Q&A with Super-Teacher Missy O'Keeffe

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Without Missy O’Keeffe and her students at H.C. Johnson Elementary School in NJ it’s safe to say Under the Big Umbrella would not be what it is today.

Last year, the Little Band performed at Johnson Elementary and we left feeling changed and inspired by the students and teachers there. Just as their classrooms are integrated with students of all abilities, so was the audience that day. Students with all kinds of learning styles were singing and dancing together as one. I realized that this is a world that I wanted to capture in song — creating music that encompasses and welcomes everyone to a beautiful place like the auditorium at Johnson Elementary. ✨

Brady, Larry Eagle, Claudia Mussen and friends performing “Starfish and Coffee” at a  Love Me For Who I Am  concert at H.C. Johnson Elementary School, April 2018

Brady, Larry Eagle, Claudia Mussen and friends performing “Starfish and Coffee” at a Love Me For Who I Am concert at H.C. Johnson Elementary School, April 2018

The impact of the teachers on the school’s wonderfully inclusive culture is not to be underestimated. Missy and her fellow teachers work tirelessly to create an environment where everyone can take part in the same classes. As you’ll read, it takes a lot of hard work, patience, and compassion to mold a classroom and curriculum to embrace many different learning styles. The good work that she is doing will forever shape the way students of all abilities collaborate together.

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This past year, I was fortunate to visit the students at H.C Johnson on several occasions to play music and interact with Missy’s class. Her students inspired some songs on “Under the Big Umbrella” with their writing prompts. They also contributed their soulful singing voices to “Don’t You Push Me Down” and “Different is Beautiful (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!)”

I wanted to sincerely thank Missy for welcoming me into her classroom and for the amazing work that she does. I also wanted to give her the microphone so she could talk about the Under the Big Umbrella project from her point of view. Her answers are pretty profound and I think everyone can benefit from reading. Here’s Missy…!

How did you hear about Brady's music and why was it a great fit for your classroom? Could you talk a bit about the integrated nature of the classroom?

A few years ago, our school took on nine classes of students with multiple disabilities and I was failing...hard.  Like, crying-in-the-car during lunch hard. Not only was I teaching self-contained music therapy with no training, but we also mainstreamed everyone for specials and it was NOT. GOING. WELL. While scouring the internet for answers, I saw the video for “Love Me For Who I Am” by Brady. It was the first time I saw a positive representation of kids that looked, moved and sounded like my students. Even more, they were singing a real ANTHEM - the message we wanted our traditional students, and even fellow teachers, to understand.

I bought the album and used each song to teach a lesson on the perspective of our students with special needs to all our children.  The lyrics gave everyone a powerful, positive vocabulary. Before, a student might be described as “having a meltdown” or “freaking out.” Now the kids were able to understand and say, “Oh, he doesn’t like change.” Kids used say a student with special needs was “just running around” or “being disruptive.”  Now they say, “She’s keeping her wiggle alive.”

Beyond learning about students with special needs, our traditional students immediately connected with these themes in their own lives.  They now know EVERYONE struggles with these topics — adults too! One child describes it like this: “I feel like that too. It’s just that the volume is turned up more inside some people and my body knows how to turn it down.”

The lyrics gave everyone a powerful, positive vocabulary. Before, a student might be described as ‘having a meltdown’ or ‘freaking out.’  Now the kids were able to understand and say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t like change.’ Kids used to say a student with special needs was ‘just running around’ or ‘being disruptive.’  Now they say, ‘She’s keeping her wiggle alive.’

What was it like to see your class interact with Brady by singing and writing music with him?

Brady is a hero to our kids. The most amazing thing is that they don’t even recognize all he’s taught them. They have no idea that singing, dancing, and laughing inclusively is special. Doing it through music makes it just plain fun! They see Brady, not for these deep life lessons, but as a rock star they get to jam with!

During a concert with Brady, I was able to bounce around to check in with our special needs teachers and ask if their students needed anything.  I thought I'd get a request for noise-reducing headphones or a walk for someone who needed a break. Instead, I was met with a teacher, jumping and joyfully crying, "Try to find my kids in the crowd!  They're all mixed in, singing, dancing... I can't tell them apart from any of the other kids. This is everything we've been working for.” Moments like those are exactly what our kids did such a beautiful job describing and sharing for “Under the Big Umbrella.”  When we talk about how special it is that we play together so joyfully, they are genuinely confused, because they honestly don’t understand how it could be any other way.

Why do you think it's important to play music that speaks to students with special needs?

All people, but children especially, should be able to recognize themselves in the music they hear. When your uniqueness is represented, you’re empowered. It’s almost like a mirror that proves you exist.  “See?! That’s me!” And when a room of your peers are singing your difference in celebration, imagine how powerful that is.  Your difference doesn’t make you “other” — it’s applauded. It’s what makes you beautiful.

All people, but children especially, should be able to recognize themselves in the music they hear. When your uniqueness is represented, you’re empowered. It’s almost like a mirror that proves you exist.
— Missy O'Keeffe

What do you think is the most important thing to remember when teaching a music class with students of all abilities?  

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I needed to hear that it’s okay to talk purposefully and deliberately about the challenges of students with special needs. At the beginning, I spent a lot of energy trying to keep the entire classroom moving forward. I’d ignore a behavior and expect the class to do so too, but ultimately, that leads to ignoring the child. Our team of therapists and special area teachers organized lessons to educate everyone (staff too!) about what it’s like to see the world with sensory processing, mobility and speech challenges. It was so important for us to be able to talk freely, ask questions, make connections and explore together.

A huge turning point for me was when I realized it’s not about the content and curriculum. Initially, I was distracted with how to help our students with special needs reach the learning goals of peers their age. Our incredible special needs teachers helped me understand that we needed to crawl before we could walk. The pre-learning and social skills needed to be addressed first. The goals for our students with special needs are generalizing skills like making transitions, accepting direction from a new teacher, and most importantly, interacting positively with peers. It was almost like they gave me “permission” to dial it back, and it’s exactly what I needed. It turns out, expressly addressing these skills is important to ALL kids. Think about eye contact. While that is a skill you might specifically teach a child with special needs, anyone who has tried to connect with child playing on a device knows it’s something modern kids need too.

Most importantly, it’s okay if you feel like a mess. Teachers are groomed to be overly prepared, endlessly patient and always right. But kids aren’t robots and neither are we. The best thing a teacher told me was, “Once you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.” There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, even when communicating with the same child minute to minute because the needs of special children can change abruptly. When the gains you’ve made regress and you think all your hard work has flown out the window, don’t dwell on the yards lost. Take a breath and ask yourself, “Where are we now...in this exact moment?” and rebuild from there. Rebuilding is not failing. You need to be as patient with yourself as you are with your students.

Teachers are groomed to be overly prepared, endlessly patient and always right. But kids aren’t robots and neither are we. The best thing a teacher told me was, ‘Once you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.’ There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
— Missy O'Keeffe

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working on the "Under the Big Umbrella" project with Brady?

I remember saying to some songwriter friends, “This is your moment.  We’re at a point in time where everyone is so easily divided. People are primed for the rise of a great musician who brings people together.” I just never thought it would be a children’s musician!

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Illustrations by Emily Balsley

If you look at the themes of ‘Under the Big Umbrella’ as a whole, it’s exactly what we need now. And it’s entirely appropriate that it would be inspired by the children who are going to move the ball forward.
— Missy O'Keeffe
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