Music has been a major part of Larena Code’s life for as long as she can remember. It became especially important for her when she moved from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Norway with her musician parents.
“When I was in kindergarten I was very homesick because I didn't know the language and couldn't understand my teachers or classmates. The only thing I liked about school was when we sang Norwegian children's songs,” said Code.
“My parents bought me a few CDs of the songs we sang in class and I sang along with them over and over. Eventually, I started recognizing the words from the songs in conversations at school and started understanding the language. This was a huge breakthrough for me and I owe it to those songs.
“I think about that experience a lot when I am teaching English language learners in Chicago. Music can be so powerful, especially when you are young,” Code said.
When it came time to apply for colleges, Code decided her calling was to become a music teacher. In her search for the right program, DePaul University’s Music Education program stood out.
“I was searching for music schools, and I researched the professors here. The head of the music education department, Dr. Kelly-McHale, specializes in elementary music, which is what I am interested in and I was also interested in Chicago. I kept coming back to DePaul, and I’m really glad I chose it,” said Code, who is graduating from DePaul’s honors program with a Bachelor of Music degree in music education.
“I’ve loved DePaul so much. The music education program has been so influential on me. It’s really turned me into the teacher I am today and opened me up to new perspectives I’ve never thought about before,” said Code. “I found my passion in the music education program.”
Teaching outside the classroom
Code especially loved how she had the opportunity to start learning in the field early on.
“Every single year, I’ve gotten to do a little bit more. So I’ve gotten to have experience working with kids before I actually got into a classroom,” she said.
“Most music education programs don’t have you teach in a classroom until junior or senior year. I also got to explore Chicago’s neighborhoods and be a part of the community too, which is great.”
Code’s first taste of teaching was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Once Upon a Symphony” program, in which musicians perform interactive children’s stories with musical accompaniment at schools and preschools throughout Chicago. She was a volunteer whose role was to lead the children in pre-concert activities.
Alongside volunteering with the orchestra program, she worked with the St. Vincent de Paul Center as an after-school math and reading tutor for Chicago Public Schools’ students.
“I started out tutoring a small group of kids, and then became the leader of the second and third grade tutor group,” said Code.
Teaching to diversities
She also tutored as a piano instructor with DePaul’s community music division. “I was able to interact with a variety of different kids. I’ve loved the diversity in Chicago. It’s so big, so great. What I found out through my four years here is I thrive on celebrating my students’ diversities and teaching to their diversities,” she said.
During her time as a tutor, Code worked with students in a music composition class at Morrill Elementary School in West Englewood.
“That was a population I’ve never worked before, but was interested in because a lot of my classes made sure we learned about the disparities in the education system and how important it is to be culturally responsive when teaching,” she said. “All my classes really instill that value, and I’m super passionate about that now.”
Leaving the comfort zone
At Morrill, she realized the learning process between teachers and students goes both ways when she had a student who needed help stepping out of his comfort zone. “He was often reluctant to participate in the compositions and didn’t want to perform,” said Code.
“I decided to give him his own special part. The amazing thing was his classmates were extremely supportive. They wanted him in the middle of their performance, and to have a special solo. It was such a beautiful moment,” said Code.
“When he finally performed his group’s composition, he was so happy. Then I talked to his teacher about it later. It turns out he had a very rough home life and this moment was a real breakthrough for him. It was so great to see him so happy, playing music he made, with the support of his friends and classmates. It gave me goose bumps.”
Her experiences helped prepare Code for her post-graduation career. She has accepted a job with Tinley Park Elementary School District, a position where she can continue to make an impact on the lives of students.
One in a series of stories about graduates from the Class of 2015