John Campbell, Allen Elementary music teacher

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Allen Elementary music teacher John Campbell grew up in Novi. After graduating from Northville High School, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Michigan State University College of Music, followed by a Master’s in Music Education from Kent State University. 

This is his 15th year teaching. He started teaching in Chicago’s south side at a K-8 school within the Chicago Public Schools district. He then migrated north to teach elementary school music and beginning band in Highland Park, and then moved home to Michigan five years ago to teach at A2 STEAM and to be closer to family.  He was awarded the 2015 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching and won the 2017 Midwest Banjo Championship.

This is his first year at Allen. Principal Laura Wolf says Campbell is a dynamic educator who employs a variety of approaches to reach the diverse learners in his care. 

“John strives to bring his students real opportunities to engage in musical understanding, development, and appreciation,” she says.  “He creates a classroom community robust with opportunities for students to learn and care for each other and the content.  His classroom is just a magical place to be.”

What inspired you to be a teacher? Education is in my family’s blood. My grandfather was a school principal and the Superintendent of Hamtramck Public Schools. Two of my aunts were elementary school teachers, one was a school principal in DeWhitt, and my uncle was the Dean of Education at Illinois State University. When debating what to study in college, my dad made the astute observation that I could make a reasonable living and lead a pleasant life if I went into education and married a teacher. Turns out, he was right! My wife is a former fourth grade teacher and currently works from home as a technical writer and full-time mom.

What came first—an interest in music, or teaching?
An interest in music came first. I started piano lessons at age five but tired of the routine and the practice by middle school when I took up the trumpet. I played trumpet through high school and college, and by the time I had graduated, I was ready for a new challenge. I recall being on the paddlewheel boat at Greenfield Village as a kid and being astounded by the banjo player on board. When my mom surprised me with a banjo for my 23rd birthday, I was beyond delighted and struck by the way I had to apply my knowledge of music in a completely new manner.  As a teacher, I’ve learned a lot from the experience of being a beginner instrumentalist as an adult, and it has certainly impacted the way I teach children as they take on the challenge of learning a new instrument.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I recently learned the phrase “fail forward” from my spectacular art partner, Laura Naar, and it describes the teaching/learning process in the creative arts perfectly. Teaching music is both performative and instructional in nature, providing abundant opportunities to demonstrate learning from mistakes and taking pride in incremental improvement. While the idea of teaching beginning band is most teachers’ worst nightmare,  there’s a massive amount of hard-earned growth in the first year of learning a new instrument that makes the experience extremely rewarding.

You have such enthusiasm in the classroom. Is it hard to keep your energy level up throughout the day?
Without a doubt. I have two children: Will (5) is loving Jenny York’s Young 5’s class at Allen, and Ben (1) is learning to walk and talk at home with my wife, Katie. My goal is always to have something left in the tank for them at the end of the day. If we have time to play outside and eat a satisfying meal together, we’re all happy.

My role in the classroom is to encourage a love for music in a way that will promote lifelong musicianship, so enthusiasm isn’t really an option. I prefer to lead by example and be an active participant in our lessons to demonstrate that music is not just a thing we do in school and leave behind at the end of the day, but something to appreciate and participate in throughout life.

John Campbell

What’s your favorite grade to teach? Favorite lesson?
Having taught Y5-12th grade, I have the experience to unofficially declare 4th grade as the ideal developmental stage for music learning.  4th graders are creative, analytical, willing to take risks, supportive of one another, and quite pleasant to be around. It’s a great combination of traits that lend themselves well to developing musicianship and tackling challenging skills with a positive attitude.

Apps you can’t live without:
Ever since we started using Schoology at the start of the pandemic, students in the AAPS have enjoyed access to the digital audio workstation, Soundtrap.  Being a musician in the digital age means that familiarity with and understanding of music technology is just as essential as having staff paper or an instrument in your hand. It has been extremely rewarding for my students and me to collaborate on projects on Soundtrap both in the classroom and during remote learning. We’ve composed theme songs for literary characters, taken inspiration from our favorite musicians and written pieces based on characteristics from their work, recorded inspirational poems, and composed beats to accompany the rhythm of the language. It’s a wildly powerful tool that hooks even the most reluctant participants in my classes.

What do you enjoy about working at Allen in particular?
This is my first year at Allen, and I’m finding it to be a great community with supportive administration, skilled colleagues, and a great group of kids. The Parent Council has generously partnered with me on a handful of initiatives that are having an immediate impact on our students. Most notably, their investment in a class set of ukuleles for use with our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders is adding positively to our culture of musicianship across our intermediate grades. One of the most special parts of working at Allen is having my son, Will, just down the hall in Young 5’s. In the warmer months, he and I enjoy biking to school together; a lovely way to start and end our day at Allen!

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