RTRL.24: Developing a Culturally Responsive Mind-Set in Elementary General Music (Kelly-McHale, 2019)


Kelly-McHale, J. (2019). Research-to-resource: Developing a culturally responsive mind-set in elementary general music. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 37(2), 11-14.

What did the researcher want to know?

What practical steps can elementary general music teachers take toward developing a culturally responsive mind-set?

What did the researcher do?

In order to make practical suggestions for elementary general music teachers, Kelly-McHale synthesized a variety of research studies and other sources pertaining to culturally responsive pedagogy, the purpose of which is “to improve the achievement of students of color and those who have been marginalized due to culture” (p. 11).

What did the researcher find?

“Culturally responsive music educators seek to develop a mind-set that enables them to understand, appreciate, and incorporate the experiences and the music of the students within their classroom, their community, and the world we live in” (p. 11). Teachers can work toward developing this culturally responsive mind-set by focusing on two areas: context and content. Here are some of Kelly-McHale’s specific suggestions:

Context/Classroom Environment

  • Greeting and Learning: Connect with each individual student by saying hello as they enter, making eye contact, and working to learn their name. This sounds simple, but “when a teacher mispronounces or arbitrarily changes a child’s name, the child begins to develop a disjuncture between school and home” (p. 12).
  • Know Your Biases: Develop awareness of habits that may portray unintended favoritism, such as teaching more to one part of the class or calling on boys more than girls.
  • Listening to Your Students: Try to get to know your students by truly listening to them, particularly during casual conversations in the hallway or as students enter the classroom. Kelly-McHale also suggests setting aside a few minutes of “sharing space” in each of your classes, during which students are invited to share something about themselves.
  • Representation: Include images in your classroom that look like the students you teach and others in the local community as well as national community. Incorporate music that is representative of students’ backgrounds and music that is composed or performed by people who represent other backgrounds as well—not just during a specific month but throughout the whole year.

Content/Classroom Materials

  • Representation: Rather than making assumptions about what music your students will connect with, “the students in the seats should be where you start when choosing music” (p. 13). Some ways we might learn about the musical lives of our students outside of school include surveying them about the music they listen to or how they engage with music at home or by surveying their parents about what music they enjoy at home or even asking them to share in person. 
  • Contextualizing Repertoire: Engage students in discussion about the music you make and listen to in class, “situating the music within the greater societal context” (p. 14).
  • Recognizing Your Music Bias: Respect students’ musical tastes and values. “Just because we are the experts due to our degrees and experience does not mean that we are the arbiters of quality when it comes to music” (p. 14). 

What does this mean for my classroom?

“The development of [a culturally responsive] mind-set begins with an exploration of teaching context in terms of who the students are and what communities they represent; this knowledge should then inform the content that is used in the music classroom” (p. 11).

Note: Online access to Update: Applications of Research in Music Education is included with NAfME membership. In addition to research studies and literature reviews, this journal has recently added new “Research-to-Resource” articles, designed to provide teachers with practical suggestions supported by research. NAfME members can access these and other articles by logging into the NAfME website and clicking “News and Publications” under “For Teachers.”

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