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Tucked away in Macphail Memorial Elementary School in Flesherton, Ontario, there is a room unlike the others. Where fluorescent lighting would normally flicker and hum, there are Christmas lights. Where tile floors would reflect the glare, there are carpets. And where desks await students coming from science, French or gym class, there are couches.
This is the Macphail music room, and behind all this beautiful madness is the music teacher, Charles Glasspool.
Glasspool has been the music teacher at Macphail for five years. From the moment he began, music classes changed. He welcomed current Canadian music into his curriculum, and encouraged students to write their own songs, record them and then teach them to their peers. While many music teachers prepare their pupils for their conservatories and school functions, Glasspool seems to be preparing them for life as indie artists. His methods are unconventional, but his results are exceptional. Last year, the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence agreed, and Glasspool was one of only two music teachers in the country awarded a certificate of achievement, along with Susan Raponi of Scarborough, ON.
We spoke with Glasspool about his style of teaching, and how his unorthodox approach has led to such unbelievable results. Read some of what he had to say below.
Take me through an average day of teaching for you.
It's a real roller coaster. You get classes come in from every subject you can think of, so the transition is very important. I always have a warm up, or what I call a hook, sometimes it's a listening piece, or even some kind of philosophical question. For some classes it's a really big adjustment if they are coming from their homeroom.
Very often music classes consist of teaching theory, and preparing for assembly concerts. But in your classes, you set up recordings stations, and then teach students how to write their own music and teach it to others. It seems like you are grooming these students to take on a career as musicians.
Oh absolutely, even the littlest ones, I view them as fellow artists. And I never try to dumb things down. I try to inspire them. We have done lots of recordings. The first year I was here, we had the Flesherton Symphony Orchestra. It featured intermediate players from our school, but also high school players, and also seasoned musicians from the community. All of the pieces were composed by the grade sevens and eights in my classes, but recorded for a three-part documentary film series about it.
An excerpt from the documentary, the Flesherton Symphony Orchestra (Once Upon a Time...).
You incorporate current Canadian music into your teaching. Tell me about one of the songs you have taught.
One song we did was "Asa" by Bry Webb. We were in contact with Bry, and he was floored that this 80-person orchestra, ranging in age from 13 to 63 had recorded this song in Flesherton.
You won a 2014 certificate of achievement from the Prime Minister Award for Teaching Excellence. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
That was a real surprise, it was a very moving moment. I didn't really even know that I had been nominated. A former principal of mine nominated me and gathered a whole bunch of letters from students, which was actually the most moving part, to get the package after the fact, and read all of these really wonderful words about oneself was a bit of a surprise. I am still not really sure that it happened.
[Here is one of those letters, from one of Charles Glasspool's students.
"Mr. Glasspool means so much to us. The music room is a place to escape the stress of the day and have a good laugh. He teaches us to not only hear the music but to feel it. And he believes in every single one of us." ]
What is it about your philosophy as a music teacher that separates your music programs from more conventional programs?
I know there are a lot of music educators and gurus who do amazing things with their music classes. I beg, borrow and steal ideas from other teachers who inspire me. I also have class rules, but the rules are not for the students, they are for me. I think it is what sets us apart, not necessarily what makes us better, but what contributes to our success with this approach.
What is a piece of advice you would give to other music teachers?
Find and celebrate great music. There is plenty of it out there. These kids are inundated with popular music, and so much of it is formulaic, shapeless and lifeless. I think it is important to find "good" music, whatever genre that may be. We play music from the 19th century, but also tunes from talents like Bry Webb. Also, when teaching a music class, you can go from the most beautiful musical moments, to the "what am I doing, I'm lost" moments. But remember that every minute is a gift, and you have to embrace the chaos. Be prepared for things to be loud, and noisy.