Puja Ramaswamy, a choir teacher at Lake View High School, plays piano for her students after receiving her Golden Apple Award. Credit: Provided

LAKEVIEW — Lake View High School music teacher Puja Ramaswamy and her beginning choir class were rehearsing for an upcoming concert when they heard a knock on the classroom’s door.

The students could see a gaggle of TV news crews through the window, but Ramaswamy’s back was to the door, so she was shocked when the school’s leadership, along with Ald. Matt Martin (47th) and Golden Apple President Alan Mather came in to present her with the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“I was speechless,” Ramaswamy said. “It was overwhelming and surreal to be recognized in this way.”

Ramaswamy started teaching choir at Lake View High School, 4015 N. Ashland Ave., four years ago. She’s among 10 high school teachers to receive a Golden Apple award this year.

In her classroom, Ramaswamy encourages students to draw connections between music and their experiences or issues that are important to them.

While teaching remotely in Fall 2020 — around the height of the protests following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police — Ramaswamy created a lesson plan on the history of protest music.

“There was this intense issue happening in society that just wasn’t being talked about in classes, so I wanted to find a way to address this with music,” Ramaswamy said.

She taught her classes about how protest music started and has developed over the years, while holding discussions on why protest music is important, she said.

Students were tasked with thinking of events or issues they felt passionate about and choosing a song that resonates with those themes, Ramaswamy said. Students came in with songs touching on the Black Lives Matter movement, life as an undocumented citizen, gender equality and more. Her 2020 lesson plan was cited by the Golden Apple Foundation in announcing her award.

“The exercise really connected music to their passion for society, politics and whatever else they’re interested in,” Ramaswamy said. “It was really powerful and students had such thoughtful responses.”

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Ramaswamy’s approach to teaching includes encouraging students to pursue areas of music they’re already interested in, while also pushing them to step out of their comfort zones by learning new and challenging material, she said.

“So at the beginning of the school year, I’ll have the class choose a song that they’ll sing, and it’s usually a pop song because that’s what they know right now,” Ramaswamy said. “But then we’ll learn something that they’re unfamiliar with to push them out of that comfort zone.”

Currently, Ramaswamy’s students are learning “Sisi Ni Moja,” a song by Jacob Narverud that’s sung in English and Swahili. She’s also taught the song in sign language so they can sign the song as they sing along.

“It’s really beautiful because the song resonates with this message and idea that we are all one people,” Ramaswamy said.

Ruby Yeatts, a junior at Lake View High School, said they appreciate Ramaswamy for being “nice but assertive.”

“She’s always being nice, but she’s trying to teach you and bring out the best in every student,” Yeatts said.

Mia Meza, another junior, said Ramaswamy has created a “welcoming and comfortable environment” where students feel safe learning new things.

“She knows what she’s doing, is confident in it and you can tell she loves it,” Meza said. “When you know someone is aware of what they’re doing and passionate about it, you feel that energy. That’s what you get from Ms. Ramaswamy.”

Ramaswamy grew up in Edgewater, participating in her school’s choir and band programs while practicing classical Indian dance.

“I’ve always been a musician,” Ramaswamy said. “Music has always been the place where I felt like I was home. I always could go to music whenever I was having a bad day.”

Ramaswamy went to college to study pre-med, but she discovered her love of teaching music while starting her college’s first jazz choir, she said.

“I was teaching my peers, but it gave me a sense of what teaching was like,” Ramaswamy said.

After finishing her undergraduate education, Ramaswamy was left deciding between her passion for music and a path to medical school. She ended up deferring her enrollment into medical school to try out the VanderCook College of Music for a year, she said.

“I realized that music is my calling, and a way I can help other people and get them to connect with themselves,” Ramaswamy said. “I’m so happy with this choice.”

In addition to the lifetime prestige of the Golden Apple award, Ramaswamy gets $5,000 and a spring sabbatical taking classes at Northwestern University.

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

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