Students learn lessons for other areas of life

Kendra Balmer, a music teacher at Universal Daroff Charter School, leads her charges in a game of Simon Says during summer session held on Wednesday. (Tribune Photos/Chief Photographer Abdul Sulayman)

At Universal Daroff Charter School in West Philadelphia, students recited lyrics from African songs they learned in music class and tried their best to follow clapping rhythms and commands called out by their teacher Kendra Balmer.

Youngsters holding drumsticks beat on their plastic chairs and classmates clapped their hands rhythmically during a game of Simon Says at a summer session on Wednesday. They also flapped their arms and bobbed up and down in a dance that resembled “The Funky Chicken.”

Balmer, who conducts Sister Cities Girls Choir and has a brother who studies music therapy at Temple University, said arts and music programs are creative and therapeutic outlets for students who may be just having a bad day or trying to cope with personal and family problems.

“That’s terrifying, the direction it’s going,” said Balmer, who was reunited with nearly two dozen students for the first time since the school year ended in June.

“That scares me a little bit. There is a lot of advocacy and there is a lot of push-back to try and keep it in schools,” she said. “I think more and more administrators and communities are seeing the value of music education, and that’s promising.”

Balmer spends a great deal of time in her class talking and reinforcing the importance of striving to be better people. Core values are written on signs and posted on classroom walls. Students are encouraged to recognize classmates who demonstrate compassion and fairness toward others by writing their name on a slip of paper and signing it.

Each signed slip of paper becomes a link in a growing chain. The chain for the school year ended in June was almost twice as long as the chain from the previous year, Balmer said.

“It’s something we talk about and practice all the time,” said Balmer, who wants to teach students lessons they can apply in their personal lives.

“It’s not just about teaching them to read music. It’s more than that,” she said.

Music instruction can be a salve for students who are unruly or disruptive or struggling academically, according to Balmer. She wants the dedicated music room that branches off one of the school’s wings to serve as an oasis from frustration and other mental distractions.

“They enjoy music, and that’s a place where they can feel proud of themselves and be confident in themselves. The goal is to let them translate that into other parts of their life and not have it just be a separate space,” Balmer said.

During class, she emphasizes to her students the music room is a safe place where they can relax.

She mixes classic with contemporary rhythm and blues. For example, she blended “Ode to Joy” from Ludwig Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” And then, she played a rendition of Beethoven’s classic from the “Sisters Act 2” soundtrack.

“They really connect to that,” she said. “And then you tell them he was deaf and he didn’t hear any of it.”

When it comes to building interest in music, Balmer said presentation matters.

“If it’s presented in the right way, kids will jump into it,” she said.

A 12-year-old West Philadelphia boy said he enjoys music class because it provides an opportunity to show his talent and has a soothing effect when he’s angry.

His classmate, Timothy Lightford, 13, of West Philadelphia, said: “Music is a way to express yourself, and whenever you’re feeling sad that day, she [Balmer] makes you feel better through music.”

The music program at Universal Daroff Charter School is supported by Little Kids Rock Program, an organization that provides instruments and curriculum. Daroff received a gift of two dozen guitars.

According to a post on the National Education Association’s website: “Music education advocacy depended on highlighting how music develops key skills in students, including self-reflection, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation.”

Last week, the middle school band from Universal Daroff Charter School performed with String Theory High School students.

“You wouldn’t think we could collaborate in that way, but we’re doing that all over the city, and all over the world,” said Balmer, who immersed herself in rhythms from Ghana during a trip in 2009. She hopes to win approval from the school leadership in establishing a student exchange program.

Contact staff writer Wilford Shamlin III at (215) 893-5742 or wshamlin@phillytrib.com.

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