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By Nikki Shorts, YOLA at HOLA Teaching Artist

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Nikki Shorts, YOLA at HOLA Teaching Artist.

In 2010, the day after my teaching audition for the YOLA at HOLA string teacher position, I sent an email to the director of the music program at the time that said I would love to hear any feedback she had about my audition, and that I was really excited about the fledgling El Sistema-inspired program that I knew would soon be doing so much good for the community.  I told her that as a kid growing up in Compton, a community with somewhat similar demographics and social issues as the HOLA neighborhood, HOLA’s impact spoke to me on a personal level.  Compton too struggles with issues surrounding education, access to needed services, and a long list of social issues, which is why my parents sent me to schools and enrichment programs outside of Compton.  I can only imagine how powerful an impact an organization like HOLA would have had on my neighborhood growing up.

When I sent this email, I didn’t know yet that I had gotten the job.  Six years later, I still believe in this program and these students with same passion.  In fact, the more I learn about all the different services and programs HOLA has available to kids and their families, the more proud I am to be a part of it.

What makes our program unique is its El Sistema-inspired dedication to creating social change through music.  There are many important elements within this concept, but “Tocar y luchar” (To play and to fight) resonates with me the most.  This motto is about the drive to fight to become more than our circumstances.  Every day, YOLA at HOLA gives our students, their families, and our communities something to strive for, both musically and socially.  Within “tocar y luchar” is the holistic view of nurturing children wholly — not just their musical talents — so that they can become citizens who can contribute acts, thoughts, and ideas that help meet their own needs, as well as the needs of their community.

For me, tocar y luchar is not a foreign concept.  What all my teachers and mentors have in common is that they always made sure I saw how much they believed in me, and that they cared about the other things that were happening in my life outside of school.  This meant a lot to me, and naturally, I carried this care over into my teaching practice.

When I teach, there’s a phrase I say a lot: progress, not perfection.  I believe that the effort we make along the journey of learning and growth is more important than the result of that effort.  It is better to give it all you’ve got and make a mistake than not try at all for fear of failing.  I let my students know that making a mistake is simply a signal for me to help them in that area.

Just yesterday, my viola students had an aha! moment that made me so proud.  I had given them advance notice about a playing quiz and what I wanted them to practice, and they had two days to perform what they had practiced in front of the whole class.  The first day, there were four students who showed signs of not practicing at all, and did not pass the quiz.  I gave them the progress, not perfection speech, and told them they had one more day to redeem themselves. The next day, when those four students played in front the of the class, I instantly noticed the improvement. I asked the class if they had made any mistakes.

Students: Yes…

Me: But did they improve?

Students: Yes!

Me: Now that’s what I was looking for!

And then, without prompting, the class burst into thunderous applause.  It gave me goose bumps.  There was such pride and joy on their faces.  It was so powerful to see them beginning to understand what it feels like to work hard at something to achieve a goal.

Working with my students is also a constant lesson in self-reflection.  They shine a light on my strengths and weaknesses, and they inspire me to be my best self.  I often ask myself: how I can be a better human being, for their sake? How can I be a better role model? And even more broadly, how I can be a better human being for my family, my friends, and for society as a whole? Reflecting on these things has really pushed me forward in my personal growth.

As it turns out, my students are my greatest teachers.



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