The Background of a Memoir, Perspective by Leah Wells, Part 1 — Free Book Giveaway

by Matilda Butler on January 26, 2016

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #221 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler


Leah Wells and her publisher have selected three winners to receive a free copy of her memoir. Each of you wrote intriguing and meaningful comments. Consequently, there are three winners instead of the promised two. And the winners are:

Johnine Simpson
Carol D’Agostino
Sara Eigen-Baker

We thank you all for your comments and invite you to participate in future comment contests at

Note: Be sure to leave a comment below to enter the book giveaway. One person will be chosen to receive a free copy of Leah Wells’ new memoir in which she journeys farther into the Bronx and deeper into herself than she’d ever been–all in the pursuit of a job.

We thank Leah Wells and her publisher, Heliotrope Books, for this generous gift.

NOTE: Don’t forget there is a Part 2 from Leah Wells where she describes her experiences with publishing her memoir. Here’s the link to the second article by Leah Wells. And remember, you can enter the her comment contest in both Part 1 and Part 2. The contests are still open.

Life Experiences Lead to New Memoir

Memoirs cover topics from A-Z. We choose the ones to read based on those that peak our interest, those that offer us a window into a different world, those that provide insights that may be useful in our own lives. When I look back on all the memoirs I’ve read, I realize that it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to create an organized list of why I chose many of the ones that have graced my lap and then my bookshelves. Even when I don’t know the reason, I recognize the ways I’ve been touched by all the stories.

But sometimes, I immediately know the link. And such is the case with Leah Wells’ new memoir: On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start

I have my own history with Project Head Start. My dissertation advisor and one of my fellow graduate students both spent part of their professional careers engaged in Project Head Start evaluations–what worked, what didn’t, timeline trajectories of student outcomes, and more. And although I never had a child in Head Start, I seriously considered it for one of my sons when I was in graduate school.

So when I saw that Wells had written about her experiences as a musical troubadour for Head Start, I was immediately intrigued. I felt a connection. In this first article from Leah Wells, she explores the sense of her job, the context, and range of frustrations she felt. Next week, in Part 2, she shares with us her experiences in getting the memoir written and then finding a publisher. Be sure to stop back here on Tuesday to read the conclusion of the making of her memoir.

How I Came to Write On Another Note: Making Music in Head Start
By Leah Wells

It must have been the guitar on my back and my bag of colorful supplies that pegged me as a Head Start troubadour, walking cornucopia of musical games.

“Oh, you’re a music teacher,” my fellow New York subway riders exclaimed. “What do you do with kids? My sister-in-law teaches kindergarten in North Carolina. She’d love some new ideas.”

Beyond the occasional Freeze Tag or Simon Says, many teachers have little experience leading physical games for their classes, and often no experience at all with musical activities. On the subway or at parties—wherever I met them—teachers would ask my advice: Their school yard was undergoing construction and they were stuck inside with third graders for an ambitious forty-five minutes of vigorous exercise. What could they do with students in a classroom? Or how might they fulfill the new city-wide mandate that an hour of “structured physical activity” be incorporated into a sedentary school day?

When I started teaching at Head Start centers, I too had wondered how best to fill the music and movement time. Developing a viable program took years of trial and error. I researched beloved books from my childhood like American Folk Songs for Children (Oak Publications) and Gryphon Houses’ 101 Activities series, and invented new games with my sons—who were five and seven. Fifteen years ago there were fewer resources online, like,, or, to name a few. Even YouTube didn’t offer the array of children’s songs and games that are currently available. Where could I hope to find safe, fun, educational, and musical entertainment for restless preschoolers?

At the time I was meeting regularly with a friend and neighbor, Loyan Beausoleil, who eventually became my co-author of Games That Sing: 25 Activities to Keep Children on Their Toes (Heritage Music Press). Loyan (then a teacher and now the director of University Plaza Nursery School) was also approached by teachers who were desperately seeking musical activities for young students. Over the years Loyan and I mined our classroom experiences and compared notes. Eventually we compiled our most popular activities and routines with tips for presenting and implementing them effectively. In 2011 Games That Sing was published, with our instructions, sheet music, and a companion CD I created with a friend whose goofy vocal effects children adore.

While Games That Sing bridged a gap between newcomers and music teachers with more training, I found there was more to say. We do not teach in a bubble, but in a context—a particular institution, neighborhood, region—each with its own culture. We teach in tandem with other individuals, often complete strangers. Succeeding in the classroom meant winning over children and bonding with teachers. Often the greatest obstacles came from administrators who were unsympathetic and removed, unrealistic in their expectations and clueless about actual classroom dynamics. I was criticized for not participating in programs of which I’d had no knowledge, and called names like “deficient”and “disorganized” by administrators who seemed inexperienced with live music.

Leading music and movement activities with children is highly interactive, and demands close, vital collaboration with other staff members. Their fondness and support were felt as keenly as hostility and bullying. Nefarious mind games and power plays on the part of administrators threatened my job security. I saw each day as an adventure and wanted to take other people on the climb.

So I started scribbling notes about what happened, what was said, how I felt—on napkins, flyers, the insides of books. I stashed them all in my son’s Spiderman backpack at home. Jotting down those notes lifted my mood, when I was many subway tunnels away from home, in a dauntingly different neighborhood, jumping into a new profession. Even as I purchased my café con leche and hiked from train stations to the schools, I confronted severe poverty in which the children I taught were growing up. I had to learn where it was safe to walk alone and eat lunch. Writing made me feel more secure.

The year at Head Start that I chronicle in my memoir was a time of high drama and heavy stakes, both personally and financially. My husband had just been laid off from his job without severance pay. Between music sessions, I worried about our finances and fretted over my ability to succeed at Head Start—which produced our only household income while my husband strived to replace his job.

Between raising our boys and the long subway commute from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx Head Start centers, I was often sleep-deprived. I had to set my alarm for 5:30 AM in order to guarantee standing room on the train for my guitar and me. My schedule demanded as many as five consecutive classes. I had no sick or personal days in my contract. I had perpetually swollen glands, which I referred to as “consultant’s throat.” Sometimes I played guitar blinded by migraine headaches, or sang when I’d lost my voice. Even on unafflicted days I had to generate the stamina, enthusiasm, and fresh ideas to continually justify my value to the program. The pressure was on!
I am glad that I wrote my impressions on the spot, and that I sketched musical activities to test and develop. That first encounter with teaching and the South Bronx is captured in On Another Note.

Leah Wells memoir authorLeah Wells is a writer, teacher, performing musician and singer. For over 20 years she has studied and taught stringed instrument techniques, from flamenco guitar to bluegrass banjo. Leah performs regularly in the tri-state area, with The Linemen and other folk ensembles. In 2011, she performed at Lincoln Center’s Library for The Performing Arts in a special tribute to Irish music.

Leah has taught music and movement to preschoolers in Head Start Centers, YMCAs, summer camps and private schools since 2003. The mother of two sons, Haskell and Simon, she brings her understanding of children and empathy with music educators to her original classroom material.

Her memoir On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start was published earlier this month and is available through Amazon.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Maisy January 26, 2016 at

Leah, I want to thank you for this post. I can appreciate all the creativity that went into your teaching.

Patricia Fox January 27, 2016 at

I like how you developed your story as a healing, teaching, & learning practice on little notes, everywhere. I can’t wait to read!

Micki Peluso January 31, 2016 at

Leah, what a wonderful life you lead; doing the things you love, helping other children and changing their lives–and getting paid of it. I envy you and wish there were more people like you in this world, making a difference and perhaps changing the course of the future lives of children.

Cheryl McLaughlin January 31, 2016 at

I would love to read this book. I taught kindergarten for a few years, in a room adjacent to the Head Start Program.

Jane Hill January 31, 2016 at

My daughter-in-law’s mother went back to college and got a degree so she could be an administrator at a Head Start Center. She loved it and told many fascinating stories like you, Leah, about how wonderful it was to help these little kids learn and grow. I will certainly tell her about your memoir as I’m sure she’d love to read it and relate to your experiences, too.

Sara Etgen-Baker February 1, 2016 at

Leah–I appreciate your story and learning about your creativity in a challenging environment. I, too, am a teacher. A few years back, my superintendent relocated me from a traditional high school setting to one on the outskirts of town–a school for all the rejected and downtrodden students who hadn’t been able to graduate. Many had been in prison; most had been in gangs; and were reluctantly sent to this school as a condition of their parole. I knew my superintendent had sent me to this campus to “punish” me. I vowed to keep a positive attitude and help these students one day at a time. I had to become quite creative in reaching and teaching these students. But in the long run, the years I taught in that environment were the best and most purposeful years I had in teaching. Wah-la!

Jacque February 1, 2016 at

The aspect of writing being your safe place, no matter where else you were in the moment is very intriguing. Thank you!

Leah Wells February 1, 2016 at

Thanks so much to all of you: Maisy, Patricia, Micki, Cheryl, Jane, Sara, and Jacque! I’m gobsmacked…it’s great to feel that I’m reaching kindred souls and teachers. Your remarks and experiences make me proud to be part of this community.

Mary February 2, 2016 at

Can’t wait to read more. Your writing has everything that appeals to this retired educator for whom music is therapy, celebration, meditation, and memory.

Carol D'Agostino February 2, 2016 at

Project Homeless in Rochester, NY had a special day in the fall where dozens of area agencies/organizations came together in our civic center and set up free booths for the homeless to visit. Such things as getting free hair cuts, a mini-med clinic, starting the process to get replacements for lost social security cards, birth certificates was available, as well as multiple agencies offering information on housing, mental health/addiction treatment, etc. were available.

The turn-out was phenomenal! I was part of a small group who spent the day interviewing the homeless who attended. I was stunned to learn how many of the men/women were either wanting to write but had no paper, journals or pens/pencils or wanted to work with someone to start writing their stories. They wanted to join memoir writing classes but had no money. I learned that several of the homeless spend part of their time on bad-weather days at the main library in downtown Rochester. I’m working on developing a program with the library to run some form of writing group(s) to encourage these important stories to get on paper, to learn more about the homeless from a written perspective and how best we can help such a fragile and growing population.

I loved reading about your experience and it’s re-energizing me again! Thanks!

Leah Wells February 2, 2016 at

Thank you, Mary—for your kind words and your joy in music. Carol, what a heartbreaking (though heartening) story. Unimaginable that people longing to write have no paper and pens. We should create a paper-and-pen drive for them! I’m glad the library in Rochester has been a haven.

Sharon February 3, 2016 at

Your story sounds fascinating. I would love to read it.

Leah Wells February 3, 2016 at

Thank you, Sharon. My hope has been to write a book that people will love reading.

Mary Enright-Olson February 10, 2016 at

Your story is compelling. I especially liked the line “I am glad that I wrote my impressions on the spot…” It’s a reminder to capture ideas as we have them.
I look forward to reading your book.

Mary Patterson February 11, 2016 at

A lovely and challenging story. There are so many people around us that can make a difference with what they do. I love the way you incorporate your memoir into a fascinating story.

Leah Wells February 12, 2016 at

Yes, Mary E. — capturing impressions on the spot is critical. How quickly they fade and become general, then less interesting to readers. And Mary P., yes, so many of us can make a difference…and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?

Johnine Simpson February 29, 2016 at

This more complete background to your new book was both fascinating and compelling. As a public school employee for more than 20 years, I know the challenges of working with young children. Children from different cultures or from situations where poverty is the only given deserve and probably delight in the joy music combined with activity can bring to them. Thank you for giving so much of yourself for the sake of these young lives.

Thank you wrote notes about how you felt about what was going on is a blessing and will undoubtedly help other adults working to make activities and music blend together and to have them be pivotal for young minds. Congratulations on you diligence in working toward publication of this amazing piece of work. Best to you now that it is published (after second review on Womens

Leah Wells March 7, 2016 at

Thanks again for all of your comments and support! Each of you is a “winner” for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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