UPTOWN — Watch out for Jason Fahrenbach.
The 27-year-old music technology teacher at Walt Disney Magnet School is a 2013 recipient of Chicago Public Schools' "Ones to Watch," award for promising instructors, and Disney’s technology coordinator Brad Fisher credits him as the brains behind a souped-up digital media lab that he said bolsters students’ musical education.
For now, Fahrenbach teaches music theory, composing, piano and “all aspects of music,” as well as video production in the lab he helped conceptualize after coming to Disney a few years ago.
But Fahrenbach said he has aspirations of being a K-12 administrator with a fine arts slant and a focus on technology.
“Would I rather have students understand how to use a computer — or have them know exactly where the punctuation marks should go? I’m not saying they’re both not important, but what I’m saying is that both are equally important,” Fahrenbach said.
Fahrenbach was born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Park Ridge by parents who “had a hands-off approach” and encouraged him “to pursue whatever he loved.”
Teaching is his current love, but music was his first. Singing is “probably his main instrument,” but he also plays piano, guitar and a variety of reed instruments.
Fahrenbach's classroom features two big-screen HDTVs and an interactive Promethean whiteboard, situated so that kids in the room can see the screens wherever they are. A document camera with overlaid text indicating keys and other notations captures his hands at work on the piano in real time and projects what he’s doing to students.
Every student, about 32 in every music classroom, has his or her own computer with studio-quality headphones and a keyboard connected to the console that is equipped with music-lesson software that shows red when a wrong note is struck and green when a student is right on target.
The setup makes it easy and quick for Fahrenbach to assess their learning and give pointers.
Fisher, Disney’s technology coordinator for 12 years, said Fahrenbach is “teaching the kids how to really be in control of the technology rather than just being the consumers of the technology."
“That kind of learning is not something that our kids were capable of doing a few years ago,” he said.
Fahrenbach’s approach to integrating digital media in lessons has garnered rave reviews from staffers and students alike. So has his classroom demeanor and personality.
“He has a high level of enthusiasm," Fisher said. "He’s very very intelligent but he’s also very humble and down-to-earth," adding that Fahrenbach "has one of the best rapports with students that I’ve seen a teacher have."
Students from Fahrenbach’s sixth-grade piano class backed up Fisher’s praise.
Lily Ferguson, who loves singing, said Fahrenbach “teaches us well,” and is a “cool” and “funny guy.” Matthew Halpin, who plays guitar, drums, piano and said music is “basically my life,” called him an “encouraging, great teacher,” and said the technology setup makes learning easier and more fun.
And Chris Hill said Fahrenbach is “not fully strict but he’s not the teacher who slacks off with his children.”
The affable teacher is a student himself at North Park University, pursuing a master’s in education leadership. His goal is to become a school administrator at the K-12 level and advocate for an increase in focus on art and technology in schools.
Fahrenbach said “a lot of CPS kids don’t have these technology skills and that kind of inhibits their learning.” In time, he would like to duplicate what he does at Disney elsewhere.
Most schools these days are too focused on standardized test scores and “should be focused on teaching people how to learn and increase their knowledge,” via both arts and technology, “not just teaching to rigid ideas of learning,” he said.
Fisher, the school’s technology coordinator, expects the younger man to be “running his own show” in years to come, doing something in education, music theory, education technology — or all of the above.
“I certainly don't want to lose him, but he has lots of potential to go in a lot of different directions,” Fisher said. “He’s got a long career ahead of him and I think he’s going to do a lot of great things.”