A creative approach to teaching 5th grade band – from instrument tryout drive-through opportunities for students to driveway duets – has earned Elaine Menke of Lakewood Elementary School recognition as Teacher of the Year. Mrs. Menke was honored at the 28th annual Awards Banquet of the Norwalk Area Chamber of Commerce on January 22.
An educator for 21 years and a member of the Lakewood faculty for the past four, Mrs. Menke turned the challenges of 2020 into new ways of learning music for 154 fifth graders at Lakewood. Her creative approach began last spring when she talked to fourth graders virtually about band and gave students the opportunity to try-out instruments safely outdoors at Lakewood.
“Some students knew what instruments they wanted to play, but for many who didn’t, we held a drive-through event where students could get a better feel for the instruments and see if they could make a good sound,” she said. “That hands-on experience helped students find their best fit which helps them and their family make a better choice of instrument to learn.”
Now as fifth graders, the students meet for weekly band lessons in small groups and slightly larger groups for band practice. “I’ve had to adjust and be creative in how I teach so we can safely play during Covid,” she said. This year, she notes, flutes seemed to be the favorite choice of students, compared to trumpets last school year.
“I try to make learning fun for them while also building their confidence while they learn,” she said. “I challenge them to learn new things, to develop their music reading skills and to make music as a team.”
She also encourages parents to make home practice fun by showing an interest in the student’s progress, getting sneak previews of what students are practicing in lessons or working on for concerts, and taking advantage of technology. “Technology is great,” she says. “Students can give a concert for their grandparents living far away through FaceTime or Zoom. It’s exciting for the family and the student to share their learning and it builds confidence at the same time.”
Mrs. Menke’s motivation to a career in education came from watching her mother, a mathematics instructor at the community college level, while she was growing up in Cedar Rapids. “We’d have a snow day and she’d take me to classes with her and I’d sit in the back of the room and loved seeing her teach.”
Mrs. Menke earned a bachelor of science degree in music education from the University of Northern Iowa and taught in Southeast Warren, Des Moines, North Polk, and Waukee districts before joining the Norwalk Community School district.
“Teaching at Lakewood is a great experience,” she says. “The staff is focused on making connections with students, are always open to new ideas and willing to try new things. This year has certainly been an experience of many new things.”
Students and families are looking forward to a special night: an evening of three concerts with the musicians divided into groups of approximately 50 for three identical live performances spaced over the evening. She said students performed at a school assembly earlier in December but the February 8 event will be their first “real concert.” This concert will also be live-streamed on the Norwalk Warriors Production YouTube page for family and friends unable to attend.
Mrs. Menke and her husband, Nick, have two sons in the Norwalk district. She isn’t the first member of her family to be named Norwalk Teacher of the Year. Nick, band director at Norwalk Middle and High School, earned the same honor from the Chamber in 2018.