CSU Voices and Views

Music Opening the Doors to Education

James Van Buren (front row, middle) with members of the Grant High Drum Line after performing at the Medi-Cal event at the State Capitol in June 2013.

James Van Buren (front row, middle) with members of the Grant High Drum Line after performing at the Medi-Cal event at the State Capitol in June 2013.

By James Van Buren
Sac State, Cal Poly Pomona Alumnus

You don’t really understand the power of music until you see it firsthand save someone’s life.  When I received my degree from Cal Poly Pomona and later my credential from Sac State, I went on to teach in some of the most challenging environments. I worked at economically disadvantaged schools that were located in communities ridden with poverty and crime. Some of my students have been emotionally disturbed<Many have been academically challenged and unable to grasp the concept of learning.

I knew I had to create a unique and innovative teaching strategy to reach these kids. I took the concepts I learned at the CSU and made them my own to fit my environment. By integrating the idea of multiple intelligences—which states that students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn in different ways— into my strategy, I was able to use their gift for music to help them become motivated in school and perform better academically.

It all started in my classroom when students started asking if they could come in during lunch and play on my drum-set. I jumped in and soon jam sessions were becoming a regular lunchtime activity. Then it clicked! I can encourage students to practice their gift of gab on the mic rather than trash talking. I can help students redirect their anger by showing them how to play the drums rather than getting into fights. I can teach students how to focus on things like playing music rather than getting into drugs. Before I knew it the classroom jam sessions became the football halftime show; more and more students started coming in wanting to learn.

The result has been tremendous. There have been fewer fights and my students’ grades in my classes are at an all-time high. I think a big part of that is because my school, Grant High School, started an organized drum line with the ambition of giving students the opportunity to tap into their musical nature. At the same time, it is engaging them in extracurricular involvements and teaching them how to excel scholastically. Since then, maintaining a program that can continue to provide a safe outlet and an enrichment opportunity has been a top priority.

When we are practicing or are on the road doing gigs, my drum line students are reminded about the importance of going to college because I’m always telling stories about the professors and classes who impacted me at Cal Poly Pomona and Sac State. I love reminiscing about my days on campus and telling them about all the doors that have been opened because I had a degree…the same way music has opened so many doors for them.

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