Students in Lisa Arnold’s classes learn firsthand that music is a universal language. Each year, through her “Multicultural Musical Instrument Factory,” Arnold teaches Sioux City, Iowa, students about a foreign culture, then has them use household items to construct traditional instruments from that part of the world. Gleaning ideas from a percussionist friend and magazines for teachers, the Riverview Elementary music teacher has come up with lessons that really resonate: Arnold has taught her students to make Australian didgeridoos (tubular wind instruments) from PVC pipes, Japanese den-dens (fan drums on sticks) out of oatmeal boxes, and South American rainsticks (percussion instruments that mimic the sound of rain) from cardboard mailing tubes and toothpicks, among other instruments. Each project culminates in an upbeat—if somewhat unusual looking—concert performed for the entire school.
Finding a common mode of communication is particularly important for kids at Riverview, an area magnet school for ESL students. The school’s roughly 480 pupils hail from 18 countries, including China, Guatemala, and Senegal, and speak at least 15 languages. Faced with teaching such a diverse population, Arnold decided about six years ago to develop a series of programs to help students understand each other better through music.
Besides the instrument factory, Arnold’s other multicultural units include “Riverstomp,” a troupe patterned after the professional percussion/dance show Stomp; the Science of Steel Drums, in which students learn about sound, vibration, and Caribbean culture through steel drum lessons; and the International Chorus, a group of 3rd and 4th graders that learns and performs non-English songs.
Arnold, 44, is passionate about the power music has to motivate and inspire students. “When somebody has problems at home and they get involved in the music program, it helps them hang on,” she says. She also notes that in music programs, “people who don’t know English can succeed right away.”
Arnold tells the story of one student from a past year’s International Chorus, a Vietnamese boy named Minh. Having recently immigrated to the United States, he spoke only a few words of English and seemed constantly frustrated with school. Then Arnold decided to teach the group a song in Vietnamese. Arnold recalls Minh’s eyes widening as she switched on the rehearsal CD. He jumped up and sang the entire song solo in front of the chorus, and the other students clapped and cheered. Says Arnold: “It was the first time he felt like he did something right.”