by Kristi Leibhart
I’ve been teaching developmental or foundational English classes in both reading and writing at NPCC for the past five years and it just occurred to me: I, too, was once a developmental student.
Yes, I’m qualified to teach these students. They are in good hands. I’m well-qualified. I spent my entire life reading. (Okay, I wasn’t speaking in full sentences at one and reading at two, but you get the idea). Reading and writing came to me naturally. I always loved books, the feel of the paper . . . the whole nine yards. I have my degrees in English, both B.A. and M.A. So what gives, you ask? Why would I have taken developmental classes? Why do I know how these students feel?
(And I do know just how they feel, how it feels to take a class that begins with a zero instead of a one even though I was a freshman. I know how it feels to have my parents pay tuition for a class worth zero credits. Oh yes, I remember exactly how it feels to show up to that class three times a week, do homework for that class, turn it in, and need a grade knowing that I had to pass it to keep going but that I would get no credits.)
It’s because I began my career at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in the Fall of 1990 as a music performance major, with percussion as my instrument. I was a brand-spanking new member of the snare section in the drumline. I now had a new halftime show to memorize almost every week (seven different shows altogether, plus pregame), and I had changed my major from advertising (with the intent of pre-law) to music at the last second. As any drummer will tell you, most of us went through school without a lot of natural skill in the departments of tone, harmony, or melody. Even with my background of several years of piano lessons, I didn’t have much experience with music theory. I was not in chorus at school and didn’t sing in choir at church. I hated my voice, so I didn’t ever even try to sing with the piano or even with the radio (forget the shower).
All of this led up to my audition at the UNL School of Music. I did fine on the percussion instruments like marimba, timpani, and concert snare. Next came the keyboarding (piano) tests, where I tested out of the first of four semesters, so that was somewhat satisfying. But when I took the written music theory tests, my heart sank. I knew very little of the circle of fifths, chord progressions, augmented and diminished chords, jazz scales, and intervals.
Finally, I was thrust into a room with a woman who reminded me of Elvira. She was wearing a long, black dress, and she was seated at the piano. She asked me to sing several different things, but, at last, exasperated that I would hardly even open my mouth, she (probably thinking there was no way I could be that big of a weirdo) asked me to match JUST ONE PITCH.
She gave up.
And so, I found myself seated in Musicianship 065, the developmental MUSIC class I was required to pass (zero credits, same tuition, same schedule as a three-credit course) before I could begin my sight singing and ear training audits that I was also required to complete. As a music major, students are also required to join a variety of ensembles, including, but not limited to, concert band, percussion ensemble, and orchestra, in addition to marching band. I was also a member of a jazz small group. Each large ensemble met three hours per week, just like a three-credit class. But each was only worth one credit hour. Add all of this together and throw in the very difficult Musicianship 165 (regular Music Theory), and I still had to take History and English to reach fifteen or sixteen credits. Am I surprised I was nodding off in Musicianship 065? I shouldn’t be. What a great sense of relief I felt after two years when I changed my major to English. It was like taking a burning stick out of my eye and diving into a cool, clear pool. But I did remain in drumline. That has always been one of my passions.
I can’t believe it took me this long to remember my days at Westbrook Music Building, feeling lost, frightened, a little ashamed, guilty, worried, and confused. That class was so difficult, and I just couldn’t believe I wasn’t getting credit. I now have an even stronger sense of empathy for my developmental students. I have always had an affinity for these students, my students. On day one, when I look out at a new group of developing writers or readers, I understand their fears and reservations. I know that one may have an inner monologue of: “Why am I here? I feel so inadequate. If only I had scored higher on that test, I wouldn’t have to take this stupid class for zero credits,” while another might be already planning to drop the class. I know how important it is to reassure these students that this class is important, worthwhile, and challenging (but not overwhelming). I must also be sure to reinforce the fact that I enjoy teaching this class and they will likely enjoy taking it. I do not plan for misery on anyone’s part. From now on, I will share with my students the story about Musicianship 065 and some of my experiences. I hope they will get a kick out of the story and then realize that I am human. Maybe this will help to put students at ease, and we can carry on with the task at hand.
Kristi Leibhart teaches developmental English, Literature, and Composition at North Platte Community College in North Platte, Nebraska. She still gives drum lessons and occasionally drums at local community theater productions, although she has not been asked to sing again.
Kristi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org