This Detroit classroom could be the hottest music studio in town


You hear Joe Vercellino’s music class before you see it.

Vercellino, Michigan Regional Teacher of the Year 2021-2022, wants his students at Voyageur Academy in Detroit to feel that “they have value, they have value, that they have a bright future and that they have a bright future. they are part of something big ”.

The big noise in his room is the sound of collaborative artistic creation. Its classes have released dozens of songs and music videos – including productions based on Zoom during the pandemic – that feature students rapping, singing and dancing. Vercellino manages production and recording and adds his own musical talents.

“It’s really important that my class has a result that affects the world and touches people,” said Vercellino, who grew up in Midland, Michigan, playing the trombone and entering his 10th year of teaching in Detroit. “When you think of a songwriter, you might think of a person sitting with a notepad or something, but what’s beautiful about my class is you see a song created with more. of 25 people involved in the process. “

We spoke with Vercellino about what goes into creating music, how he harnesses student strengths, and what it means to support students of color as a white educator.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

What led you to a career in education?

For me, it was pretty straightforward. It was like an addition. I knew two things about me. I knew that all of my most rewarding growth opportunities, my greatest moments of fun, all of this was surrounded by my musical experiences.

The second thing I knew was that I have always enjoyed being a part of the development and growth of young people. Since I was in high school, I was part of mentoring programs. And I was the oldest of seven children, so I always had that big brother quality.

So in college, I thought to myself, “Now that I know those two things, it makes sense to be a music teacher. “

On my resume, I wrote that I was a street musician because I spent my summers traveling Michigan, New York, Boston, Florida, Chicago – playing around street corners.

That’s what led me to my first job in Detroit because the recruiters saw that I was a street musician, and they said, “Well, we don’t have money for a program. music, we don’t have any instruments, can you help us create something beautiful out of nothing?

Vercellino and some of his students perform at school assemblies, mixing music and storytelling.
Courtesy of Joe Vercellino

How do you create something out of nothing as a music teacher?

We take a group of 25 students and say, “We’re going to write a song together.

There are a lot of plays, a lot of roles, a lot of ways for the students to be able to participate in this. There is the title, there is the content, there is the writing of the chorus and the verses, there is a part of the vocals, there is a part of the music that goes on in the background, there is has a visual representation of the song through illustrations.

Watching a song change from a melody you hum to something your whole school can participate in is a huge deal for my students. I love to see them go through this process of discovery.

Students share the videos on Instagram. They say, “Hey, look at this song; we are on Apple Music!

I love that the students are happy to share what they have developed.

What do you want people to know about your students?

They are brilliant, talented and full of potential. My students deserve great teachers and great opportunities in the world.

What thing did you read that made you a better educator?

“Where do we go from here: chaos or community? By Martin Luther King, Jr. It helped me understand my students from a historical, religious, emotional, political perspective.

This is the last thing MLK wrote before he was assassinated, and it gives some insight into the experience of black people in our country. And I need it; I need this.

After reading it, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a pillar of who I am as an educator. I can’t step into an all black and brown context as a white educator and just say that my love and care for my students is enough. It’s not enough. Students want to be understood. You have to work as an educator to find this understanding.

Have you seen School of Rock, the 2003 comedy in which a substitute teacher played by Jack Black secretly forms a group with his students?

I remember the night I watched it. I was in the first year of high school. Even when I was a kid watching this movie, I was like ‘this can’t be too far-fetched’. I remember thinking these kids felt like they were part of something big. I didn’t want to be Jack Black, but the essence of this movie definitely has an influence in my classroom.


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