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Helping Students Find Their Own Beat


Deborah Barsotti There’s a certain vibe about Sankofa Academy you feel when walking into the school. You see it in the African drums lining the multi-purpose room, you hear it in the curated playlist welcoming students for breakfast in the cafeteria and you can feel it on Tuesday mornings, affectionately known as Music Appreciation Mornings.


This is a school that believes in the power of music. Perhaps, no one believes in it more than Deborah Barsotti, the music teacher who orchestrates it all.


Deborah, who received her Masters in music therapy from New York University and studied blues and jazz with Wynton Marsalis, has 25 years of teaching experience. Most importantly, she has experienced the tremendous impact of music.


"I was dyslexic and grew up in an unsafe family environment,” she says. “Music was a life preserver for me and learning to playing the viola healed my heart, my mind and even my eyes by the time I entered high school.”


Sankofa Students Play Drums in the Auditorium. Deborah advocates for involving all students and their parents in the music program knowing that “it made me a teacher of music and a believer that music changes everything."


At Sankofa, the school-wide expectation is that all students - including students in special day classes - participate in the music program and feel included and respected.


“I want to set the tone for parent involvement this school year and let parents know that we want them here,” Deborah said. “They can come to performances, they can come volunteer, but they can also come play in the orchestra with their children.”


Deborah, who is starting her third year at Sankofa, teaches up to 50 students during class ranging in age from pre kindergarten to eighth grade. Students learn how to read music and play instruments as well as proper setup and breakdown of musical equipment. Her classes also provide the perfect opportunity for school values such as respect, patience and teamwork to become ingrained.


The popularity and excitement generated by Deborah’s music program is palpable. Last year, she and a fellow musician spent months adapting the lyrics and music from the hit Broadway play,Hamilton for Sankofa students to perform. It was a smash success that the entire community thoroughly enjoyed.


“This music program is not about holding a talent show,” Deborah stresses. “Our students feel part of something bigger than themselves. We play together and have performances all year long so that students don’t miss an opportunity to showcase their work when they are ready. We want to meet students where they are and let them shine.”


This year, she’ll continue to support teachers to integrate music into classroom lessons onProfessional Development Wednesdays. She’s found great success with the math curriculum, for example, by using music beats to teach students fractions.


For fellow teachers, Deborah Barsotti recommends the Ted Talk: How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain