New FPGB Music Teacher Brings Joy and Learning Everyday
Rody Huertas-Ostolaza already lived a rich and visible life back home in Puerto Rico, before he accepted the position of music teacher at Frank Porter Graham Bilingue (FPGB) in 2019. But he and four other arts educators had visited the CHCCS dual-language school in September 2018 for a week-long residency on building social justice and resilience through the arts, and his experience at FPGB was profound and transformational. A year after the residency, Rody moved to Chapel Hill-Carrboro with his wife and infant son, and in his new job, he began immediately to create an indelible presence for students and staff alike.
Former FPGB music teacher, Ann Harrawood, retired in June 2019, leaving a legacy of love and dedication, and Rody was well aware of her history with the school. But he smiles when he admits that he’s always seeking new challenges, and he was determined to perpetuate and extend that legacy with respect. In June 2020, Rody received the CHCCS 2020 Promising New Teacher Award, and few who knew him were surprised.
Dr. Brenda Whiteman, Arts Education Coordinator, said, “Rody first came to FPGB as a teaching artist from Puerto Rico. He made a profound impression on the school in a short period of time, and the former principal, Emily Bivins, was so impressed with his abilities. In addition to his strong musicianship and teaching skills, he brings a broad world view and perspective.”
Many people might wonder how music classes are adapted for remote learning, especially in the elementary grades, when it’s still a part of every student’s schedule, no matter how “musical” they believe they are. Rody may be a professional, classically-trained musician, but he is a fierce believer in music for everyone, without concern about talent or prior training. "I am always looking for ways to get all of my students to create," he said.
Just as art teachers must constantly be thinking about accessible materials for all of their students, so must music teachers consider the lack of instruments in many children’s homes. The music room at FPGB is filled with an extraordinary range of drums and other instruments, but the children haven’t set foot in that space since March. So Rody educates his students on ways to turn all kinds of household objects into music makers: car keys, almost anything from the kitchen, bottles of vitamins. He performs for his students with an array of household objects, so they can see how it’s done. He frequently makes videos for his students, and he's always ready to offer technical advice to his fellow music teachers.
Katy McGovern, CHCCS Peer Assistance and Consulting Teacher (PACT), worked with Rody in her mentoring and training capacity, as she does with all elementary first year teachers. She was part of the team that chose him for the 2020 award. “Rody's passion and enthusiasm for teaching music to children is exemplified daily in his classroom,” she said. “Rody's desire to create connections between the curriculum and the world allows for creativity in a safe, fun, and nurturing space. He understands and values relationships, collaboration, and innovation. Rody's creativity, whether teaching in person or virtually, continues to engage his students while he constantly pushes himself to try new things. He sparks joy and cultivates belonging by building strong and lasting relationships with his students, colleagues, and the community. He is a truly phenomenal educator. "
Rody spent his childhood in a mountainous region of Puerto Rico, one of four brothers who spent most of their time creating performances and short videos. He usually played the role of director, and early on he learned a wide range of technical skills to use in their music and video projects. By the time he moved to San Juan as a young teenager, he had learned how to play many instruments, and he was becoming a polished trombonist. Soon he was playing gigs with many different musicians and establishing a name for himself on the island. As a young adult, he traveled around the world with his friend, Victor Serrano, a dancer, showcasing the folklore traditions from their homeland.
Rody became a music educator in San Juan, and it was there he formed the connections and vision that lead to his part in the arts residency at FPGB in 2018, after the powerful hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. From a "Teaching Tolerance" article, the roots of this collaboration are described. “In San Juan’s Escuela Dr. Arturo Morales-Carrión, music educator Rody J. Huertas Ostolaza had previously made plans to transform the struggling elementary school. With help from a School Improvement Grant from the Department of Education of Puerto Rico, he had recruited dancer and counselor-in-training Víctor M. Serrano Román and dancer Zorimar Rosado to assist him in forming alliances in the community and leveraging these relationships to improve the school. But after the hurricane, they knew they had to dig deeper.”
They formed Team Puerto Rico, a group of musicians, artists, dancers, who led workshops teaching resilience and empowerment through creativity. A large part of their mission in teaching other teachers was to provide understanding of how social justice and healing can be learned through the arts. It was that message they brought to FPGB in September 2018.
School Counselor, Barbie Garayua-Tudryn, first met Rody when she and other FPGB staff traveled to San Juan in 2017. “I met Rody in Puerto Rico during our visit to the Escuela Arturo Morales Carrión in el Barrio Tortugo in San Juan as part of the #FPGResponde effort led by staff at FPGB. It had been a few months after María and I remember being struck by Rody's optimism and joy despite what he had been through both personally and professionally as he supported his school community.”
“He truly is an unicorn- an outstanding and really well-known trombonist in the island, a humble and sensitive human being, and an educator who puts kids first,” Garayua-Tudryn said. “It doesn't get any better than that- we hit the jackpot at FPGB!”
FPGB Principal, Karen Galassi-Ferrer, agreed. “Whether he's starring in a guest role on the trombone for a music video with a famous singer or playing the spoons with Kindergarteners during Remote Learning, el Sr. Rody brings a contagious passion for music, connection, and life. La Familia FPGB is fortunate to have an educator as talented and caring as el Sr. Rody.”
Catch a glimpse of Rody performing in San Juan with Jimmy Fallon, Bad Bunny and dozens of other artists -- look for him at the 3:00 minute mark, and enjoy the parade!