Music, not testing, helps to develop kids' brains

My summer gig is directing the Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp. Tamar Gray and Betsy Neylon, two exceptional music educators, and I founded this intense weeklong musical enrichment experience 13 years ago. Reaching Heights has kept it a priority ever since, and so have I.

We keep at it because it is an exceptional learning experience and a hothouse for developing leaders and music professionals. It encourages kids, adds to the school district’s music program, and draws on the amazing expertise of our public school teachers, students and graduates. It can be magical.

This year, two weeks after the school year closed, 93 Cleveland Heights-University Heights students between the ages of 10 and 15 spent a sweltering week playing music together, developing new skills, making new friends and having fun. The camp nurtures musical and other cognitive skills, along with collaboration, self-confidence and leadership. Our campers grow in so many ways.

As a public school advocate, I love this project because it is the epitome of authentic learning. It transforms lives, dramatizes the power of sustained effort and extends the opportunity to play music—something that is good for our brains!

According to Daniel Heim, camp music director and Heights High orchestra leader, neuroscience has shown that nothing lights up the brain quite like music. It is all-engaging. It draws on every subject that is taught in school, and it synthesizes disparate activities. It is something our kids need more of and something we are glad to provide!

I am especially proud of the staff that guides our campers. Our goals are achieved through caring attention from a large group of musicians. This year, 22 Heights High students, most of them former campers, modeled engagement and shared their skills with campers while developing their own leadership skills.

A staff of 19 music educators and local musicians added professionalism and well-honed expertise to the learning process. Half of them are Heights music alumni. Sam Petrey drives from Chicago to teach violin, and Nathan-Paul Davis travels from Akron to inspire our saxophonists. Pam Adamson, our expert clarinetist, is a retired Heights teacher and a Heights grad. Deborah Van Kleef, another Heights alum, taught ukulele.

The camp has been around long enough to produce its own group of music experts. This year, five of our adult staff members were once campers! They are real-life evidence of the impact of their education.

Over the years more than a dozen staff members have migrated home to music camp before migrating on to new stages of their lives. I hate seeing them go but know that this moving on is also part of what education and growing up is all about: preparing people for adult roles and full lives.

The bigger purpose of camp is important to me. Our staff models what is possible and opens a path to grown-up lives and a place in the world. It is wonderful that some of our staff are people we helped nurture.

Each summer I come to camp to recharge my own passion for public education. It enforces my determination to challenge ill-conceived public policies that undermine an institution responsible for developing the whole person, preparing youth for a lifetime of learning, supporting individual interests and developing citizenship skills.

These imperatives are in stark contrast to the high-stakes testing that dictates a narrow definition of meaningful learning, a lockstep and mechanical approach to education that expects everyone to learn the same thing at the same time, and wrongly asserts that a test score proves success. Current policy narrows what matters and disregards passions, interest, thinking and caring.

Music awakens the learner, lights up the brain, grows essential skills and helps young minds integrate information. Sadly, testing policy threatens this amazing resource for intellectual and social growth. Fear makes local education decision-makers reduce time and resources for the arts in favor of tested subjects. Music is not a daily activity until eighth grade, and it is not unusual for music students who need help passing tests to be pulled from music to get extra help.

Each summer I am awestruck as campers and their music coaches engage completely in the work and fun of camp. I witness authentic learning, something that can never be revealed on a standardized test.

As advocates for widespread student success, we need to protect music and the other arts as integral parts of education and give them equal standing with all subjects in our schools. 

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 7, Posted 12:14 PM, 06.29.2017