ways.
Examine your response:
● Is it argumentative? ● Did you shut down? ● Do you feel that you aren’t allowed to participate? ● Are you focused on the perceived lack of professionalism by the one giving feedback instead of the harmful behavior that prompted feedback?
A reflective (not reflexive) response can reveal when feedback has a chance to make a lasting change in behavior. But also remember not to strictly value objectivity above emotion, nor dismiss emotion as irrational. Emotion and rationality strengthen one another. Artist, activist, and educator, Sunn m’Cheux asks these questions10:

● What do you think about the way you feel? ● What do you feel about the way you think?
Understanding the emotions driving our reactions may reveal:
● Shame ● Embarrassment ● Anger ● Helplessness
Naming these emotions can turn fragility into crucial moments of growth. Understanding our emotions creates opportunities for strength and integrity. If we grow self-awareness of our emotions, we develop a capacity to absorb information that grows us from the inside - out.
If you avoid vulnerability, this will challenge you. If you exert authority to maintain order, this will challenge you. If you internalize feedback as commentary on your worth, this will challenge you. But we give musical feedback because we know a performance can be better. When we ask students to sing again but with more support, if we correct fingerings or bowings, it is simply feedback, not an evaluation of a student’s worth. And though it is tempting to take feedback on inclusive practices as judgment on our goodness or badness as a person, we should remember that it isn’t about us in the first place.

Consider. Do students incorporate their whole selves in musical expression, or do they assimilate to make music correctly?

Assimilation involves the “adoption of the new ways of life of the new cultural group, resulting in the assimilated group losing nearly all of its original or native culture2.” For music teachers, adherence to a musical standard creates a baseline for assessment (and comparison) but we must ask what space past accurate pitches and rhythms has assimilation actually taken up in music participation? How has assimilation made music-making look a certain way, attainable by knowing certain things, and as a result, upholds certain music as the most important to know and perform?

If the concept of assimilation still escapes you, stand still and quiet when you are choosing songs, choosing a way to teach, or assess learning and ask, “Why this way?” and “Who says so?” Responses like, “That’s how it’s always been” or “That’s how I learned,” are strong indicators that more reflection is needed.

Good faith questioning suggests critical thinking. And critical thinking forces us into a space of self-awareness. You may find yourself in conflict with things you have known to be true and with things you are good at doing. In that self-reflection, we may discover our intention in providing opportunities is not founded in affirmation but is in service of replicating what we experienced as students, and consequently rooted in the belief that a student’s lived experience is deficient because it is not like ours. It is then our “noble duty” to “save” them. We convince ourselves we provide opportunity, but when participation is set to an unquestioned standard we are policing participation. This pedagogy for the standard exacts a price, and that price calls for students to shed aspects of their identity and understanding not aligned with the standard. Assimilation.

Active listening is the accompaniment to silence

Practice everyday

I am learning to reframe practice. Often I tell young music students that instead of approaching a work from beginning to end, I divide it into smaller sections surrounding the spots I can’t quite grasp. Instead of letting it overwhelm me, I deconstruct it. And, in knowing what specifically burdens me, I understand what makes practice deliberate. If I practice only the things I can already play I don’t improve. But only grinding away at the parts that trouble me brings me to a hopeless place where I dislike playing. It is a balance between breaking apart the things I don’t do well (yet) and experiencing success with the things I already know (and want to keep that way). Meaningful practice is a balance in truth and transparency.
The work required to build affirming classrooms is no different. In times when you feel overwhelmed, consider if you are attempting to swallow systemic inequity whole. Reframe equity as a choice in the moments we interact with others one on one. It is not that those moments are less important because they are smaller. They are important because small moments perpetuate systemic inequity. We can feel hopeless against systemic inequity (the system depends on our hopelessness), but we counteract that by tending to equity at a personal level of engagement.
Each day presents its own unique opportunities to act equitably (or not). Some days the choices seem simple and obvious. Other days your limited energy is split between processing situations, making decisions, and surviving the day. But each day resets at 0. So, if on the days you find yourself coming up short, more opportunities will come. Practicing everyday builds your chops.
Thoughts to be continued… ● Silence as a legitimate and useful way to begin ● Active listening is the accompaniment to silence ● Surround yourself with experts and listen (again) ● Feedback grows us or slows us ● Practice everyday
Knowing what to do may become easier with study, time, and practice, but we also must contend with how we are conditioned to maintain the status quo. Critically considering classroom procedures may uncover a belief that when some get what they need, there won’t be enough for others. But for those who believe in equality, getting what you need is never a zero-sum game. Someone’s gain resulting in someone else’s equivalent loss (zero-sum game) is only possible when people hold the belief that some are more worthy than others. We must also understand that when we don’t feel a problem, we often cannot see the problem. It could be that the ability to address what all students need is proportionate to a capacity for radical empathy.

Equity work is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. It is as much about interrogating deeply embedded beliefs as it is about learning new best practices. It is about transformation as much as it is about addition. And this is where many teachers disengage. Inclusivity asks us to not only identify outside forces that perpetuate inequity, but to accept how we personally perpetuate inequity and commit to tearing that down in ourselves. To critically examine our intention is uncomfortable, and for some, it is easier to ignore. Don’t let discomfort keep you from doing the thing you say you want to do.
I offer this list, adding to the many that have come before. But I also warn about the dangers in believing lists single-handedly carries transformative weight in building inclusive classrooms. This is not an exhaustive list. It is not a definitive list. It is a point of entry. It is a humble offering given in solidarity with others who also do this work.
1 Batisla-ong, L. & Tsui, A. [Decolonizing the Music Room]. (2021, July 21). BBIP to BBIA: The Evolution of Terminology [Video]. YouTube. 2 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) (1994). Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 59.
3 As said by A.F., Baldwin Wallace University, Conservatory of Music. Fall 2023. 4 Parts of one’s identity that combine to inform someone’s understanding and knowledge of what is true and what is possible in the world. 5 See the upcoming section titled, Feedback grows us or slows us 6 Not every activity requires participation. Not every song should be replicated for performance. Sometimes, observation is appropriate.
7 McDougle, L. (2023, December 11). Songs with a Questionable Past. Google Document. 3X5nUY/mobilebasicfbclid=IwAR3s8_zEtc97xSL7P0AdOPjxRhJg8D4BIz9Ky6HtmHJbEiAPnmwvEEFTZb4 8 I mention “teaching spirit” a couple of times. This is a diplomatic way of stating, it is no one’s responsibility to teach you and a reminder to monitor your entitlement to others’ time and expertise. Luckily, there are many people who take on the mantle of teacher and for that we should show our gratitude.
9 National Center for Education Statistics (2020). Race and Ethnicity of Public School Teachers and their Students. Retrieved from
10 m’Cheux, S. [@sunnmcheaux]. 2023, November 30). IQ vs. EQ [Video]. TikTok.