Nominated by his own students, Oliver Fraenkle, a band teacher at Lawrence Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park, was recently selected as Sonoma County Teacher of the Month in Nov. 2018. In the previous year he was also awarded the 21st Century Teacher Award in recognition of his excellence in teaching everything from special education, to music, to robotics, to a unique drone program he initiated at Lawrence Jones Middle School about three years ago.
“What started me receiving the 21st Century Teacher Award was my principal at the time, Scott Johnson, who thought I would be a good candidate for that based on the different things I’ve done,” says Fraenkle. “At this point I’ve taught robotics, in addition to music and special ed. I haven’t been stuck in one thing and he thought that was good for the students, to have somebody who is not stuck to one discipline.”
Fraenkle has about 25 years experience in education to date, including the last twenty years in the Rohnert Park Cotati Unified School District teaching primarily 6th through 8th grade students. After receiving an education in music, he first started teaching music to children with emotional and behavioral challenges, before teaching in special education for approximately 10 years.
“Many years ago I taught in a non-public school with children with behavioral challenges,” says Fraenkle. “I had a drumming program in a school in Sebastopol for severely emotionally disturbed boys called Plumfield Academy. It was a sort of therapeutic drumming program.”
After teaching in special education for approximately 10 years, Fraenkle decided to return to teaching his first passion – music.
“The way I see it, I’m really lucky with my job,” says Fraenkle. “I’ve had so much autonomy in teaching the subjects that I’ve wanted to teach. I feel like going to work is getting to do what I want to do because right now I teach band, and guitar and a little choir – things that interested me and that I felt passionate about. So, it’s easy to be the fun teacher when you get to do what you want. I think the students feel that.”
Fraenkle feels that his background in special education helps a lot in his music teaching, working with all types of students. Having seen both ends of the teaching spectrum, from struggling students to those who are successful academically, gives him the insight and experience to inspire and help all his students succeed.
“It’s really nice to have taught special ed with the most challenged group on campus to teaching band which is really a lot of very good students,” says Fraenkle. “But, in band and music you also get students who are struggling with all other disciplines and this is one thing they’re successful in. This is where my special ed background comes in and I like working with those students and we integrate them. This may be the only time of the day where they feel successful and it makes me happy to see that. You don’t know what those students’ home life or day looks like but at least you can give them a little bit of success because it’s pretty easy to succeed in enrichment programs such as music.”
This is also one of the many reasons Fraenkle believes music education is a critical component of our education system. Recent studies have shown musical training to help develop language and reasoning skills, help master memorization skills, develop hand-eye coordination, foster a sense of achievement, improve teamwork and engagement in other subjects and increase spatial intelligence, among others. Music is helpful for fighting stress and emotional well-being and one report even indicates that students who have experience with music score higher on the SAT – specifically 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math.
“I think it’s a huge mistake to take out those disciplines [music and the arts] when times get tough because that’s when you may actually need them the most,” says Fraenkle. “If you look worldwide at all major learning institutions that have been highly successful, they spend a large amount of their emphasis on music, specifically. I think the reason for that is that the human brain really processes music in a different way than anything else. Music is such a part of what we are as humans. If you think of any celebration or anything that humans have done, historically it always involves music and it’s almost what makes us human.”
Beyond music theory and education, however, Fraenkle also makes it a point to teach his middle-schoolers other essential real life skills such as leadership, teamwork, independence and decision-making. To that end he allows students to be involved in the organization and operations of the band, from choosing what pieces to practice and play at concerts, how the concert should be set up, etc.
“I think school has taken on a new role nowadays with parents being really busy and with students not interacting socially with each other as much due to all the screen time,” says Fraenkle. “My personal challenge is that I get these 150 kids every day given to me for a couple hours and I think it’s my job to give them what they can’t get anywhere else. A big part of that is social interaction. In band we’re such a tight group – we have to learn to get along and organize and learn how to work in groups. This is not something they can learn in other subjects. These leadership skills are great preparation for real life and having a job.”