Classroom of the Week: At Crosby Elementary, music is for everyone

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PITTSFIELD — Asked what she loves about her music classes at Crosby Elementary School, teacher Heather Topolski says, "Everyone is so accepting in this room. I love that everybody is doing their job and makes sure everyone is doing their job here."

And that's important in her role.

She teaches music once a week to students in each grade, from kindergarten to Grade 5, in a school where nearly 80 percent of the students are categorized as "high needs" by the state, with nearly 36 percent of students experiencing some form of learning or physical disability.

But it doesn't matter. In her classroom, Topolski levels the playing field by introducing fundamental musical concepts to everyone, and asking them to do their best. One student in a mixed kindergarten through Grade 2 class on Thursday afternoon was open to learning how to play the ukulele, but halfway through had to sit on the floor and tap out for the rest of the lesson.

"Thank you for trying," she said, addressing the student by name.

Topolski's classes were nominated by fifth-grade teacher Jeanne Lemmond, who writes, "Having an appreciation for music, learning how to read music notation and doing [it] in a fun learning environment is not an easy task with young students. Heather finds a way to make it enjoyable and a positive learning experience."

Topolski said she's been equally supported by faculty and staff. "There's something about this building — the staff is great and the kids are great," she said.

This year, the school rallied around Topolski's bid in the Kala Brand Music Waterman School Giveaway contest on Facebook. In December, the school was announced among the winners and received 40 child-sized beginner ukuleles from Kala's Makala line.

Her mixed grade classes were wowed when the new instruments were put into their hands. Topolski promptly instructed the youngsters to handle them with care and taught them the functions of the ukulele's head, neck and body.

Each class comes with expectations, whether it's to learn a new rhythm or song, or simply learn to follow along with sheet music — a new form of literacy for most kids.

Knowing that this can be overwhelming, Topolski also offers students dance breaks using online videos through education technology services like GoNoodle.

In addition to her classes, Lemmond noted how, for the past two years the music teacher has been there, she has carved out time to run a chorus group for fourth- and fifth-grade students. Last year's group included 22 children; this year she has 34 kids in it.

She said the chorus was formed as an outlet for kids who wanted to do something musical while being mindful that not every child can afford to rent or purchase a musical instrument. "They already have their musical instrument with them," she said of her students' vocal abilities.

This year, the fifth-graders are also preparing to perform a musical later in the spring.

Topolski said the older students "sometimes let their talking get in the way, but they're incredibly talented" and keep time and pitch quite well.

"Heather goes above and beyond to show that music is important in our lives and finds ways to captivate the students. That is why she is an outstanding teacher," Lemmond said.

"She does great work here," said Principal Aaron Dean.

Lemmond noted how this year's choral group has been able to perform at Hillcrest Commons and last month, went to the Albany Times Union Center to sing the national anthem before an Albany Devils Hockey game.

The children, many of whom were on their first field trip outside of the Berkshires and singing in such a large place for the first time, were undoubtedly nervous. But, they said they felt prepared.

"I realized we shouldn't be scared because we're all here together," said fourth-grader Max Sinopoli.

"We really like it and we always try to do our best," said his classmate, Maryjane Lee.

"They were really excited," Topolski said of the experience. "It was so awesome. I'm so proud of them."

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