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Wednesday, November 22, 2006 - Page updated at 11:03 AM

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Top state honor goes to Granite Falls music teacher

Times Snohomish County Bureau

The third-grade voices are as radiant as the flame they sing about:

"Light one candle on a long winter's night ... "

A little less than a month before their winter concert, students at Monte Cristo Elementary in Granite Falls follow their music teacher's hands as she draws out a note, punches a fist for emphasis, strikes chords on a piano to meet their voices.

For teacher Andrea Peterson, these 30-minute classes twice a week give students a glimpse of their power when they strive for excellence.

"For so many kids, sitting at a desk isn't going to be where they first experience success. But if they get a taste of it, that can translate into the classroom and to an attitude that they're going to do their best in all they do," Peterson said.

Peterson was named the Washington State Teacher of the Year in October. The award, which is given through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, comes with $6,000 provided by Pemco Insurance.

Life has been a whirlwind ever since. A U.S. congressman stopped by to congratulate her. So did a film crew from the state teachers union. In April, she'll travel to Washington, D.C., to meet President Bush and compete for national teacher of the year honors.

Oh, and she and her husband, Joel, are expecting their first child in March.

Last week, as she recovered from a cold on what she called a low-energy day, the 33-year-old Peterson constantly connected with students. She singled out successive children for praise. She commiserated with a sixth-grade boy whose voice was cracking.

"She's the best teacher I've ever had," says third-grader Emilee Bettes. "I look forward to music a lot."

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Sixth-grader Autumn Grable says music with Peterson is exciting. "She always has new things to share with us. She's always moving around."

When Peterson arrived in Granite Falls as a 23-year-old graduate from the University of Washington, she was expected to teach high-school band, middle-school band, choir and music at the district's two elementary schools.

The district's collection of instruments consisted of about 20 plastic recorders — not enough for even one class. But she received a commitment from then-superintendent Gary Wall that he would help build the program.

Over the years, Granite Falls has added music teachers and has given them more time with students. Parents pitched in with fundraisers to acquire instruments, from wooden xylophones to African drums.

Within two years, Peterson said she realized that she could have the most impact teaching the youngest kids. Some of the middle- and high-school students had already fallen behind and become discouraged by their lack of success in school. Elementary students, she believed, could be given the foundation on which to build.

Colleagues describe Peterson as a "take-charge" type of person who gets students to hear and think more deeply about music.

"Our kids know music," says Granite Falls superintendent Joel Thaut. "It's not just singing songs."

In an era of education that fellow music teacher Jenny Price characterizes as "WASL, WASL, WASL" — the high-stakes Washington Assessment of Student Learning — Price said it's especially nice that the state recognized someone in the arts.

Peterson works closely with Monte Cristo's other teachers. A multi-age class of students from third through sixth grade rehearse songs for a condensed performance of "King Lear." Last school year, students read the play in their regular classroom and traveled to Seattle to see it performed.

Now they are rehearsing a version for which Peterson wrote both music and lyrics. In past years, she has produced musicals on the Lewis and Clark expedition and the U.S. Constitution to complement students' social-studies classes.

During a run-through of the "King Lear" prologue and the title character's first song, set to a hip-hop beat, Peterson tells students she wants their mouths and lips BIG!

She opens her own wide as a mayonnaise jar. Her lips stretch and curl. A helpful boy in the front row volunteers that the effect is like a gasping fish.

The prologue rises menacingly with its warning about deception and madness. But King Lear's song lacks the same power.

"That was wimpy," she tells them. "Where did my manly men go?"

The students sit up taller, suck in air and try the line again.

"Yeah!" she says. "That's what I'm talking about."

Peterson jokes that her career as a music teacher was preordained. Her father taught special education and wood shop for more than 40 years. Her mom plays the piano. Two sisters-in-law teach. Her two brothers are professional musicians.

But more important than lessons in musicianship was her father's example of reaching out to students. A few years ago, a 50-year-old man looked up her father at the family's house in Onalaska in Lewis County to tell him what an impact he'd had on his life.

"He was the kind of teacher students just loved," Peterson said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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