Composing Understanding: Community Partnerships as the Foundation for Culturally Responsive Action


Jacqueline Kelly-McHale, DePaul University


Student lives inside of the walls of a school of music are often primarily focused on the development of skills as related to performance, production, and education. For students who pursue music education the reality is that their future classrooms will probably not reflect the cultural identities that they have developed. Building a culturally responsive community within a music education program requires awareness of self and other, as well as an understanding of social justice. This process does not occur solely as the result of a single class or a field experience, and it is important to recognize that efforts taken do not always translate into student awareness and empathy. Geographic location may help the process, for example being located in an urban environment; however, the insular nature of college often hinders that from coming to fruition.


In an effort to build an awareness of social justice and culturally responsive teaching in a large metropolitan area, a multi-faceted partnership was developed that involved elementary students and music education and performance majors. The experience included a five-week residency, an on-site performance that included university and elementary students, and debriefings at all junctures of the partenrship. Central to the experience was the five-week residency in a fifth grade classroom. Music education students guided the elementary students through a composition project related to a piece of music being performed by the university wind symphony. The experience culminated with a performance by the university symphonic band and the fifth grade composers. As the elementary students were writing their own pieces of music for a performance, the symphony band students were learning about the composerŐs process. The dialogue in both contexts was informed by the process of composition, comments directly from the composer of the university piece, culturally responsive teaching frameworks, and the belief that music reflects and conveys our view of the world.


As a result of this partnership, the university students developed an understanding of the impact that geographic and socio-economic issues have on students in public schools. Past experiences in music school and high school did not prepare them for the reality that homelessness, gang violence, and poverty directly impact the educational experiences of children. An awareness of personal responsibility was also raised. For the elementary students having the opportunity to share their musical ideas with their community and the university students provided them with the understanding that their musical ideas were meaningful. However, the reality that coming in and working with a group of students for a brief period of time does not create a long-term benefit was evident to all stakeholders. Come in, help out, leave... was not our intention, and therefore we have begun to explore ways to sustain and further develop a partnership at this specific site. The goal of this session is to further the dialogue on the importance of community partnerships that provide all students with opportunities to question their realities and the impact of structural inequalities.