A reminder for anyone who cares about how children grow best…
Before he summons a beat…the stage is subtly littered with trash cans, lids, buckets, and drumsticks. It’s lined with chairs and the auditorium echoes silence.
Then they come. They come in from everywhere, funneling down near the stage, and settling near where he is. Except for a few who carry school books, their hands are empty.
It is recess after all.
The morning classes have ended at Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and something special is about to begin.
It’s rehearsal time for the drumline, and they’ve come… to be with him.
On the day I visited, Mr. Jamal Abdur-Salaam, a Behavior Intervention Specialist at the school, was already in the auditorium with a pair of students. One student was outfitting the buckets with drumsticks, and another was playing a game of cards with Mr. J.
I quietly found my seat at the table of the card players, and it became immediately apparent that this was no ordinary game of cards. With each card played, I realized that I was watching a lesson in character. The young man who calmly listened to Mr. J talk about classroom expectations and how it was possible for reactions to be different than they had been in the morning…the two of them kept playing cards.
Not too long before the drumline members congregated in the auditorium, this young man was quietly encouraged to change his behavior for the classroom teacher. He smiled in agreement and headed back to class.
It was the second time I had been impressed by the effectiveness of this gentle giant. The first time I saw Mr. J in action, he was rapping to the entrance beat for the Wellstone Drumline.
His energy was apparent, his enthusiasm contagious, and there was something else that came through with every word he uttered.
I watched the performance with my daughters and on the way home I asked them what they thought.
My oldest daughter said, “I would want to be in that group.”
Her younger sister agreed, “I want to drum too.”
“What did you like about it?” I asked them.
“That teacher was really nice,” the oldest explained.
“What did you notice about him?” I pushed.
“He was so positive,” she said.
That’s what I had noticed too. He had a passion for music, an energy for drumming, but more than that he had a belief in every child in that group that was undeniable.
I had to learn more…about him, about the drumline, and about how teachers, parents, coaches and mentor adults can learn from his approach.
So I went to Wellstone the Friday before their spring break to soak in their rehearsal and more of the man who helped to bring those 5-gallon buckets to life.
The pre-spring-break energy was palpable, evidenced in the wriggling bodies and distracted attention. I marveled at how he quietly reminded them why they were there and pulled them in to connected concentration. The rythem started…the synchronized movement of arms and sticks that forced a welling-up in my own chest. Watching that drumline come to life is truly an awe-inspiring experience.
The drumline started in 2005 in response to a need for some of the older boys in the school. The building where Wellstone had been housed, did not have much room in the play-yard for the bigger more energetic sixth-grade boys.
“Recess wasn’t going the way it was supposed to,” Mr. J explained. A behavioral intervention was necessary and several of the boys were invited to join him at recess while he piddled on his drumset.
“Let me try!” they begged him, and slowly it became apparent that there was power in those drums. He let them take turns, but he realized he was going to have to find a better way to offer drumming to the number of kids interested.
So, the drumline was formed. The boys who participated that first year made music out of anything they could find. They generally had a 5-gallon bucket each, one drumstick and a free hand. They created beats, expended energy in that recess-time, and started to get good enough to share their talents with others.
After the first all-school performance, the music pounded through the audience, and it didn’t matter what anyone thought of them, Mr. J fondly remembers, “those boys became rock stars.”
Since that first year, interest in the drumline has exponentially grown. This school year, there are thirty members of the team, twenty-eight of whom were at rehearsal the day I visited. Eighteen boys and ten girls lined up next to one another. They seemed invested in their individual job and compelled by the energy of the entire group.
Erik, a two-year member of the drumline explained, “Drumming helps me to be a leader…be a role model for younger kids.”
Drumline “teaches kids how to behave in school,” Shacara agreed.
The drumline is no longer just an alternative to recess, it is a privilege earned by lottery for the oldest kids in the school, and it is too popular to let every kid interested take part.
It’s not just about the drums. With every instruction, Mr. J uses the opportunity to drive home positive character mantras. He asks them questions…and they reply in unison.
Everything you do is part of what?
Who are you?
Why do you come?
And why else?
To figure out what we can do.
And why else?
The beat and the message are drummed in to the very soul of the kids who gather for drumline at Wellstone.
The students who are so drawn to this drumline know that Mr. J values each of them.
Caleb, a sixth grader who has been drumming with Mr. J since he was in second grade said, “He has faith in other people. He likes helping people.”
“He treats everyone like a niece or nephew,” first-year drummer Anthony explained.
And indeed he does. He wants to make a difference in the lives of these kids that goes well beyond the forty-five minutes he can tap out beats with them at recess.
“Even though we don’t always show it,” Erik said, “he helps us express how we are for real.”
The kids feel accepted and appreciated exactly the way they are. It is similar to the way Mr. J felt when he was a student in fifth grade.
Mr. John Mueller was a fifth grade teacher for Jamal who encouraged him and believed he could become something great. It is this belief that finds its way to the instruction that Mr. J uses with the students he teaches now.
“I want to be to them what Mr. Mueller was to me,” Mr. J said.
It is an effective teaching strategy that teaches so much more than academic content. It is a way to teach children to believe in their own potential.
And maybe that’s what we all need to be taught…that belief can come in five-gallon buckets and it can come in creating entertaining beats for a team. It can come in subtle investment in the kids in our lives as long as it comes from a genuine place of encouragement. Teaching, when done right, is too big to contain, and you never know how far it will travel…or how loud it will get.