Alum shares music to build bridges

March 27, 2020

At age 15, Carlos Lazo (MIT ‘14) lived alone in Cuba after his family left the country. While struggling to support himself, a teacher’s kindness helped get him through that lonely period in his life.

“Even when I didn’t have anything to eat, that guy even shared his lunch with me,” Lazo recalled.

Forty years later, his former teacher’s displays of compassion continue to guide Lazo, now a 10th-grade Spanish teacher at North Creek High School in Bothell.

The power of music

In his class, Lazo works to provide students with enriching learning opportunities and help them build connections within their local community and beyond. He achieves this, in part, by sharing with students an appreciation for how music can change lives and bring people together.

"Music brings so much joy to your soul and gives so much joy to those around you," Lazo said.

In 1988, Lazo spent a year in jail for trying to flee Cuba. There, he found comfort in music. 

“If you sing a happy song, you are going to be happy,” Lazo learned. "The effect of that music goes through your body — to your ears, to your soul — and changes your life."

Lazo brings that theory of music to his classroom. Each morning, he sings with his students to set a positive tone for the day. 

Last year, he introduced students to a song by Descemer Bueno — a Cuban pop singer — and the students loved the song and wanted to see Bueno live in concert. 

Instead, he helped bring Bueno to them.

Lazo taught the song to the students and recorded his class singing it. “Eventually, we sent the video to the artist, and the artist ended up visiting the classroom," he explained.

Lazo has put together other videos documenting his students’ deep appreciation for Cuban music and culture. Some of those videos have gone viral and sprouted opportunities for the class to visit Cuba and sing alongside Cuban artists. 

Last November, the class performed with Buena Fe — a Cuban pop music band — at a three-day event celebrating the 500th anniversary of the foundation of Havana. Lazo also took his students to sing for poor neighborhoods in Cuba. 

“If you are sitting and sharing the music, you just laugh, smile, share the moment of love and music. That’s the beginning to start getting along,” Lazo said. Through those musical experiences, Lazo aims to help his students gain new perspectives that enable them to see the humanity in others.

“That’s a learning goal for the kids — to learn that there is no ’other’,” he pointed out. Even with race, culture or sexual orientation, for example, “There is no difference. We are all human.”

Providing these enriching opportunities for every student is one of Lazo's goals as a teacher. He has worked to raise funds for more students to go on future class trips to Cuba, particularly those who cannot afford the trip. This focus on equity, he said, evolved from his graduate studies at the University of Washington College of Education and is something he has worked to replicate in his six years of teaching. 

Finding their voices

Back at North Creek High School, Lazo works to create an equitable learning environment and also democratic space for all students to flourish.

Coursework in the UW’s teacher education program prepared him to seek students' funds of knowledge to better adapt his teaching to student needs. For example, when a student consistently failed to turn in homework and arrived late to class, Lazo sought to find the "root of who is that student." This involved having a conversation with the student, which shed light on her family dynamics and socioeconomic background.

Giving that student a lower grade for not turning in the homework, Lazo said, would bring equality to the situation, but not equity.

“As a teacher, how can I help in those situations? Maybe I should give more time. Maybe I should jump into the hole with the student and say, ‘I’m going to help you. Let's do this together.’”

"We have to be flexible as teachers, and we should love our students as we love our children," Lazo said. "I live every day in following that compass of trying to bring equity to my classroom.”

While Lazo works to ensure academic success for all his students, he also works to empower students to shape their own education. "The teachers teach and share knowledge with the student,” he said, “but the student also shares knowledge with the teacher."

Lazo regularly asks his students to provide feedback on his teaching so that he can make changes to improve the class.

"The classroom shouldn't be a place where the teacher is like a ruler," Lazo said, "because, then, we teach these future citizens to just follow the rules — to be silent against the power." He sees that another responsibility for teachers is to help students be deciders and agents of change.

Lazo is dedicated to helping his students continue to make positive changes in the world. His class is planning more trips to Cuba to share their music and ultimately "build bridges of love” between people of Cuba and the U.S.

Despite the hardships he has faced, Lazo said being able to create “magical moments” with his students gives life a special meaning. And, “hopefully, those seeds are going to be replicated, and those students are going to create the same opportunities [for other kids] when they grow up.”

Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications