Nicole Becker & Darrin Thornton


Darrin Thornton is an assistant professor of music at Penn State where he teaches music education foundations, methods and techniques courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. His research focuses on pre-service teacher preparation, educational access and outreach in music and music education, learning in ensemble settings, and lifelong music engagement. Thornton remains active as a performing percussionist, conductor, church musician, adjudicator, clinician, guest lecturer, and consultant, while serving as assistant director of the Penn State Marching Blue Band.

Nicole 3

Nicole Becker is the Director of the Teachers College Choir and teaches piano, voice, and conducting at Teachers College, Columbia University.  She is also the Artistic Director of Every Voice Choirs, a choral program for youth in New York City.  A native of New York City, Dr. Becker received an undergraduate degree in Biology from Yale University, a Masters of Music in Piano from Indiana University, and a Doctor of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.  Dr. Becker has performed internationally as a pianist and soprano and has taught music at the elementary, middle school, and college levels.



What’s Going On? Teaching Racial Literacy in Music Classrooms

In the past two years, an increased focus on America’s “race problem” in the public consciousness–due largely to videos showing police brutality and to organized responses to racism such as BlackLivesMatter–has provided an opening for educators to engage the subject of race more directly in their teaching. Teachers have begun to incorporate discussions of contemporary and personal issues of race and racism into curricula that previously included only broader, more abstract discussions of social justice and civil rights (Spencer, 2015). Such programs aim to develop racial literacy, defined by Sealey-Ruiz (2013) as a skill and practice that involves opening and sustaining dialog about race and racism, recognizing the effects of systemic racism, developing awareness of one’s own bias and privilege, adopting an anti-racist stance, and, for people of color, resisting a victim stance. As a model for working with issues of race in an educational setting, racial literacy work pairs teaching about the historical, political, and social factors that have contributed to our racialized society with personal work that calls on individuals to consider their own roles in creating, sustaining, and changing the way race is enacted in their lives, their communities, and the world. Building racial literacy requires reflection, dialog, and a collaborative effort to seek mutual understanding.

In our provocation, we position racial literacy work as a practice that may serve Action Ideal I, encouraging culturally adaptive musical engagement. We explore how racial literacy and music education intersect and support each other, seeking to understand and articulate a) how music education is uniquely suited to promote racial literacy, and, conversely, b) how racial literacy work serves myriad goals of music education. We acknowledge that music’s capacity for “building bridges” between cultures has been at the core of multicultural music curricula for decades. For many students, learning the music of another culture has been paired with learning about geography, social customs, language, and cuisine. However, acknowledging the shortcomings of common “heroes and holidays” approaches to multicultural education (Banks, 2001), and following our interest in issues of race specifically, we ask what the role of music teachers might be in facilitating “race talk” (Sue, 2015), conversations that delve into issues such as power, privilege, and discrimination, and challenge students to probe their own racial identity. We seek to understand if, how, and why music teachers incorporate race talk into their music curricula, and in cases when teachers do engage issues of race, we want to learn about the impact of this work on students’ musical engagement. Moreover, we ask, what are the specific affordances that music provides for racial literacy work? Race talk has been incorporated into english and social studies curricula, natural settings for conversations about social issues. However, we believe that music provides unique entry points into racial literacy work; we seek to identify and explore those potentialities.

As a first step in exploring these issues, we have created a questionnaire asking K-12 Music Educators questions about teaching racial literacy in their general music and ensemble classrooms. We ask teachers whether they purposefully integrate racial literacy work into their music curricula and how they do so, in order to gauge the extent to which music teachers explore issues such as racism, discrimination, privilege, personal bias, and racial identity. Our analysis of data from this survey research project, currently underway, will be guided by the following questions:

• What do music teachers see as their role in teaching racial literacy?

  • What are the ways in which music teachers incorporate racial literacy work in their classrooms and their curricula?
  • What reasons do music teachers give for incorporating or not incorporating this work?
  • What are the barriers to engaging in this work that music teachers perceive, and how might music teacher educators facilitate overcoming these barriers?During our provocation, these guiding questions will be used to invite a more philosophical discussion on our fundamental questions:
  • In what ways is racial literacy work essential to music teaching?
  • In what ways does music provide unique affordances for racial literacy work? What are the “musical” ways to do racial literacy work?It is our hope that our preliminary research findings will prompt provocative discussion and future collaborations exploring and establishing the role of music educators in teaching toward racial literacy.