Vinland teacher takes musical notes in Japan

POULSBO — When students walked into teacher Adam Thompson’s music class for the first time this year, there was no lecture, no introduction, no first-day class handout.

Only drums — and lots of them.

“We get down to making music,” said Thompson of his opening day drum circle. “Some teachers spend time on reading music, learning theory at first. My philosophy is all about making music.”

Thompson, however, has always been an active, engaging teacher. It’s how he’s engaging his students this year that has changed.

Thanks to a grant from the University of Washington, the second-year Vinland instructor went on a three-week tour to Japan this summer during which his goal was to gain an understanding of Japanese educational practices. But the ultimate test — one he’s still undertaking — is to see if those practices can be transferred to a U.S. classroom.

The East Asia Resource Center at the University of Washington funded Thompson’s and 14 other teachers’ trips in June and July. Ninety educators applied for the grant and Thompson was the only music teacher accepted. He was the second such teacher in the program’s eight-year history to earn the grant.

Thompson, who holds a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and music education from the UW as well,# is no stranger to the international climate, having taught at schools abroad in Tanzania, Malaysia and China.

“I’ve always had a world connection,” he said.

But the collective nature of the Japanese culture has given him an experience he said he would never forget.

“Everywhere we went, we’d be received as a diplomatic delegation,” Thompson said of the many formalities of Japanese culture.

He stayed in Kobe, living with a Japanese teacher for the entire time. From his trip, he offers a few anecdotes to his students — like how Japanese children clean their own schools and how secondary students in Japan wear uniforms, not unlike the primary students at Vinland.

But the biggest impact from his trip is an intangible lesson.

“When we were greeted (in Japan), every student would sing enthusiastically,” Thompson said.

Every single student in choir class would sing, he said, and that struck a chord for the Vinland teacher.

“Before I went, I would respect if a student wasn’t comfortable with singing,” Thompson said. “Now, I say, ‘Yes, you can all sing.’ Singing makes you believe in yourself.”

At karaoke bars in Japan, Thompson said the audience would cheer if the singer would hit a wrong note. That in turn also helped Thompson change his philosophy.

“I really believe that laughter is the key to unlocking the stubborn singer,” he said.

Back in his classroom, he is working with students to learn the Japanese Panatonic Scale.

“This scale is very mysterious,” Thompson said to his students, each equipped Wednesday with a type of xylophone. “We want to play it very softly.”

More than anything, he admitted that he’s realized the importance of getting through to that stubborn singer and that each of his students has an ability to play. Not playing is simply not an option.

“As a teacher, I have to find ways to reach that student,” he said. “Going (to Japan) gave me that perspective.”

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