Lakeview teacher who created protest music lesson plan after George Floyd murder wins golden apple
LAKEVIEW — Puja Ramaswamy, a music teacher at Lake View Secondary School, and her beginner choir class were rehearsing for an upcoming concert when they heard a knock on the classroom door.
The students could see a group of TV news crews through the window, but Ramaswamy’s back was at the door, so she was shocked when the school administration, along with Ald. Matt Martin (47th) and the president of the Golden Apple, Alan Mather, came to present him with the Golden Apple award for excellence in teaching.
“I was speechless,” Ramaswamy said. “It was overwhelming and surreal to be recognized in this way.”
Ramaswamy began teaching choir at Lake View High School, 4015 N. Ashland Ave., four years ago. She is one of 10 high school teachers to receive a Golden Apple award this year.
In her classroom, Ramaswamy encourages students to make connections between music and their experiences or issues that are important to them.
While teaching remotely in the fall of 2020 — at the height of protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — Ramaswamy created a lesson plan on the history of protest music.
“There was this intense issue that was happening in society that just wasn’t talked about in classes, so I wanted to find a way to address that with music,” Ramaswamy said.
She taught her classes about how protest music started and developed over the years, while discussing the importance of protest music, she said.
Students were instructed to think of events or issues they were passionate about and choose a song that resonated with those themes, Ramaswamy said. The students came up with songs evoking the Black Lives Matter movement, life as an undocumented citizen, gender equality and more. His 2020 lesson plan was cited by the Golden Apple Foundation when announcing his award.
“The exercise really connected music to their passion for society, politics and anything that interests them,” Ramaswamy said. “It was really powerful and the students had such thoughtful responses.”
Ramaswamy’s approach to teaching is to encourage students to pursue areas of music that already interest them, while challenging them to step out of their comfort zone by learning new and challenging material, she said. .
“So at the start of the school year, I’ll have the class pick a song that they’ll sing, and it’s usually a pop song because that’s what they know right now,” said Ramaswamy. “But then we’ll learn something they don’t know to push them out of that comfort zone.”
Currently, Ramaswamy students are learning “Sisi Ni Moja”, a song by Jacob Narverud which is sung in English and Swahili. She also taught the song in sign language so they could sign the song as they sang.
“It’s really beautiful because the song resonates with this message and this idea that we are all one people,” Ramaswamy said.
Ruby Yeatts, a junior at Lake View High School, said they appreciated Ramaswamy for being “kind but assertive”.
“She’s always nice, but she tries to teach you and bring out the best in every student,” Yeatts said.
Mia Meza, another junior, said Ramaswamy has created a “welcoming and comfortable environment” where students feel safe to learn new things.
“She knows what she’s doing, she’s confident and you can tell she loves it,” Meza said. “When you know someone is aware of what they’re doing and passionate about what they’re doing, you feel that energy. That’s what you get from Ms. Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy grew up in Edgewater, participating in her school’s choir and band programs while practicing classical Indian dance.
“I’ve always been a musician,” Ramaswamy said. “Music has always been where I felt at home. I was always able to go to the music whenever I was having a bad day.
Ramaswamy went to college to study pre-med, but found her love of teaching music when she started her college’s first jazz choir, she said.
“I was teaching my peers, but it gave me an idea of what teaching was all about,” Ramaswamy said.
After completing his undergraduate studies, Ramaswamy had to choose between his passion for music and a path to medical school. She ended up postponing enrolling in medical school to try VanderCook College of Music for a year, she said.
“I realized that music is my calling and a way to help others and get them to connect with themselves,” Ramaswamy said. “I’m so happy with this choice.”
In addition to the lifetime prestige of the Golden Apple award, Ramaswamy receives $5,000 and a spring sabbatical while attending classes at Northwestern University.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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