A Teacher’s “Love Supreme” for Kids and Coltrane

by Ela Schwartz

“His music was a gift to America, and my work is a gift to the kids.” — Christine Passarella, M.A. ’95

Christine Termini Passarella, M.A. ’95, didn’t set out to instill a love of John Coltrane’s jazz music in her students. Her intention was to create a warm, loving classroom environment—“the kind of classrooms I wish I could have attended,” as she described it—and instill in every child the message to believe in themselves and follow their own path.

As a strong believer in the power of art and music to help children improve their academic and critical-thinking skills, Ms. Passarella introduced her first graders at the Holliswood School (P.S./I.S. 178) in Jamaica Estates to various types of music. But it was when she played Mr. Coltrane for them that the magic happened. “There was this deep-rooted, emotional connection the children had with the piece,” she said.

This connection carried through to other works in Mr. Coltrane’s repertoire, from the standards to the avant-garde. The kids were then drawn to Mr. Coltrane’s message of “brotherhood and believing in yourself as an individual,” Ms. Passarella said, and his music acted as a gateway to lessons about everything from American history to problem solving. Her classroom lessons have evolved into an afterschool club called Kids for Coltrane.

“For example, kids listen to the song ‘So What?’ then identify a problem, say, ‘so what?’ and propose a solution,” she explained. The music enables children who struggle to learn under traditional methods to make connections and master literacy, which translates into a newfound love of reading and writing, higher grades and a soaring level of confidence.

Ms. Passarella can speak firsthand of the importance of “following your bliss,” as another of her inspirations, Joseph Campbell, put it. After majoring in economics and working several successful yet unfulfilling years on Wall Street, she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. At Adelphi’s Ruth S. Ammon School of Education she found the warm, caring educational environment she’d always longed for. “I felt embraced and respected, like I was in a place where I could wonder and learn,” she said.

It was here that Ms. Passarella met Professor and Director Devin Thornburg, Ph.D., who would become her faculty adviser, inspiration and mentor. “He is a truly outstanding, kind human being,” she said. “He helped me bloom as a teacher by challenging and encouraging me to not be cookie cutter, but to believe in my abilities and my mission. Adelphi was the perfect fit for me, and I’m grateful and honored to be able to give back to the children in this way.”

The children have obviously taken to heart Ms. Passarella’s message to give back. When they learned that Mr. Coltrane’s landmark Long Island house was in need of repair, they held a series of fundraisers culminating in an assembly in his honor that featured their original songs and dances. Ms. Passarella’s work received recognition from Nat Hentoff in his book At the Jazz Band Ball, as well as from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and countless musicians and jazz aficionados.

Now, she believes it’s time for the Kids for Coltrane program to blossom and grow, and is hoping to train other teachers to create Kids for Coltrane programs in their own schools. “His music was a gift to America, and my work is a gift to the kids,” Ms. Passarella said.

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