Celebrating music

Moffat County teacher still learning after lifetime of teaching

As a child, Charleah Firestone used to go with her mother to put musical knick knacks in downtown Grand Junction store fronts. Each had a sign proclaiming March as Music in Schools month.

Firestone's mother was a music teacher.

Now, the fifth-graders in the school where Firestone teaches put on a program for their parents, but that's the extent of the month's celebration.

For them.

For Firestone, every day for the last 28 years has been a celebration of music in schools.

She's a music teacher, too.

Firestone has been teaching music at elementary and intermediate school students in Craig since 1976, right after she finished her student teaching requirements at Poudre High School, just outside of Fort Collins.

She and her husband had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary when she got a call to interview for a position teaching music.

"I don't know to this day where (they) got my name," Firestone said.

She interviewed on Wednesday and was told that school started that Friday.

When school started, she was there, happy to return to the Western Slope.

Firestone taught music "out of a cart" the first year she was in Craig. She taught at East Elementary School, Sunset Elementary School and at Breeze School. There was no music room.

She was the librarian at the time, too.

That she also did out of a cart.

"I don't know how I did it," she said laughing. "I was young then."

The Moffat County School District was remodeling East Elementary School at the time and plans were in the works to construct Ridgeview Elementary School.

Firestone taught -- in a music room at last -- at East for nine years and then opened Ridgeview as the music teacher.

Music has been part of Firestone's entire life. She grew up surrounded by it and learned to play the piano from her mother. Both her parents were teachers.

"Teaching was just a part of our lives," she said.

Firestone said she knew she wanted to be a music teacher when she was in junior high. She studied music education in college with the intent of becoming a band director, but discovered during her student teaching that high school wasn't where she wanted to be.

"I hated my student teaching," she said. "Hated it. It taught me 'this isn't for me.'"

That's when she made the decision to teach at the elementary and intermediate school levels.

Firestone now teaches music at Craig Intermediate School.

"I like teaching; it's fun to see the students grow. I especially like this age," she said. "Anything you ask them to do, they can do it."

And they like doing it for her.

There's an easy affection between Firestone and her students. Her authority is subtle, and seldom needed.

Students flock to her room following a program, asking if they can help put the room back together. Others stop by after the bell rings to say "hi," give a hug or sweetly try to finagle a piece of candy from Firestone's secret stash.

It's the students' joy in music that Firestone loves.

"They're performers. They shine," she said. "They might complain when they're practicing, but when it comes to performing ..."

At the fifth- and sixth-grade level, Firestone concentrates on teaching note reading and music theory -- sort of a pre-band education.

"It gives them a good idea as to whether they should go on with band or not," she said.

Fifth-grade students sing songs from American history and sixth grade-students get their first take-home instrument -- the recorder.

But it's not all high notes.

Teaching, music or any other subject, has it's challenges. Firestone's biggest? Motivating kids who don't like school, she said. And that happens more and more often.

"It's a hard thing," she said. "You just try your best to be positive with them.

"With those kids, a lot of times, art, music or band are the reasons them come to stay in school."

Firestone thinks teaching at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels is the most difficult. Music is a required subject through eighth grade, yet students are at an age where they've decided whether they want to continue learning.

"Each teacher has a knack for a certain age group," she said.

And hers is where she's at.

She misses the constant flow of affection from elementary school students, but enjoys the increased ability level of fifth- and sixth-graders.

"One thing I miss at the elementary level is they always come to class and give you a hug, they were so excited to see you," she said.

Music is important, Firestone said, particularly at a young age when it's especially good for developing the right side of the brain.

She said students, and music teachers, in the Moffat County School District have been lucky that there's been no move to cut music programs; something that happens frequently in other schools as funds decrease or the pressure mounts to provide an increasingly test-based curriculum.

"I'm really thankful for that," she said.

She helps keep the music program's cost down by coordinating fund-raising events that allow her to purchase equipment. Students collect box tops, which Firestone redeems for cash. Through the Boxtops for Education program, she's been able to buy 10 guitars and a guitar stand for students.

Firestone is still growing as a music student herself. Health reasons forced her to give up her favorite instrument -- the trumpet -- and her seat with the music group "Yampa Valley Brass," so she picked up the harp.

Coincidence drove her to it.

A friend told her about a hospice program that used harp music to soothe patients and something clicked. She bought a harp and a "How to Play the Harp" book and got started.

She's advanced to a bigger, and more expensive harp, and plays for weddings and at her church.

"It's really funny how people affect your life," she said.

Firestone plans to hit her 30th anniversary teaching before she considers retiring. She's thinking of chasing warm weather to Grand Junction to be closer to her hometown and her husband's hometown of Palisade.

"I'll miss the people here," she said. "I'll miss the kids. They're the best part of teaching."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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