Thursday, June 29, 2017

Activate! Asks: Erik Whitehill

Fun Facts
      My favorite dessert is butterscotch pudding
      My favorite musical is “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown
       I am half Swedish and I love to bake pepperkaker
       I can’t live without coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper
      My work is published by four different publishing companies

How many years have you been teaching?
10 years teaching, 11 years in music ministry.

How many students do you see in a typical week?
About 600.

What inspired you to become an elementary music educator?
When I student taught, general music surprised me with how much I liked it. During my church music years, I got to know a lot of great general music teachers and I wanted to emulate them.

Tell us about your funniest teaching moment.
At the end of the year, I let the students request activities and songs from earlier in the year. A little boy shouted out his request, “Dirty old man! Dirty old man!” It took me a moment to realize that he meant “Old Dan Tucker.”

If you could have only one item in your teaching bag, what it would it be and why?
My monkey puppet, Larry. He is tried and true and effective! The kids love him and he makes them feel immediately comfortable in my room.

What is your favorite teaching resource?
I really like "GamePlan" by Jeff Kriske and Randy DeLelles.

What music do you listen to in your free time?
Mostly, I listen to classical piano (Argerich, Rubenstein, Biss) and theater music (Sondheim, Brown, Flaherty)

Tell us about your favorite lesson/unit to teach?
I do a Broadway unit at the end of the year with my fourth graders. I created an interactive whiteboard experience with maps of New York City, pictures and videos from the various theaters to which I have been, etc. It ends with role-playing all the various theater jobs from producing, to being a part of the creative team, to tech crew, to performing. 

What is one piece of advice you would suggest for folks who are new to the elementary music classroom?
Talk to your students like they are humans. Be exacting in your standards, but make sure you don’t forget to show them your personality. Also… in everything you do, remember to be a positive and caring presence in your students’ lives. They need you.

What educator(s) most influenced your teaching style or your life?
Phyllis Whitney, my middle school choir director, who suggested I might play the piano for the choir. Gary Fiscus, my high school choir director, who inspired me to be a music teacher for my career. Weston Noble, my collegiate choir director, who taught me that music feeds the soul.

If there was one instrument you could ban from all elementary music classrooms what would it be and why?
The discount store recorder (I love recorder, but any store with “dollar” in its name is selling a party toy, not an acceptable classroom instrument.)

Tell us about your most memorable performance moment (when you were directing).
Performing “Rhythm of the Rain” by Jerry Estes with 25 kids playing Orff and percussion instruments and 50 children singing. When we were done, someone in the audience shouted, “Do it again!” So we did!

What is your go-to strategy to rein in an unruly class?
If they are lower elementary, Larry the Monkey is an effective behavior management tool. If they are upper elementary, I make them aware that I will treat them like the age of their behavior. If they are focused, I can talk to them like humans. If they are not focused, then I have to become their baby sitter. When this happens, no one is happy.

What excites you most about the future of music education?
Using multi-media and interactive technologies. Also, the research that continues to show music education is beneficial to the “whole child.”

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
My first response what? What is this "free time" you speak of? Actually, I am an avid Netflix and Hulu viewer. I love to cook and read, and spending time with friends and colleagues is also very important to me.

Would you like to share your story?

We are looking for Activate! subscribers to share their teaching advice and anecdotes. You can complete the interview at We will share as many responses as we can on our blog, and one lucky subscriber will win a free subscription to Activate! and be featured in an upcoming issue.