"Music speaks when words fail." ~ Hans Christian Anderson
The quote adorns a brightly colored bulletin board on the wall of the choir room at Phillips Middle School. It is one of Joan Ascherl's favorites. Ascherl is the vocal music instructor for 7th and 8th graders in the Fort Dodge Community School District. As she chatted with students about a variety of subjects while they were waiting to be interviewed., it became evident that her students likely enjoy both conversation and music while in her classroom. In celebration of Music In Our Schools Month, Fort Dodge Today is happy to present Joan Ascherl.
Where are you from?
Joan Ascherl teaches vocal music at Phillips Middle School.
I was born in Mason City, but consider myself a native of Fort Dodge as my family moved here when I was two years old.
My husband is Mike. We have two daughters: Jocelyn who is a junior at Iowa State (and a music major) and Madeline who is an 8th grader here at Phillips. We have two canine "children" as well, Max and Gracie. They are both German shepherds and are both rescue dogs.
Students Speak Out: What do you like about Mrs. Ascherl and choir?
"Choir is really fun and we get to learn new songs. We're working on a play now. Mrs. Ascherl is really nice and knows what she's doing." Brian M.
"Mrs. Ascherl is a great teacher. She makes choir fun even if some people don't like singing. We always like coming to her class. She treats everyone equally." Alex J.
"Mrs. Ascherl is fun but also knows when to lay down the rules. I like that she treats everyone equally. I enjoy singing and I'm also in the honor choir. Choir lets me relax since I like it and it's easy for me." Devin U.
"Mrs. Ascherl is a really good teacher who helps when we need it. She's fun too. Choir is fun and we learn a lot about music. Plus, we get to sing really good songs." Jamie H.
"I love how Mrs. Ascherl critiques us in such a nice way to help us get things just right. She lets everyone have input. Choir is a group effort." Harper Lee M.
"I like Mrs. Ascerl because she picks music we like and enjoy so we learn while having fun. She has a nice way of helping us to do our best." Natalie D.
What responsibilities do you have at Phillips Middle School?
I am the 7th and 8th grade vocal music teacher and direct the choirs at Phillips. There are two sections of choir for each grade level, with a total of right at 100 kids in each grade level choir. That means rehearsals with approximately 50 kids most of the time, until we combine to rehearse just before a performance. I also teach music appreciation for all 8th grade students.
How long have you been teaching?
I've been teaching for 24 years now and have taught every grade, kindergarten through 12th. I came to Phillips in 1997 after teaching seven years of high school in Mason City.
When did you become interested in music?
It was an early age. I began playing the piano by ear at age 4 years. My parents were into music and started me on formal piano lessons when I was eight. As a youngster I loved playing both music and school. I had a classroom set up in our basement and would gather the neighborhood kids to play school over summer break. My music teacher, Kathleen Schreier, inspired me to put the two together and become a music teacher.
Favorite memory from your own school days?
I remember the first time I was asked to play the piano for the school choir. I was in the 7th or 8th grade. I remember feeling a sense of pride in being able to get up and lead a group during a public performance without goofing up. It really solidified my passion.
Biggest goal you have achieved as a teacher?
I always promised myself I would get my Masters Degree. Several of the teachers here at Phillips decided to work on it together. It took two and a half years. We did classes on weekends from 5 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and all day Saturday. We spent a week on campus during the summer. In 2007 I received my Masters from Viterbo University in Wisconsin.
Do you have a favorite music genre?
Not really; I have a wide range of tastes from jazz to classical and rock. My daughter is introducing me to country. I think true musicians keep their minds open to all styles.
What is the most recent live production you've been to?
Our family has a tradition of seeing two musical theater productions each year. We just saw Sweeney Todd at Iowa State where our daughter, Jocelyn, played the role of Johanna. I also had the opportunity to see Wicked last fall, which was awesome!
Do you sing in any groups?
Currently, no. I used to sing with the Sonshine Singers, however their busiest time also falls during my busiest time preparing for the musical here at school so I had to cut back.
What is your favorite part of teaching music?
Seeing kids become aware of the value of music. They come in with lots of different reasons for being in choir and as we get closer to performances they begin to take real pride and ownership of their abilities and in their performance. They realize it helps them in other classes and in other settings as well.
Who is your role model?
Well, there are two: my parents. They are both tenacious and hard-working. They passed on good values.
What do you like best about the students you work with?
Their enthusiasm and ability to have fun. Being a big kid myself much of the time, I connect with them. They keep me young at heart. Their spirit is contagious.
How do you like to unwind?
I listen to music and really love to be outdoors, communing with nature (gardening, hiking in the woods, going for a walk or bike ride.)
Is there something your students might be surprised to learn about you?
In high school and college I was really into heavy metal music.
What's playing on your i-Pod?
Jazz, classical, rock, alternative and country mainly.
Secret to staying motivated? to motivating others?
Stay positive! Negativity is contagious and kids can sense it. Have a strong sense of self-confidence. Keep reaching for higher goals and setting the bar higher. Talk with others; you can learn from everyone, whether it's a seasoned teacher or someone new to the profession.
What is this year's musical production at Phillips?
We're doing a brand new musical called Mirror Image. It's the story of two worlds, the real world and the fairy world, which collide when the characters of the fairy world discover the truth that there is another world. Some of the characters from the fairy world escape into the real world and havoc and fun ensue.
Isaac Poldervaart is playing the Woodsman who escapes to reality and falls in love with Danika (played by Harper Lee Miller). Supporting leads are the Wicked Step-Sisters played by Madeline Ascherl and Sarah Amhof and the fairy tale world head mistress, Gable, played by Madeline Westerhoff.
Mirror Image will run at 7:00 p.m. on March 29 at Phillips Middle School. A small admission charge will be collected at the door.