This Colorado music teacher wants students with disabilities in the spotlight, not on the sidelines

A teacher in an orange shirt talks with students wearing marching band drums outside.
Chad Lemons, former band director at Mead High School, with students in the school’s unified drum ensemble, which includes students with intellectual disabilities alongside mentor students. (Courtesy of Aaron Ford)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

One day, when teacher Chad Lemons was observing a high school band practice, a group of students with disabilities stopped by for a few minutes. He realized that was their only exposure to music class. 

The moment inspired Lemons, who now teaches music at Mead Elementary School in northern Colorado and previously worked as the band director at Mead High School, to start an inclusive drum group that brings together high school students with intellectual disabilities and typical students who serve as mentors. 

It was more than a music class though. Lemons made sure the new Unified Percussion Ensemble got to perform, too — at football games, concerts, and in the community. 

“For many students and musicians, [performing] is what makes all of the practicing and rehearsing worthwhile,” he said. 

Lemons talked to Chalkbeat about his vision for inclusive music education, his martial arts-based method for teaching the ukulele, and the cherished compliment he got from a student’s grandmother.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

My parents and several of my family members were teachers, so I grew up wanting to be anything but a teacher. I loved being in band in middle school and high school, so I joined the marching band at Colorado State University. I entered college with an interest in communications but found myself spending all of my free time in the music building and looking to add extra music classes. By the end of my first semester of college, I realized I wanted to get into music education and continue to make music an important part of my life.

How did your own school experience influence your approach to teaching?

My band directors were incredible mentors, and I am motivated to do the same with my students. My mentors saw more in me than I ever saw in myself. I try to do the same for my students and let them know what I see in them and how much I believe in them.

Tell us about the unified percussion ensemble you created at Mead High School.

It’s a percussion ensemble for students with intellectual disabilities. The class consists of beginning percussion students from the Exceptional Learning program, and current music students who are peer mentors. In our first year, there were about six students and four mentor students.

When I speak about my journey to increase inclusion in the music classroom, I always mention what I saw missing: the opportunity to perform. The unified ensemble has performed with the Mead High School marching band, jazz band, jazz choir, as well as Guerrilla Fanfare, a local professional New Orleans-style brass band.

I also mention the importance of inclusion, not new exclusion. That’s why I paired the Unified Percussion Ensemble with other musicians for a truly inclusive performance, not simply the unified ensemble performing by themselves.

Regarding the music and choreography, I have designed most of these components myself and am drafting a resource book that outlines everything I’ve found to be successful. This includes seated yoga, creative and safe ways to improve core body strength, and games and lessons that develop coordination, reaction timing, and musicianship.

What are some of your favorite musicians or songs? How do you share them with students?

I love drummer Stanton Moore, so I’ve used a lot of his music in my classroom. While teaching middle school, we analyzed several of his songs. While teaching high school, the jazz band broke into small, student-led groups to learn one of his songs by ear. It was a great opportunity for students to discover new ways to utilize their musical strengths. I’m teaching elementary music this year, and I’ve enjoyed teaching a new Musician of the Month to highlight unique and talented musicians, including singer Mandy Harvey, jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and violinist Lindsey Stirling.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am really enjoying seeing my second and third graders develop their musicianship in my Uke Jitsu unit. Many of the students are motivated by advancing through the belt levels similar to recorder karate — a method used in many elementary schools to teach recorder. The belt levels are checkpoints with assessments, and each level introduces new notes, rhythms, and musical concepts. Everything around us is designed for instant gratification, and learning an instrument takes patience and perseverance. Through micro-success, more students are committed to the challenge of learning to play ukulele.

I will have 600 students participating in Uke Jitsu this semester, so the belt colors are posted on one of my classroom walls. Each belt has a rope hanging down, and students receive a clothespin to decorate. As they pass a belt-level test, they move their clothespin from one rope to the next.

What is something happening in the community that impacts your students?

The town of Mead and surrounding areas are growing rapidly, and the elementary school is likely to exceed 1,000 students next year. We are maximizing the number of students who have opportunities to sing in the community, participate in our drum club, and work with the middle and high school musicians.

We just launched our drum club for third, fourth, and fifth graders. We had 135 fourth and fifth graders perform the national anthem at a Mead High School football game last semester. We partnered with middle and high school groups to perform at our annual fall festival, and the seventh grade girls choir recorded our new school song.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I’ll never forget a grandmother who attended one of our jazz band performances at a local restaurant. She was thrilled with the music, but her words about how much the kids engaged and connected with me were the most powerful. 

Clint Pulver, author of “I Love It Here,” reminds us that titles such as teacher or principal are given, but to be a mentor, the mentee must choose the mentor and let them into their heart. Students, better than any other, can tell when a teacher is being sincere and truly invested in the learning and the students.

It warms my heart to have students and families describe me as someone who earns student respect and connects with students individually to make my classroom a home and a welcoming place for all.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have a 3-year-old son and a 10-month-old daughter, so I’m reading a lot of children’s books these days! “This is Hard But You Can Do It” by Brittny Rogers is one of my favorites. I’m using my commute as a chance to keep up with podcasts. Two I’m loving right now are “Vrain Waves,” as well as the “Vinh and Ali Show.” 

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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