After graduating from Centennial High School, Carolyn Kennedy was set to become a dental hygienist, registered for the appropriate courses at the University of Minnesota the next fall.
But before summer was over, she scrapped that plan and followed her heart instead.
She has been a music teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin School District for the last 39 1/2 years.
“It’s the best choice I ever could have made,” Kennedy said. “I absolutely love what I’ve done.”
Kennedy, who will retire from Sand Creek Elementary School in Coon Rapids at the end of the school year, will miss seeing students grow from kindergartners, who do not necessarily know about pitch and rhythm, to fifth-graders, who have mastered the solfege scale (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do) and composed their own pieces.
“That’s the part of teaching that I’m going to miss is seeing that growth from year to year,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy has spent most of her career at the elementary level, but she did teach at Roosevelt and Northdale middle schools.
Before arriving at Sand Creek Elementary 19 years ago, Kennedy also taught at Champlin Elementary School, Morris Bye Elementary School and Mississippi Elementary School.
Music education has changed dramatically during Kennedy’s career.
When she started teaching, “basically, you sang from the books.” Some rhythm instruments were used, but the curriculum was vocally based.
Colleagues introduced Kennedy to the Kodály and Orff approaches to music education, and everything changed.
Today, vocal books are still used as a resource, but a curriculum written by Anoka-Hennepin teachers helps Kennedy guide students through the basics of music literacy, building on their knowledge each year, week by week.
Kindergartners are taught music for 30 minutes each week, and older students receive 60 minutes of instruction a week.
Strategies have students learn a song by clapping and saying rhythms, saying the song with solfege, singing with solfege and finally singing with words.
Playing a variety of instruments helps students master strategies.
Technology has changed the game, too.
“We used to have to hand write everything out,” she said. And that was a deterrent to delve into reading and writing skills.
Now Kennedy projects one sheet of music for the class to share, using slide shows to easily move between songs appropriate for the various grade levels.
All students write music, just at varying levels.
“It’s just a real progressive thing,” Kennedy said.
In addition to putting on concerts to showcase students’ progress, Kennedy staged musical productions, painting sets and sewing all of her own costumes.
For her final concert in February, Kennedy broke out all of the costumes, and students performed her favorites.
Though she loves show tunes, she is careful to expose students to a breadth of musical styles.
“I want them to have a love of music and a tolerance for all types of music, not just their favorite,” she said. “Every style or type of music has a place in our society.”
Kennedy’s love of music came at a young age – her father sang and played the guitar. She hopes to pass on her passion to her students.
“I don’t want to just teach them just the mechanical stuff,” she said. “I want them to feel the music. I want them to become part of the music.”
Sand Creek Elementary School Principal Paul Anderson has seen students thrive in Kennedy’s classroom.
“Her passion for music, performance and for kids is evident in all she does, especially in the many ways that she goes above and beyond what’s expected of her,” he said. “She will be sorely missed in this school community, and we thank her for the lasting impression she left on all of us.”
In retirement, Kennedy, who turns 65 in June, hopes to spend more time with her husband of 44 years, Chuck Kennedy; their three children; and their five grandchildren.
She intends to volunteer with various arts organizations and will donate the many costumes she has made throughout the year’s to a children’s theater company.