A notable teacher: Chelsea Pennebaker
"I'll tell you why they're laughing in this picture," says Chelsea Pennebaker, one of the teachers with the popular All Island Strings Program. Known for her firecracker red hair and passionate attitude toward teaching, she barely suppresses a mischievous smile as she points to a picture in her teaching scrapbook of gleeful children clutching tiny violins.
"They're laughing because I just put on a pair of rabbit ears and pulled a giant carrot out of my pocket," she says. "You see, it was a big concert, lots of people attending and I could tell they were anxious. And I just wanted to help them feel free to be big, to play loud. I knew if I could get them to laugh, really laugh, it would free them to play and to enjoy." And yes, the bunny ears did the trick, she says, adding, "I used the carrot as my conductor's baton."
Although her job with the Island schools All Island String Program is a part time position, Ms. Pennebaker spends many extra hours creating each lesson and concert, thinking about each student carefully as she plans.
"I wanted to make music cool, like sports," Ms. Pennebaker says. "Not something where you're being dragged off to do this dorky lesson. I made tee-shirts for the kids last year, so they could know they were part of a whole, like a team. I had them create and name their own bands, and photographed them with their instruments, like a rock poster."
Ms. Pennebaker flips through a few more pages in her scrapbook to show several original stories and songs. "The more advanced students create stories that incorporate songs they know, or help me by mentoring a younger student," she says. "And I make sure we're a visible part of the school by doing impromptu serenades. We'll stroll into the principal's office or a classroom and serenade them. It brings music into the school and lets the kids perform."
Violin student Gabriel Noble-Shriver, a fourth-grader in Oak Bluffs, says Ms. Pennebaker's classes are "challenging," then adds, "but she still always listens to us about what we want to try."
His mother, Stacey Noble-Shriver seconds her son's admiration for both his teacher and the strings program itself: "Being able to perform and share in that way is a social skill that you don't get from other classes. It builds their confidence. Really, I can't say enough about her and the program. It's something very special that the Martha's Vineyard schools offer."
Ms. Pennebaker, who has a teaching degree from Lesley University, began as a teaching assistant for four years in the Oak Bluffs School. A ukulele player, she began to use music as a teaching tool, whether the subject was math or social studies.
When the teacher at the strings program became pregnant, she encouraged Ms. Pennebaker to try for the job. Although eager to apply, Ms. Pennebaker had doubts about the likelihood of being hired. First challenge - she didn't play the violin.
"I got offered the job in August, and from that point until school started in September, I taught myself to play the violin," Ms. Pennebaker says. "I taught myself like I was a Suzuki student, and that year I was able to stay one step ahead of my students. "It also gave me tremendous empathy for their experience. I know it's hard."
Using an imaginary violin, Ms. Pennebaker demonstrates how difficult it can be for a child to hold the instrument with a little chin and stretch their small fingers to create different notes. "I wish someone had put a little instrument in my hands when I was very young," she says. "And now that's my job." Her smile is radiant. "I get to give instruments to little people. I get to be there for their ah-ha moments, and in music there are a lot of them. So, I bring all my skills; visual aids, teaching techniques, drama, humor, creativity to the process - any way that I can make learning and practicing fun and accessible, I try it."
Maureen Williams's son Gregory is a second grader at the Charter School, where Ms. Pennebaker teaches one day a week. He has been Ms. Pennebaker's student for over three years.
"The process is never intimidating or precious," Ms. Williams says of Ms. Pennebaker's teaching style. "Because of the excitement she creates around music, I'm convinced a lot of kids stick with it that wouldn't have otherwise."
Calling her "a natural," Susan McGhee, professional violinist and violin teacher, speaks glowingly of Ms. Pennebaker. "I'm always incredibly impressed with the concerts she and her students put on. She knows how to get kids involved in learning. The practice charts and all the other tools she creates are perfect, just brilliant. It's all extremely interactive, which is just what you need."
Ms. Pennebaker's process includes creating tip sheets for parents with photos illustrating how to assist with practice, making song charts that focus on color and number patterns to help kids memorize, and writing songs for the children that relate to their classroom curriculum. Recently she wrote a series of pieces about endangered species.
Violinist Nancy Jephcote, director of the Strings Program, calls Ms. Pennebaker a "master teacher." She says, "I learn from her all the time. She has tremendous impact on the kids she works with. She understands children's hearts. And because she is self-taught, she explores the music with them, and the kids love it."
The strings program, which is filled to overflowing with close to 200 students, has recently become in danger of being cut because of budget limitations. Still, Chelsea Pennebaker is optimistic. "This training gives the students more than music," she says. "They learn who they are by facing this type of challenge. They have confidence and concentration unparalleled in this day and age. I'm in awe of them.
"I know that the learning, the practice, the performance builds self-awareness, as well as unity and community. This really gives them something solid to stand on. That I get to teach them all this, I feel like the luckiest teacher in the world."
Elissa Lash, a freelance writer and yoga instructor, lives in Vineyard Haven.