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VH1 “Keys + Kids” Grant Transforms Trenton Music Program

Dr. Berger sat down with 2014 VH1 Keys + Kids grant winner, Lisa Costantino, a music teacher at Washington Elementary School, Trenton, New Jersey. Together they discuss the emotions behind winning and the far-reaching impact of the grant on the lives of the students. Costantino shares her first-hand experience of transforming a bare-bones music classroom into a learning rich environment with the continued support of VH1 Save The Music Foundation.

Dr. Berger: Well, this is going to be a lot of fun if the conversation we had off-air is anything like it’s going to be on-air. We’re going to be talking to the 2014 winner of the “Keys + Kids Grant” from VH1 Save The Music Foundation. We want to remind everybody that this interview is brought to you by Soundtrap. You can make music and podcasts online, a collaborative tool for the modern classroom and a Google for education partner. Well, Lisa, it’s so nice to spend time with you, and I know it’s been a couple of years since you and Washington Elementary School were winners and recipients of the “Keys + Kids Grant” in 2014. So, take us back to 2014, what was it like then and fast forward to how it’s impacted you today as a music teacher?

Lisa Costantino: Sure. It feels like it was a long time ago. I saw the “Keys + Kids Grant,” my supervisor had brought it to our attention. I filled it out as fast as I possibly could because our school didn’t have a piano. We had one keyboard that was buried in a deep dark closet that was inaccessible. I didn’t have a piano in the classroom at that time. I knew this was a wonderful way to bring our kids together and our school together, so I applied, immediately.

And then they told us pretty quickly that we were granted the piano. So, we got a piano that is beautiful, a new electric Yamaha piano. We have never had anything like that in our school. We also got a fantastic portable sound system – a Yamaha speaker that has a soundboard in it that I use every single day in my teaching. It’s awesome.

We were announced live on the air; Nick Lachey announced our names and I watched it from the principal’s office, she was equally excited. We ended up on the VH1 website. It was an all around amazing experience for our kids, and it still continues. We use the piano nonstop for every performance, every morning. I sing with the kids, and I couldn’t be more grateful – that was an incredible opportunity.

DB: Lisa, talk about it from the perspective of music education, which is often sadly marginalized when we look at the big picture of education and standards. All the different things that are under the microscope and yet we try to find where were we can support the arts. What is like to get that sort of attention paid to you – what you’re doing in your craft as a music teacher and what it means to the kids?

LC: Well, speaking from my district, I only received $200 for all of my supplies for the year. So, that leaves not a lot of room to be able to provide for the kids. Opportunities like VH1, having people care and show concern for kids that don’t have that much, was eye opening. For our kids and our community to see us on this big website and to show how people care so much about us, it just meant so much and the support from everyone. We had people reach out and talk about how amazing it was that people are supporting music education. So, just to get the word out, I feel like we’ve been growing and getting so much bigger from there. We just had a concert with VH1. I was also granted instruments this year from VH1. So, it’s just been an amazing partnership.

DB: That’s incredible.

LC: Yeah.

DB: So, tell me about the response from other music teachers in other areas of the country when they found out you won? I believe educators within certain disciplines can become rich communities of conversation and learning – a shoulder to lean on. What happened when you found out you won and then, then how did the community help promotion about what you’re doing?

LC: Yeah, I was able to talk to a lot of music educators. Even within my district, no one could believe I won. I’m from a very wide circle of music educators. My parents are music educators. My husband is a music educator. So, the whole community, everyone could not believe how fortunate we were to be offered this opportunity. And then to see that we were chosen from applicants all over the country; this tiny little city in New Jersey, and then there was Texas, and everywhere – just to see our name pop up on TV, was so amazing.

DB: Lisa, what’s been the impact on the school itself? As a music teacher, you’re getting that direct impact on the students in your classroom, but I would imagine that within the school itself, there’s a great sense of pride. I mean, you’re talking about seeing them on TV. What’s been the ongoing feeling in the school, and on the campus after this?

LC: Well, many of the children have never performed with live accompaniment before. So, not having a pre-recorded track, I could sit down and play with my kids, and they could sing to live music. It’s a skill they would never have had otherwise, and I feel a lot of them have blossomed, and it’s given them more opportunities to perform different kinds of music. I have accompanied all of our kids at one time. It’s given them a whole new level of musicianship that they would have never had before.

DB: What about the kids that you think were drawn to your classroom afterward?

VH1 Save the Music Foundation logo

LC: Yeah, it’s crazy now, I had my fifth graders that I’ve had since they were in the first grade – I just don’t know what I’m going to do without them. They are my core group of kids that whenever they have a free second, run to the music room, whether it’s to play the piano or play their instruments, they have just blossomed. They are passionate musicians, which is all I could ever ask for – and it wasn’t there before we were awarded the piano. It has totally impacted all of our kids in such a positive way.

DB: It’s incredible when you hear stories like yours and to see the growth over time. What advice do you have for those out there that don’t understand the value and the quality of the arts, and what it means to children, besides just sitting at the piano or singing music? What does it mean to their development from your perspective?

LC: Well, I know from my perspective, I came into my school with my kids not having music education for over a year and a half. And just seeing the progression from no classroom, I had nothing, I had a ukulele, and I had a drum. I used to walk around and just starting to sing with the kids, they all lit up, and they came to life. Then we started adding music everywhere. We began adding it in the classroom. We started adding it in the morning. What a change from watching that, to now. We have a piano, I have my classroom, we have all of these wonderful opportunities for our kids and as we continue to grow. I watch our kids blossom because they don’t have these opportunities at their home. And to be able to give it to them, that’s my number one priority. That’s it.

DB: So, I want to focus a little on you because although it’s easy to concentrate on the wonderful contributions of VH1 and what everybody is doing outside of the school, it seems that you made a conscious choice to go to a school that was under-resourced but yet you came from a music background. I get the sense; you knew what you were walking into, but it takes a special human being to do what you did. Obviously, it’s paying back in spades. But, talk about your decision. I think there are a lot of talented people that we would love to see enter education, but it’s that fear that they’re not going to be able to realize what the potential might be.

LC: Exactly. It’s a funny story. I was teaching in New Jersey when I was laid off during the crisis of, 2007-2008? Now, when I lost my job, my position was eliminated. And so, I refused to go a year without teaching, so I went abroad. And I taught in Thailand, Bangkok there was a language barrier and a lack of resources – all of that.

And then I decided after six months, “This isn’t for me, this isn’t where I want to be. I want to be helping people that are closer to home and with my family.” So, I came back, and I immediately got my job in Trenton. And it just worked out; it was fate. I started there, and I felt a connection to the community, and I know everyday I go to work, I’m doing an important thing. All I see in our district is more young people coming in and just caring. And that’s all I could ever ask for, honestly. It feels way more important than ever to be where I am.

DB: It speaks, and I’m sure the audience can sense it in the way you communicate your passion about it. But, it’s not just about throwing resources at education; it’s about the combination of that and the human factor.

LC: Absolutely.

DB: By bringing the heart, the passion, we understand what matters to kids. I think that’s the amazing thing with music, and it’s nice to see how VH1 Save The Music Foundation is working. It sounds to me like they have continued to support, which is fantastic. We’ve been flushed in our general lives with marketing that is dropped in and then the support leaves. But it sounds like VH1 has done it differently by continuing to support a fantastic cause. I hope that we can continue to connect with you and learn more about you and your students and what they’re doing.

LC: Absolutely, anytime. (dog bark) (laugh)

DB: (laugh) That’s great. Well, we want to thank our sponsors of the interview today – Soundtrap, where you can make music and podcast online, a collaborative tool for the modern classroom, a Google for education partner.

Lisa Costantino teaches music at Washington Elementary School, Trenton, New Jersey

This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit


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