“They know I’m their teacher for life. They know they can always come back to me if they just need someone who they know is on their side.”
Genein Letford is the music director of an elementary school in Canoga Park, California. She is noted for her innovative teaching style that incorporates math, science, language arts, and social studies into a music curriculum. She is an avid proponent of the arts and preserving the quality of education in the arts. Genein began the Music For All: Instrument Scholarship Fund in 2009 to provide instruments for low-income students to continue their music education. She won the 2010 Great American Teacher Award, as well as the National Sontag Prize in Urban Education.
On Becoming a Teacher
One of Genein’s first great influences was her own mother, Gwen Jefferson, who worked at a non-profit organization called the PAL Center, where she taught students who had dropped out of school or faced other difficulties associated with living in a low-income area. “Many families have an educator, or a doctor, or a lawyer that’s the person you go to with questions. My mom was that person in our family, and it was watching her do the things she did and working at Sunday School and with kids throughout my primary and high school education that made me feel like this was something I was meant to do.”
Genein got her bachelor’s in Psychology from UCLA, though she minored in Education, with a focus in Diversifying in the Liberal Arts. The program was designed to give teachers a solid foundation in education and then expose them to different areas to help them decide what they wanted to do. She then went on to receive her teaching certification through a year long program called Teachers for a New Era, which allowed her more hands-on experience with teaching than a traditional teaching program would have provided. She recently completed her master’s thesis at California State University, Northridge. In her third year of teaching in Canoga Park, the principal of her school asked her to become the music program’s director.
Genein takes a very unique and innovative approach to teaching music that seeks to integrate it into every aspect of her students’ education. In her music lessons, she’s been able to incorporate elements of history, language arts, social studies, and even math to keep music interesting for the students and to connect it to multiple aspects of their lives. “When you think about music you think about different ways to describe it through writing. My kids are always working on their writing skills. I make connections between mathematics and music as well. It’s not a hard connection, but I just try to be creative and make it a fun way for the kids to interact with fractions and half notes and quarter notes.”
When approaching this integrated education, Genein quotes Ernest Boyer by saying, “‘The quality of civilization can be measured through its music, its bands, its visual arts and drama, architecture and literature...’ So how can I teach social studies and different cultures without bringing in their art? It’d be a disservice to that culture. Being aware that those connections exist and that I have the right to bring them in the classroom was just one main thing that I wanted to do for my kids.”
Before teaching music, Genein taught general education and English as a Second Language (ESL) to third graders in low-income areas, and she also used these experiences to enlighten her teaching philosophy. “My biggest turning point was when I had a child read a question that she didn’t know the answer to. I pointed to the word and asked her if she knew what it meant. She told me ‘no’, and I knew there’s no way to know the answer without knowing that one word. That instance really opened my eyes to the importance of vocabulary. That’s one of the connections I bring into my music classroom.”
On Technology in the Classroom
Genein believes that when it comes to today’s students, “technology is part of their culture” and that it should be actively incorporated into the classroom to connect the student to the lesson on another level. She uses Facebook to communicate with former students, and encourages all her students to always come to her for advice and assistance. “They know I’m their teacher for life. They know they can always come back to me and they just need someone who they know is on their side.”
“As far as Facebook and Twitter are concerned, there are a few districts that have said no, and there’s a few districts that haven't even addressed it yet. I believe we should address it. We’re in the age of communication and information is right at our fingertips.”
On Impacting Students
Over the course of her career, Genein has interacted with a wide array of students, many of whom have been significantly impacted by, not only her innovative method of teaching, but by her compassion and dedication as well. When thinking back to the students she’s come to know and care about, one little girl in particular comes to mind:
“She was a flute player and she would practice in the morning and after school. She’d even take home the flute and practice. And then one day her mom came in and she was angry because the girl would play music until well into the night, even though she went to bed at nine. The mom would come into her room and see her playing her flute under her sheets with a flashlight at midnight. I actually found out a week or two later that she was going through some traumatic family experiences and she played the flute to cope. I helped her by talking to her about how much music has done for me and how it can help her get through this. It felt good to know that she had such a healthy outlet at school to cope with that stress. It was good to know that I was a part of that healing process. She’s back in middle school now, and she’s doing well.”