Music Teacher Says Education Chose Him

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Yusef Chisholm credits music for keeping him off the streets. He says he was too busy playing the electric bass and tuba at Cardozo High School to get into trouble in the Shaw neighborhood where he grew up.

"Music saved our lives," he said of his group of musical friends. He played in the Cardozo marching and jazz bands and went to the Rose Bowl in 1981 in California with the marching band, one of the first local bands to go to a Rose Bowl. "It opened my eyes and gave me an opportunity to see things I'd never see."

Chisholm, a teacher at Hardy Middle School in Northeast for seven years, is the 2008 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award winner for D.C. public schools. He teaches 165 sixth- through eighth-graders and directs five bands: two concert bands, a jazz band, an honors band and a beginner marching band. Chisholm meets with students before, during and after school, and during lunch. He likes teaching the younger kids, he said, so that he can prepare them for high school bands. "I love music. I love children. So that's a great combo."

Chisholm started teaching at Ballou Senior High in 1989 after receiving his bachelor's degree in music education from the University of the District of Columbia. At Ballou, he tried to be a role model for the kids and inspire them to stick together and be a family. Many of them were growing up in single-parent homes. "Let's stay together," he would say. "Let's play these notes together."

Today at Hardy, he encourages his students to teach one another -- a note, a fingering or a musical phrase -- and during class he will often tell one student to help another. "We want them to learn how to work together," he said.

He introduces new types of music to his students, bringing them DVDs and CDs. He also allows them to borrow his recording equipment so they can listen to themselves play. Mostly, however, he just tries to get the kids to feel good about what they're doing. Kids, he said, "just want something they can say, 'This is ours,' a special place where they feel safe and where they belong."

Chisholm said that he didn't choose to teach. It chose him. "It was a choosing from the divine order," he said. At a recent class with the woodwind section, Chisholm wore a tie and patiently instructed the young musicians on the subtleties of marching. Not too much arm movement, he told them as they marched in place and played Earth Wind and Fire's "September."

Chisholm said that he finds joy in hearing his students play. Although he is excited about the award, he said, accolades are not why he teaches. Now and then, he runs into former students who tell him about the impact he has had on them. "For a kid to come back 20 years later and say, 'I was listening [to you Mr. Chisholm],' that's better than any award."

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