ORONO, Maine — Sierra Ventura has always known she wanted to have a career in music. Her father is a music instructor, and she grew up in a musical household in Belfast, where she learned to sing and play the piano, clarinet, saxophone and bass guitar.
When Ventura was in high school, her father would get more requests for lessons than he was able to handle, so he would have her teach the younger pupils.
“I started with one spunky 6-year-old girl, and I now teach 35 students a week,” said Ventura, 22, seated in an atrium in the Class of 1944 Hall at the University of Maine on a recent spring day. “I think that’s what sparked my desire to be a teacher.”
On May 10, she will graduate as the valedictorian from the University of Maine with a bachelor’s degree in music education. Ventura has served as assistant conductor of the University of Maine Singers and of Euphony, an Orono-based chamber choir. She is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honors society and is active in UMaine’s chapter of the National Association of Music Education.
Next year, she hopes to pursue a master’s in music education and eventually become a music teacher.
“What really gets me is seeing the look on the kids faces when they get it,” she said. “When we’re working on something, and it finally clicks. It’s so cool to get that spark.”
This semester, Ventura has worked as a student teacher, helping instruct the school bands at Orono Middle School and Orono High School.
“It’s almost like performing yourself when you’re up in front of a group,” said Steve Hodgdon, the music teacher who has supervised Ventura. “And in that performance, you’re trying to draw out the best in the kids. She does very well at going after the best of the students.”
UMaine’s salutatorian, Jennifer Chalmers, 22, of Foxborough, Massachusetts, is also going into teaching. The history and English double major has signed on with Teach for America, a teacher training program that puts recent college graduates in schools with socio-economically disadvantaged student populations. Come August, she will be teaching English language arts to special education students in New Jersey.
Chalmers said she wants to teach in order to pass her love of school on to others.
“I just love learning, and other than trying to learn forever, the only way I can think to do anything with that is to help others like it,” she said Tuesday.
Chalmers loved school so much she not only double-majored, but she also double-minored in Spanish and education.
But both Chalmers and Ventura are fully aware of the multiple changes underway in the education world.
In recent years, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core, a set of learning standards intended to make school more rigorous for students. States across the country, including Maine, are at varying stages of implementing new evaluations for teachers, and charter schools are popping up in greater numbers.
When asked what she thought of these changes, Chalmers said she hopes her experience with Teach for America will help her form an opinion on the issues.
“I don’t think I’m going to know what’s right until I meet more students,” she said. “I hope to have an answer to that two years from now.”
After Teach for America, Chalmers hopes to go into either the business or policy side of education.
One of the most immediate changes to Maine’s education system is the transition to standards based learning, which puts an emphasis on students acquiring skills, as opposed to grades and credit hours. Students progress through a course when they demonstrate proficiency on standards, not simply because they’ve been in the required number of classes.
Though Ventura acknowledged the benefits of proficiency-based education, she said she’s wary of its effect on students’ motivation.
“There are many students [such as myself] that were and are motivated by getting a numerical grade and striving for the best possible grade,” she said in an email. She explained that her younger brother is in a standards based system at school that doesn’t rely solely on traditional grading and has struggled at times.
“‘Why bother studying when I can retake it as many times as I want?’ was a common argument heard at home,” she explained. “There was no pressure to do well the first time, no ramifications if you failed a test or quiz.”
Laura Artesani, an associate professor at the School of Performing Arts at UMaine, who has worked closely with Ventura over the years, said graduates going into education face new challenges because of the changes occurring in schools.
She added that she wasn’t surprised Ventura is graduating at the top of her class.
“She’s very focused, very motivated, has a great work ethic,” she said.
The valedictorian and salutatorian are the students with the highest grade point averages, and when multiple students achieve a 4.0 GPA, as Ventura and Chalmers did, the honors go to the two students with the most credits.
Ventura and Chalmers have another characteristic in common: a love of UMaine.
In her sophomore year, Chalmers joined an honors society called the sophomore eagles, a group that promotes UMaine traditions. She said the experience made her appreciate her school and inspired her to join a history club, an autism awareness group and All Maine Women, another honors society.
Ventura said she’s formed a close group of friends in the School of Performing Arts through the choirs she’s been in. She recently got engaged to Justin Zang, whom she met in University Singers during her freshman year.
“This building is like home,” she said, looking up at the Class of 1944 Hall ceiling.
The couple is looking into having their ceremony in Minsky Hall, with music written by a friend from their choir.