Elementary music teacher Lois Orth-Lopes brings the world to her classroom

Lois Orth-Lopes has swum into the mouth of a Mayan cave in Belize. She has explored the Shrine of Imam Reza, the holiest site in Iran. She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Strung the strings of a valiha with professional musicians in Madagascar. Walked the streets of Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru, Paraguay and China.

And no matter where she has roamed, Orth-Lopes has found a way to bring the experience back into her Cordley School music classroom.

Lois Orth-Lopes, music teacher at Cordley Elementary, rehearses a dance to the song Cumberland

“She travels all over the world in the summers and she always brings back photos, and instruments and information about the music and culture of the countries she travels to,” said Kim Bodensteiner, former principal at Cordley who worked with Orth-Lopes for seven years. “Lois is one of those people who, in every opportunity and experience that she has, she is thinking about how that might improve or enhance her work with students in the classroom.”

Orth-Lopes’ career spans 40 years. When she talks about her job, there is a passion in her voice that indicates she is as excited today as she was when she started in 1971.

Orth-Lopes taught elementary music in Leavenworth for 11 years. While she was there, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (formerly known as Education for All Handicapped Children Act) was passed. This meant schools had to address the educational needs of children with disabilities. Before the law, children with intellectual disabilities tended to be placed in crowded institutions where existing abilities would often atrophy.

“Mainstreaming began,” said Orth-Lopes. “It was an era of just starting to understand issues that students might have. I became very interested in special education and learning disabilities.”

Following this interest, Orth-Lopes began working at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City. She taught preschool children with learning disabilities for seven years. Then she moved to Lawrence to become one of the district’s first teachers in Cordley’s autism program. The program was a fledgling initiative focused on teaching autistic children who could not learn in a regular classroom.

“We had some fairly challenging behaviors,” said Orth-Lopes. “Even with all its challenges, it was extremely rewarding work.”

Some of the students in Orth-Lopes’ classroom were able to, with a lot of adaptation and support, produce similar work as their peers. There were also nonverbal students who couldn’t perform basic tasks.

From toilet training to how to eat a meal, Orth-Lopes taught students skills appropriate to their learning level. If they couldn’t learn to read or write, she would teach them how to follow a schedule, find a room, fold towels or sort silverware.

Orth-Lopes worked in Cordley’s autism program for 10 years. But then, the No Child Left Behind Act forced a change. No Child Left Behind deemed Orth-Lopes unqualified to teach autistic children. So with a master’s in ethnomusicology, she became Cordley’s music teacher in 2004, a position she has held since.

Orth-Lopes crafts her music classes so they reflect the school curriculum.

Fourth-graders learn about the regional United States, for instance, so Orth-Lopes teaches folk songs. And in the second grade, students learn the continents. So Orth-Lopes uses this year to teach students songs from other countries. She’ll pull down the map and point to the places where the music originated. Often she’ll show pictures of herself in the country she’s teaching. And she’ll display instruments she’s collected in her travels.

“For students to be able to hear firsthand and see actually pictures of their teacher playing instruments in Vietnam is fascinating to them,” said Bodensteiner.

And it’s fascinating to the parents who attend Orth-Lopes’ music programs each season, too. The programs are community favorites, always a spectacle to watch. In Orth-Lopes’ second-grade program this spring, students will sing a Korean song, strike a Vietnamese gong and wave Chinese dancing fans from China town.

This summer, Orth-Lopes will be traveling to Mongolia. You can bet she’ll bring something back to show her students.

“I really enjoy being able to connect music with the world. And helping kids understand that there is so much more beyond this little pocket of society, that there is this huge world out there and there is this similarity of music even though there are many differences,” said Orth-Lopes. “I love working with kids and always have. I’m 64 and I have no plans to quit. I still have energy, and as long as I can get on the floor with kindergartners and dance and lift the instruments, I’ll stay at it.”