Students in David Woten’s choir class at Carson Middle School in Pittsburgh aren’t just getting instruction on how to harmonize or read music: They’re learning that education doesn’t stop when the school day ends. “I don’t teach music,” says Woten. “I teach students through music.”
Woten brings a love of learning to everything he does, be it working with middle schoolers or exploring the workings of boats and car engines. “I don’t read books for pleasure, but give me a manual that will teach me how to do something,” he says. “The more things you know, the more things you experience, the better you teach.”
Before embarking on a career in teaching, Woten became unusually adept at fixing cars, thanks to his work as a diesel mechanic in the army. He’s applied that knowledge to one of his passions: Harley Davidson motorcycles. Another interest? Whitewater kayaking. When he’s not facing the rapids, he’s writing for kayaking magazines or teaching the basics of paddling to his two young sons.
In addition to showing his students the way in which his interests feed his love of learning, Woten inspires them to think about how their own pastimes can shape their lives.
“I want to help them see that there are a lot of things out there that we can get interested in, not only as hobbies, but also as careers,” he says. “It could be something as simple as seeing a photo of whitewater kayaking on my wall. That might lead to the thought of “Oh, I could be a wilderness photographer.” Or “I wonder how engineers make paddles, maybe I could do that.”
Music, of course, has long been a major focus of Woten’s life, he’s been playing guitar, trumpet, and drums since he was in grade school. He picked up those instruments not long after he first realized that school was a pretty great place to be. “My third grade teacher would give me extra worksheets so I could play school all summer,” he says.
Combining education and music was a natural choice, but part of what appealed to Woten about teaching choir is the way in which his classes transcends just notes on a page: Singing, he feels, can draw on elements from many different disciplines. “Music is based on math, so you make those connections,” he says. “We talk about the language of the lyrics and what it means to become a lyricist. I try to bring it all together in those ways.” There’s also the element of performance, which can have an effect on the way kids approach future obstacles. “When you stand up to sing alone in front of your peers, that’s scary,” he says. But then you realize, “Hey, I’m going to be okay.” The next time they have to speak publicly or go on an interview, they’ll think, “If I can sing in front of all my classmates, I can certainly do this.”
Walden, Woten says, is giving him a chance to be reminded of what it’s like to be on the other side again. All students can find educative experiences in every aspect of their lives, but it’s not always so easy to put the rest of life on hold in order to be a student again. “The best thing for me, so far, has just been personal growth,” says Woten. “It’s getting me to think like a student again.”