“Discover Your Soul Language”: The Impact of Exposure, Experience, and Engagement through Music and the Arts

There is something deep within each of us that has its own language, a dialect that is universal, believe it or not, that is transcultural when heard, and connections are made instantly.  This language is what I call “soul language”.  The language of the soul (because it resonates there) is powerful because no matter what your learning capabilities are it can only be tapped into through the arts or through music.

Recently, I watched the animated movie entitled, “Soul”.  It reveals, what I call, the discovery of the “soul language” of a middle school band director, Joe Gardner (voice over by actor Jamie Foxx), whose life dream was to play in the best jazz band in New York city.  He was introduced to jazz by his father and instantly jazz became his “soul language”.  He experienced an unfortunate misstep that led him to what was called “The Great Before”-a place where new souls get their personalities, their quirks, and all that makes them who they will become.  Stuck in this realm of the ‘Great Before’, Joe meets a very interesting pre-existing soul called Number 22, who he engages to assist him to getting his life back or getting back to earth.  The problem is Number 22 doesn’t understand the appeal of the human experience (you’ll have to watch the rest of the movie!).

Imagine human life without colors, texture, musical sounds or rhythms, improvisation, or other sources that generates from the arts and cultivates individuality and creativity.  Imagine existing in a reality where reaching one’s fullest potential was not an option.  The language of the soul would never develop its voice and the human experience would never create interactions that would truly allow people to be who or what they were created to be. The language of the soul would never have a place of expression where even those with special emotional and physical needs might feel a sense of purpose and self-worth. There is a freedom experienced in the arts that is revealed as the language of the soul, i.e., the language of one’s true self that is just waiting to be discovered!  Art and music educators are the experts who facilitate this progress for enabling this language to come forth through exposure, experiences, and engagement.

Learning through exposure

Many students learn their soul language through being exposed to the different genres of art and music.  Guided practice with a paint brush or a classroom instrument gives students unlimited opportunities to be exposed to what is possible to achieve.  Research says that music ignites all areas of child development and skills for school readiness, including intellectual, social-emotional, motor, language, and overall literacy. It helps the body and the mind work together. Exposing children to music during early development helps them learn the sounds and meanings of words. Dancing to music helps children build motor skills while allowing them to practice self-expression. For children and adults, music helps strengthen memory skills.[1]

Learning through experience

The classroom experience is the laboratory of discovery where students are allowed to be who they are without fear of judgement.  As a result of the pandemic, students have experienced a traumatic shift in learning, going from in-person learning to virtual learning then back to in-person learning, over the past 18 or more months. The arts can play a crucial role for students and educators, especially in addressing healing and trauma. Through research we know that participation in the arts can support the social and emotional learning needs of students, including teaching emotional regulation and compassion for others. They can also provide an outlet for students to process their emotions following trauma so they can begin the healing process and build resiliency.[2]

Learning through engagement

The time is now for more intentional engagement in the arts and music.  More resources are needed for the implementation of innovative ways to utilize the arts to bring “soul language” back to the stage! Soul language always make connections that sparks other gifts and talents through engagement because of the inspiration that it brings.  In the movie, Joe Gardner, fights for the revival of his ‘soul language’, and discovers that one of his students named Connie, his trombone player, wants to fight for her ‘soul language’ as well! Inspiration breeds inspiration! There may sometimes appear to be a dead-end road in teaching and learning but, the arts and music has the undeniable ability to build a bridge for success!  There must be a bridge built, through the arts and must, to keep students connected in teaching and learning AND help them to discover their inner voice, their ‘soul language’.

Dr. Toney McNair, Jr., D. Min. is currently employed with the Virginia Education Association as a UniServ Director serving the Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Isle of Wight school divisions.  He is a 23-year veteran of public education having taught General Music at the elementary and Choral Music at the middle, and high school levels. Most noted, Dr. McNair was selected, by the Virginia Department of Education, as the 2017 Virginia Teacher of the Year, representing nearly 100,000 educators and 1.3 million public school students in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  He has served on and chaired numerous committees and received numerous awards and recognitions.  He is also a successful grant writer and is most noted for acquiring a brand new Yamaha baby grand piano for his middle school music program. 

He currently serves as a member of the African American Advisory Superintendent’s Council for the Virginia Department of Education and a facilitator on Human and Civil Rights/Racial Justice for the National Education Association.  He holds a B.S. degree in Public School Music (Vocal/Piano/Organ) K-12 (Norfolk State University); Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees (Virginia Union University); as well as a Master of Education degree in Administration and Supervision (Averett University).  He is married with four children and four grandchildren and resides in Elizabeth City, NC.

[1] Retrieved from: https://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/music-and-children-rhythm-meets-child-development

[2] Retrieved from: https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2021/importance-heading-back-school-arts-education

Preparing Our Next Generation of Citizens Through STEM Education

As per President Barack Obama, “[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world.” Technological advancements are contributing to expanding education and learning in the 21st century. At the beginning of the 21st century, The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were written, due to a report titled “The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for the Global Economy (2009),” which was published by the Carnegie Corporation. This report explained how science and math education were the main drivers for our economy and, that our education system needed to focus on preparing our students for a future in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields as discoverers and innovators. The National Research Council published “Successful K-12 STEM Education (2011),” which states:

…the primary driver of the future economy and concomitant creation of jobs will be innovation, largely derived from advances in science and engineering… 4 percent of the nation’s workforce is composed of scientists and engineers; this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.

This report called for innovative STEM instruction in schools to improve our economy, our humanity and our standards of living, and, with this report, began the development of the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). Developing these standards was done through collaborative work of science educators and professionals in the STEM workforce. The “Successful K-12 STEM Education (2011),” report helped develop a model of “real-world” science standards that can be implemented in schools to help students learn and engage in science so that they are prepared to contribute to the STEM workforce.

With STEM occupations growing more rapidly than non-STEM occupations, our students have greater opportunities in STEM careers. The goal for STEM educators is to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the 21st Century. This STEM education will support their learning through solving problems and evaluating evidence to make decisions. Therefore, STEM educators are preparing our students for their future, while STEM education creates innovators and problem solvers.

Since science is everywhere in the world around us, STEM education is so important and meaningful to students. With technology continuously expanding, it is in every aspect of their lives. Mathematics is used in every occupation as well as in our daily lives, and engineering design is all around us in buildings, roads, and bridges. STEM education helps us understand the world around us better, in areas such as weather, climate, and natural disasters. By exposing students to real world experiences, they are informed and prepared about a future in STEM. Real-life connection to STEM will give students an early, strong, science education that helps them make connections and know the possibilities of careers in STEM.

The importance of developing 21st century skills in all our students helps prepare them for their future. 21st century skills are developed through critical thinking, analysis, self-reflection, and awareness of belief systems of multicultural groups and examining real-world    situations. The universe is viewed as evolving and STEM teaching methods focus on hands-on problem-solving of current issues. Students are encouraged to apply their knowledge to real situations through experimental inquiry and diverse perspectives. This will prepare students for a future in STEM careers.

In conclusion, the long-term benefits of STEM education provide a huge investment in our future. Implementing STEM education in our schools today, gives the current generation of students opportunities to be successful as adults. Careers in STEM offer higher earnings and provide for higher standards of living, and, an enhanced quality of life. More  females in STEM careers will be a turning point for future generations. These generations will be more likely to grow up in families that can offer them enriching opportunities and lifestyles. Therefore, society in general will benefit if more students are heading towards a future in STEM  careers.


National Research Council 2011. Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy. Retrieved from https://media.carnegie.org/filer_public/80/c8/80c8a7bc-c7ab-4f49-847d-1e2966f4dd97/ccny_rep ort_2009_opportunityequation.pdf

Tehmina Khan is a high school science department chair with 12 years of experience in education.  She has a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology from The City University of New York, a Masters in Science degree in Health Sciences and Secondary Science Education and a sixth-year certificate in Educational Leadership from Quinnipiac University. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Bridgeport, studying International Educational Leadership.  In her current school district, Tehmina has written the science curricula for the Human Biology, Environmental Biology and Chemistry NGSS-aligned courses and facilitated several workshops in improving instructional practices during faculty and department meetings. 

Tehmina was a Teacher of the Year finalist at her current district, prior to becoming an administrator.  She is currently a second year fellow of The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) VOYA STEM Fellowship, which includes 15 members of NNSTOY and 15 high-potential educators that collaboratively explore what leads to effective STEM learning to support STEM educators and provide students with robust learning environments to increase their interest in STEM careers.  Tehmina’s dissertation research focuses on teacher leadership models and programs that build capacity in schools. 

Designing Our Teaching for Wonder

In your experience in education, (or in life), have you ever had two years that were the same? How about two classes? How about two children? In my twenty-five years of teaching, one truth rings out: every class and every child is beautifully unique. Why do schools continue to narrow the curriculum emphasizing only a few subjects if this is true?

Many years ago, I was offered a ticket to hear a guest lecturer on the UW-Madison Campus. The speaker was the late Sir Ken Robinson. This event marked my first introduction to Sir Ken, and I found myself furiously taking notes as he spoke. In his talk that night, he said, “Intelligence is Diverse, Dynamic and Distinct: We know that each individual demonstrates their intelligence in uniquely different ways. A system that focuses on merely one path, one way of doing, undervalues those that don’t fit the mold.”

Our country seems obsessed with increasing math and literacy scores. I have observed school systems doubling down on instructional minutes in these two areas while reducing time in the arts and other electives. Overworked teachers are being asked to analyze test data, create Student Learning Objectives, and craft SMART Goals, all in an effort to improve scores. Terms such as “tougher standards,” “higher expectations,” “raising the bar,” and “accountability” have been thrown around by politicians, school boards, and administrators. All the while, students in higher numbers come to school seeking meaning, connection, and joy.

Our myopic focus on student test scores in a narrow range of subjects has created an environment that devalues and alienates many students. We need to broaden our curriculum and eliminate standardized testing while developing multifaceted ways for students to demonstrate growth and achievement.

In his book, Out of our Minds, Ken Robinson writes, “All over the world, governments are pouring vast resources into education reform. In the process, policymakers typically narrow the curriculum to emphasize a small group of subjects, tie schools up in a culture of standardized testing and limit the discretion of educators to make professional judgments about how and what to teach. These reforms are typically stifling the very skills and qualities that are essential to meet the challenges we face: creativity, cultural understanding, communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. Many people are diverted from their natural paths in life by the preoccupation in education with academic intelligence and the hierarchy of disciplines. It shows itself especially in the distinction between academic and vocational programs and the idea that doing practical work or studying for a trade is lower grade than taking an academic degree.” (Robinson, 339)

I see politicians and administrators working harder than ever to get our school “machine” to run better and more efficiently. The problem, though, is that the “system” is outdated and will no longer meet the needs of our rapidly changing world. We need to embrace the concept that intelligence is broader than our current views. We need to realize that standardized tests do not give us definitive numbers to base significant decisions solely. We need to recognize that “the task of education is not to teach subjects: it is to teach students. We need to see educators as professionals and give them the tools they need to make the best decisions for their students. We need to support educators with highly developed professional development, which encourages collaboration and not competition. We need to make decisions based on data from multiple sources and look to research to find best practices. We need to take a vested interest in each of our students and realize that “at the heart of education is the relationship between teachers and students. If students are not learning, education is not happening” (Robinson, 647). “We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers” (Hedges, 16).

In 2017 I had the privilege of speaking to Sir Ken Robinson on the phone. During our conversation, he said, “It’s not an argument against math or science — on the contrary, they’re desperately important. But they’re not enough. A great country like this depends not only on mathematicians and scientists and engineers but on people who can work in business, on artists, on musicians, and on people who work in the community. We depend on a huge range of talents and abilities.”

I believe that we can create vibrant and thoughtful learning spaces where students as young as Kindergarten grapple with our deepest and most enduring questions. We can design our teaching for wonder rather than performance, for curiosity rather than testing, and for innovation rather than compliance. All of it starts with regaining balance in our curriculum while welcoming and valuing the diverse interests and abilities already inside our students.

Chris Gleason is an instrumental music educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and the first Wisconsin teacher to be named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 50 years. He was recently selected as one of the five 2021 Horace Mann award recipients by the NEA Foundation, as well as a Top 50 Finalist for the 2021 Global Teacher Prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO. He is also a current semi-finalist for the 2022 GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year Award.

In 2009 Chris started the ComMission Possible Project that annually commissions a new work for band. Chris recently served as a Teacher Leadership and Engagement Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction inspiring future education majors across the state. He is the past-chair of the Wisconsin Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP) Committee, the Wisconsin State Middle-Level Honors Band and the Wisconsin State Middle-Level Honors Project. In 2019 Gleason was selected as an NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow and traveled to South Africa. Mr. Gleason is the founder and organizer of the Beyond The Notes Music Festival Inc. in Wisconsin Dells that has to date inspired more than 35,000 young musicians and 70 future music educators.   Mr. Gleason recently presented his own talk at 2019 TEDxOshkosh entitled, “Lighting a Fire in Kids


Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. New York: Nation Books, 2009. Print.

Robinson, Sir Ken. “Developing Imagination in Education” Full Sail University, March 25, 2008. Lecture.

Robinson, Sir Ken. Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative. United Kingdom: Capstone Publishing, 2011. iBook, Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

I Am Preparing Students for Jobs That Do Not Yet Exist!

This is my number one goal for teaching approximately 140 extraordinary 8th graders every year. As a 22-year veteran Science teacher, I have been fortunate to see my students’ hard work pay off over the years, as adulthood  has taken them on many diverse journeys. Their dreams have led them to become forensic scientists, windmill technicians, mechanics, engineers, doctors, lawyers, construction workers (who have built onto my house in a chance meeting), and everything in between. No matter what path they choose, they need to have a ‘toolbox’ that they can access when becoming productive members of society. STEM affords them the opportunity to become lifelong learners by creating problem solvers and critical thinkers.

STUDENTS are the focus, rather than an exclusive subject. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math immerses students into real world situations.

Science, ELA, Math, and History are all interconnected, and intertwining the      learning that takes place in all content areas together makes our students’ skills and knowledge worldly and diverse. STEM provides opportunities and opens doors for STUDENTS by developing 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, creativity, problem solving, perseverance, collaboration, information literacy, technology skills and digital literacy, to name a few. To immerse our students in real world applications turns them into critical thinkers and problem solvers, and, prepares them for a world that will lead us forward.

As STUDENTS are my focus, exposing them to STEM activities, I have seen students come alive with ideas, share their strengths, build on their weaknesses, and gain confidence in themselves and the school setting. Every Friday is ‘Fun Friday’ in Mrs. Nestor’s Science class. Students are given a task, challenge, game design project or virtual project on which they work collaboratively to achieve a goal. With full inclusion in the classroom, and many diverse student learning levels, reaching all students can be very challenging, but STEM is inclusive to all students and allows everyone to find their voice and communicate it effectively.

I have witnessed harder to educate students blossom, succeed, and feel a sense of accomplishment. STEM classrooms help to bridge gender and ethnic gaps for students by fostering an environment where the sky’s the limit for all students.

As educators, we want all of our students represented in these fields, as they are the future in our global economy. It is our job to encourage  and enhance the skills that are required to lead this charge. This type of pedagogy creates a passion for learning where students are unaware that they are learning and engrains them with well-rounded skills that will help them thrive in today’s technological society. The logical thinking which comes from STEM activities produces mental habits that will help them to be successful in any field.

As the educational community, and society itself, continues to raise expectations for our students, teachers are under an immense amount of pressure to make sure students meet those expectations. I often hear fellow  colleagues comment that they have very little time to implement anything new into their curriculum and STEM takes up too much of their time. This sentiment is understood all across the country.

STEM does take a great deal of time and effort, but its benefits are all-encompassing. When teaching STEM, we are teaching reading, Math, ELA, and History while creating innovative thinkers. Students realize and comprehend the reasoning behind  their work and see the benefits.

Through real world application and hands-on experience, the relevance of STEM becomes more critical to today’s society and our students. Subjects do not take a back seat, it is not a game of tug of war, but a learning strategy to take our students to the next level. By teaching STEM in the classroom, we create innovative thinkers who learn by doing. Fellow Educators, we can’t afford not to teach this way. This should be our ‘best practice’. A facilitator of learning real-world applications, through STEM, is the only way to build our students’ knowledge and watch them soar.

Heather DeLuca Nestor, a 22-year veteran and two-time National Board Certified teacher, implements STEM Activities by incorporating Fun Fridays throughout the school year for 8th grade students. Facilitating designs, challenges, labs, and technology develop students’ skills that foster a love of learning hands-on science by applying it to real world situations.