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Music as a common language: A Md. teacher reaches students with Ethiopian songs

Anna Harris, a music teacher at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, leads second-grade students last month. Harris has won a $4,000 grant to expand her Ethio­pian curriculum.
Anna Harris, a music teacher at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, leads second-grade students last month. Harris has won a $4,000 grant to expand her Ethio­pian curriculum. (Debbie Truong/The Washington Post)
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Fifteen first-graders encircled one of their classmates on a colorful rug in a Maryland classroom, trilling a children’s song in a language unfamiliar to most of them.

Ro-za ro-zeenuh, ro-za shuko-ree-na

Ay-e-soos Kuh-ri-stos a-luh dee-nuh dee-nuh poof!

They sang along as they played an Ethiopian children’s game that requires a student in the center to twirl with eyes closed and point to another classmate at the end, until each youngster has a chance in the middle. The students at Oakland Terrace Elementary in Silver Spring sang in Amharic, the official language of Ethi­o­pia, and they were learning from a curriculum designed specially for them by their music teacher, Anna Harris.

The song, “Roza, Rozeenuh,” belongs to a collection of 13 children’s songs Harris compiled. To translate them, she enlisted help from Ethio­pian families, community groups and a Howard University student. She wanted the music she taught to reflect the countries and cultures her students identify with.

“It’s so important for the students to see themselves in their everyday life, and so much of their everyday life, at this age, is what’s happening in school,” Harris said. “But a lot of what we do in school is very whitewashed. . . . There isn’t any sort of a focus on the identities of the students themselves.”

Her project is poised to grow — Harris won a $4,000 grant from the Give A Note Foundation, which strives to expand music opportunities for students.

The Silver Spring teacher plans to hire a professional translator who will help convert songs in Oromo and Tigrinya, two other languages spoken in Ethi­o­pia, into a phonetic pronunciation and an accompanying English translation.

Harris, who views music as a unifier and vessel to strengthen communities, began the project two years ago when she taught at another elementary school in Takoma Park, Md. She discovered music from places such as Guatemala and Puerto Rico but “hit a wall” as she scoured for pieces from Ethi­o­pia.

So she built her own curriculum, a compilation of music that includes a lullaby and an ode to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Each song is assigned a level of difficulty and includes an English translation.

Eden Kassaye, a nursing student from Ethi­o­pia who moved to the United States four years ago and worked with Harris to translate the songs, said she hopes the music will help students whose families emigrated from Ethi­o­pia to the United States understand both cultures.

Harris wanted her students at Oakland Terrace — which became a Spanish-English immersion school this school year and educates students from across the globe, including Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia — to recognize that “everyone’s culture and everyone’s identity is important and worth celebrating.”

On one wall in her classroom, a display proclaims: “Music is a language everyone speaks.” Another carries a world map, with names of songs written on paper and connected by string to the country where they originated. They point to Sweden and Russia, and North and South Korea, signifying countries Harris’s students have performed songs from.

At the start of class one morning with first-graders, Harris asked:

“Where is ‘Roza, Rozeenuh’ from?”

“Ethiopia,” the students replied.

“Does anyone know anyone from Ethi­o­pia?”

Hands raised in the air.

Montgomery County officials estimate about 13,370 Ethio­pian immigrants live in the Maryland suburb, about 4 percent of its immigrant population. The D.C. region has the largest concentration of Ethiopia-born people in the United States, according to a 2014 report from the Migration Policy Institute.

The Ethiopian community in the District began taking shape by the early 1980s, said Sarah Zullo, executive director of the African Community Center DC Metro, a branch of the Ethio­pian Community Development Council.

As the District has gentrified, more Ethiopians have settled in Montgomery County and the Northern Virginia communities of Arlington and Alexandria, Zullo said. Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring has, in particular, become a hub for Ethio­pian businesses, she said.

The region has a growing community of second- and third-generation Ethio­pian Americans, Zullo said.

Some are children like Yanet Gezahegn, an Oakland Terrace student whose parents are from Ethi­o­pia. The 10-year-old pulled a chair up to Harris’s desk one weekday morning to help translate a song about the sun the fifth-grade chorus plans to perform at a spring concert.

Yanet said her classmates are familiar with places such as Mexico and France but regard the country in the Horn of Africa as more remote.

“I just kind of get irritated,” said Yanet, who listens to Ethio­pian rock with her brother. “Like, why not know about the things in Africa?”

She hopes the exposure will cultivate a deeper understanding of her heritage.

“Not many people know about Ethiopia,” she said. “If we learn songs, people will know.”