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April 12, 2021 | Abby Liu
We’re running a new video interview series so that you can get to know our Middle School faculty. We hope that you enjoy learning more about them!
Abby Liu: Hello, I’m Abby Liu, the director of marketing and communications here at Mustard Seed School. Today I have with me Dr. Jessica Smith, who’s our music teacher and worship coordinator. I should say one of our music teachers. And also you may have noticed that we look a little bit alike. That is because we are actually identical twins who work at the same school. People often wonder about that so we’ll say that up front so people don’t get confused. Well anyway. Welcome Dr Smith. Thank you.
Thanks for joining us so we can get to know you a little bit better. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you studied in college?
Dr. Jessica Smith: Sure. So I went to Ithaca College for undergraduate, and I studied music education and also vocal performance. I completed two degrees there in music education and vocal performance. And then I later went to the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory, and I received a master’s in vocal performance. And then later I went to the University of Houston where I got a doctorate in vocal performance with a minor in voice science and pedagogy from the Moores School of Music. And then later I studied for four years to be a Guild Certified Feldenkrais practitioner. That was over 800 hours of training on how the brain works.
Abby Liu: You really love to be a student!
Dr. Jessica Smith: I do. I love learning.
Abby Liu: I know that to be true. What are you most passionate about in terms of content in your teaching?
Dr. Jessica Smith: So many things really, but one thing that I’m very passionate about is authentic musical experiences, experiences that are historically accurate. That we’re considering the appropriate performance practice. So if we’re studying Baroque music, we’re thinking about what is authentic and unique to Baroque music. Or for example, if we’re studying West African drumming, I want us to study West African drumming as I learned when I went to Ghana to do a study, so that what we’re learning in the music classroom is as authentic as possible.
And I really desperately want students to love music. To become lifelong music lovers, whether that means they learn a different instrument later in life or if they have a garage band. Or they become an audience member. Or they become a professional musician. I’m just passionate that students love music and that they’ll make good connections between music and other subject areas. That music is not just a standalone topic but instead that music is part of our society and our world and everything we do.
Abby Liu: Fantastic. Describe a moment when a student was challenged beyond what was expected. What did that work look like? What was exciting for you as a teacher?
Dr. Jessica Smith: I think I can maybe be most specific about the music exhibition.
Ms. Choi and I spoke– we did a whole segment on exhibitions. And I spoke more about the music exhibition, but part of what I love about the music exhibition is that there’s a real breadth of things that students can do as part of a specific assignment for this exhibition. And so, I love that when we do this. The audio book that students made this year in particular– I had students playing music live with family members. Students collaborating with each other to help out on someone else’s project. Students who were really creative in their use of instruments. So just taking what was a very specific assignment with a very specific rubric, and just going 10 steps further to turn it into something that was fun and exciting for them. And that also really showcased their own knowledge of music and learning.
Abby Liu: Right. And I should say that you and Ms. Hall Choi did an interview about exhibitions that people can find in the stories section of mustardseedschool.org. It talks about academic exhibitions and then the music exhibition specifically in detail. So go ahead and check that out.
We as a school have been thinking a lot about belonging as we study Universal Design for Learning and diversity, equity and inclusion. So we’re gonna talk about that a little bit. What’s an idea that you have tried in your classroom as a result of studying Universal Design for Learning?
Dr. Jessica Smith: There’s been lots of things actually I really love Universal Design for Learning. I think something that I’ve really taken away from the training that we’ve all received here at Mustard Seed is thinking about removing barriers. So as I’ve been constructing lessons, and even revamping or writing completely new units because of the online learning that we’re in right now, I’m constantly thinking about what are the barriers that exist for students. And what’s the goal? So for example, we’ve been doing rhythm reading exercises in sixth grade. I could have students notate rhythmic notation–stick notation–but the goal actually is for them to compose rhythms and to perform rhythms. They don’t need to do the stick notation. In fact, having to write out the stick notation is time consuming and can be a barrier. So, I constructed slides on Google slides with measures, so they can click and drag. So they’re still doing completely their own composition work, but instead of having to labor over a part–which is not the goal of the exercise– they can quickly move notation and create their own compositions. And then they’re achieving the second goal which is to actually read the notation and teach the class the notation that they’ve composed.
So I’ve been thinking about those sorts of things. I’ve been color-coding assignments so that students can see things more clearly. Providing more options for how students can turn in work. For example, we’re doing a hip hop unit right now. Students can learn with a study guide because it’s not a language arts class. The study guides are there to help them get a better grasp on the learning that’s taking place. Or to have the opportunity to just state it out loud for themselves, too, to remember– and for me to know what they’ve learned and where some gaps might be that we need to go back on. So the questions that I’ve been giving– they’re allowed to either type me an answer, or they can use Flipgrid, which is a video program. It’s really easy to click over there, and then they can say the answers out loud. So if you’re someone for whom writing is a challenge, but you have all the knowledge, use Flipgrid so that you’re able to achieve the goals that we have in music class.
Abby Liu: Let’s go to diversity, equity, and inclusion. What’s an action that you’ve taken to better honor and celebrate the diversity that’s present in your classroom?
Dr. Jessica Smith: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think that the music classroom is a place where we naturally do this anyway, especially as a chorus teacher. The repertoire that I choose, I’m constantly thinking about how am I choosing a diverse repertoire? And so we always sing a song in Spanish for our Las Posadas celebration. And then we’ll look at where this song comes from and what’s the tradition behind the song that we’re singing. We’ll often sing songs that come from different countries in Africa and we’ll take a look at where did that song come from and what’s the history behind it. And we’ll sing it in the language, for example, maybe we’ll sing in Zulu.
So that naturally happens in the choral classroom. I took a class this summer called Decentering Whiteness in the Music Classroom. We talked about the history of western music, and thought about promoting more equity and different viewpoints. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that in terms of curriculum. So it comes up all the time.
Abby Liu: What motivates you, what inspires you as a teacher?
Dr. Jessica Smith: I love to learn. As you can see from all of my degrees! What I love about being a teacher is that I’m constantly writing curriculum and changing what I do. And so I’m constantly learning and learning alongside my students. I love to learn with them and I love to watch them grow and acquire new skills. I love seeing from sixth grade, what a student coming into chorus can do. And then when they leave in eighth grade to see students leaving and singing solos. Just to see the growth that happens over time, not only from the skills that they’ve gained but also the things they’re able to do because they’ve just been growing and there’s new developmental skills that come alongside that.
And then I would just say, I’m inspired by being a part of the community that sees every child as an image bearer of God. I think that’s incredibly beautiful, and I think the way that we walk that out is beautiful. And I hope that when students leave here, they know that they are loved.
Abby Liu: Yeah, I agree. All right. Anything else that families should know about you, besides the fact that you and I are identical twins?
Dr. Jessica Smith: I really love leading worship. It’s one of my favorite things I get to do here. And in addition to teaching middle school music and being the worship coordinator, I also teach pre K music. And it’s really such a joy.
Abby Liu: I love all your pre K stories. They’re such a delight. Okay, we’re going to go on for eight quick questions. Rapid fire here.
Dr. Jessica Smith: I’m ready.
Abby Liu: How long have you worked at Mustard Seed?
Dr. Jessica Smith: For 13 years.
Abby Liu: What’s the last book you read?
Dr. Jessica Smith: A book called The Beekeepers Apprentice, sort of like Sherlock Holmes twist kind of thing.
Abby Liu: That was a good book! What’s the show that you’re watching right now or recently enjoyed?
Dr. Jessica Smith: I’m giving two. One, Seal Team. I love this sort of action show. I’ve been really kind of addicted to the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. documentaries about African American experiences. The history of blacks in Latin America– they’re just really engaging and so instructive.
Abby Liu: Yeah, I’ve been watching the one on the black church.
Dr. Jessica Smith: In America, right?
Abby Liu: Yeah.
Dr. Jessica Smith: So amazing.
Abby Liu: What’s the first thing that you’re going to do when the pandemic is over and or at least major restrictions are lifted?
Dr. Jessica Smith: Travel. I can’t wait to get out in the world some more.
Abby Liu: Favorite dessert.
Dr. Jessica Smith: Anything chocolate.
Abby Liu: Same! Name a band or artist that you enjoy listening to.
Dr. Jessica Smith: The Wailin’ Jennys.
Abby Liu: Oh, I haven’t even heard of that! You’re gonna have to introduce them. Okay, name one item will always be in your fridge. (Laughs.)
Dr. Jessica Smith: Alright, she’s laughing because what she knows about me is that I have bachelorette fridge. There’s not much in my fridge.
Abby Liu: That’s why she comes to eat at my house.
Dr. Jessica Smith: That’s right. But there’s usually a Diet Coke in there.
Abby Liu: Piece of cheese. Maybe.
Dr. Jessica Smith: Ketchup.
Abby Liu: Everybody has ketchup. All right. Well, Dr. Smith, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m glad that you came to us live from the music room.
Dr. Jessica Smith: Thanks so much for having me.