By Brenna R. Kelly
As a performer, there’s no better feeling than getting a standing ovation – except maybe getting five.
That’s what happened to Kellie Clark after the Cooper High School choral teacher was named 2018 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
“My classes, when I walked in, they all were standing up giving me a standing ovation,” said Clark, who directs five choir classes at the Boone County school.
Clark received the award last week at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Belinda Raye Furman, a 2nd-grade teacher at Sherman Elementary in Grant County, was named 2018 Elementary School Teacher of the Year and Jennifer Meo-Sexton, a visual arts teacher at Bondurant Middle School in Franklin County, was named the 2018 Middle School Teacher of the Year.
As the announcer called her name as the winner, Clark put her hands over her face and smiled.
“I was shocked,” she said after the ceremony. “I was in utter disbelief because what had been going through my mind from the beginning of the process was, ‘I’m not sure I’m worthy of this recognition.’”
But Clark’s students, their parents and Boone County administrators never had a doubt.
“If you see her perform in the classroom or with her students at performances, it’s just fantastic,” said Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe. “The students are so empowered in her classroom and they just love her.”
Clark came to Cooper when the school opened nine years ago after teaching for eight years at Conner Middle School, also in Boone County.
Her choral program has grown every year, with so many students now wanting to take her classes that Clark must hold auditions.
“We have a lot of fun, but we work really hard,” she said. “My students are challenged and they appreciate that too. They tell me a lot of times, ‘This is harder than our AP classes.’”
That’s because Clark’s lessons go beyond the notes written on the sheet music.
“Typically when I’m choosing a piece of music I’m looking at it, of course, from the musical standpoint and the things that they can learn technique wise, but I also try to choose music that I think we can go a little bit deeper with,” she said.
Clark wants her students to understand the historical and socio-political motivations of the artists they are studying. When her students learned the song “Healing River,” a 1964 folk song by Fred Hellerman that was written in response to the civil rights movement, they discussed civil rights and how Hellerman’s band, The Weavers, had been blacklisted during the Joseph McCarthy era.
“We traced the history of the song through Hellermen’s blacklisting and into his involvement with the civil rights movement,” she said. “We then linked those discussions with more recent civil rights struggles, including the LA riots in 1992 and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
The students then read an essay about the civil rights movement and wrote questions they used in group discussion.
“My goal is for them to learn a lot about the time period and about the piece,” Clark said. “But ultimately, I just want them to perform it with a deep understanding of the piece, because when they do that, then their performance is just so beautiful because they get it.”
Clark often allows her students to lead the exploration of the context of the songs they are learning.
“If something is interesting to the kids or they say, “What about this?’ then we can take that road,” she said.
That’s what happened last school year when Clark’s students were learning a song about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban and went on to become the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
“They wanted to know everything about her,” Clark said, “And we just went with their ideas and that became the theme of our spring concert.”
Students created art work, wrote poetry and used dance to accompany their performances of songs exploring the theme of overcoming oppression, she said.
Kelley Blasdel, whose daughter was in the performance, said she was “beaming with joy” at how the performance honored Malala and how Clark helped the students to explore the inspiration for the music.
“The trust Ms. Clark built with her students empowered them to reach farther and use more modes of artistic expression to make it a memorable and moving 90-minute performance,” she said.
Cooper Assistant Principal Chandra Dixon said Clark turns her choir room into a culturally rich environment where students learn both about the arts and social responsibility.
“These students leave her classes knowing how to sing and knowing how to honor and respect cultural and artistic differences in our society,” she said.
In addition to her choir classes, Clark also teaches Advanced Placement Music Theory, a class with a low national pass rate, Dixon said. But Clark’s students achieve the highest pass rate in Boone County and one of the highest in the state, she said.
Another hallmark of Clark’s teaching is to keep students moving, said former student Delaney Holt. She often incorporates yoga poses and dance into her music lessons, she said.
Clark also uses some of that movement while conducting the choirs. Instead of standing planted in front of the students, Clark roams the room while energetically gesturing and encouraging the students with her facial expressions.
Holt recalled how she could see Clark’s passion for music and the joy that directing the choir brought her.
“Her eyes would close and her head would tilt back when that perfect chord was uttered,” Holt said. “I would continue to sing, but would smile at the fact that Ms. Clark was truly in her happy place.”
Clark discovered that teaching music was going to be her calling as a junior in high school when she participated in the Kentucky All State Choir, which that year was conducted by Rodney Eichenberger, then a Florida State University professor who has led 80 All State Choirs.
“He just commanded the whole room,” she said. “It was so fun and he did things with us we hadn’t even thought of. He really got us to emote and to connect with what we were doing and that’s something I really took away and thought, ‘You know what, I think that’s what I want to do.’”
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