MJ Brings Happiness To FLC


Contributing photographer Debora Oquendo-Serrano

Photography of MJ portrait-style. Smiling at the camera.

Zaynab Hajali, Staff Writer

“Is there anything MJ brings to the classroom that other teachers don’t? Happiness.”

Caring, kind, warm, fun, easy to relate to, and friendly. She isn’t a teacher, although she is respected as one, she’s more like a friend to the students here at Franklin Learning Center. 

This year, Mikaela “MJ” Swanson is Franklin Learning Center’s Teaching Artist. She comes from a program called Artist Year, which is part of a larger program called Americore. Each year FLC partners with their organization to bring a teaching artist to this school. Vocal Music teacher Michelle Frank describes getting MJ as this year’s teaching artist as “extremely fortunate.” 

So what does MJ do here at FLC? Teach? Not quite. MJ’s job here consists of making relationships with the students and faculty members at FLC. 

“The best way to describe my work,” she said “is that I come in to support the arts department and bring arts education into schools. And that can look a lot of different ways depending on where you’re placed. Luckily, I’m at a school with a really strong arts department so I don’t have to teach curriculum and I don’t have to develop any coursework which gives me a lot of time to make a lot of relationships with you all and support Ms. Frank and Mr. Sharp in other projects. My favorite part is that I get to hang out with you guys.” 

Students are feeling the love. 

“I feel more comfortable with her than with some of the teachers I’ve known here for like the past four years,” senior Yeshua Irizarry said. 

MJ relates to the students here as well. 

“I sometimes feel like I’m also a student again,” she said. “So when I’m in the classroom, it feels very much like my experience in high school as well. For me. It feels like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. Because it reminds me a lot of what I used to do and I think that that helps me in being a support system for the students because I get it and I know what it’s like to be in your position as well. And I know that sometimes, although you are here to study music, sometimes you’re like, man, I don’t have the juice today. You know what I mean? I feel like I have a good understanding of what it’s like to be on both sides now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic opened MJ’s mind to new knowledge and experiences even if it took away some things as well. 

“I was finishing up school. It’s really hard to be a music student online, and I really felt a lot of sadness. I felt this disconnect from my peers that was really difficult to deal with. You know, I think the pandemic kind of killed off acquaintances. We don’t have a lot of acquaintances anymore. Now we’re starting to get back into, you know, a non-virtual world. I think we’re starting to see people that are like preliminary friends, but for a long time, the only people I saw were my super super close friends who were roommates and my family. I think I also felt a lot of disconnect from my fellow music students. And that was something that was my favorite thing about going to music school. Your peers were your friends and they were also your bandmates, studio mates, and co-producers. Having a community of people who are all interested in the same kind of thing as you, you get to mix the professional and the personal in that way, which I really loved and the pandemic made it really hard to do that.” 

The pandemic also helped MJ discover some new things about herself.

“It also gave me a lot of time to focus on my own individual songwriting and on my own music. I think it gave me a lot of opportunities to be like okay, “I really want to make this kind of music” or “I want to make this kind of song.” And I can’t meet up with someone who’s better at it than me, so I just have to teach myself. I taught myself how to play guitar, how to produce a song. I had to teach myself how to score a film. I spent a lot of time by myself in my room developing my skills, and it gave me a lot of confidence in the fact that I can teach myself anything.”

MJ talks a lot about the music department we have here at FLC and how great it is, but she loved music before coming to FLC. 

“I genuinely have always been really musically minded. My grandma always said I had a song in my heart, that’s how she phrased it. And I really think that’s true. I sort of was always writing little songs and as I got older my dad was like, “Hey, you should focus on this a little more.” He taught me how to use recording equipment at home and it just sort of snowballed from there.” 

Finding her passion for music, MJ decided to pursue it. 

“I started going to art school in seventh grade and I was singing all through middle school and high school. Toward the end of high school, I was like, ‘Okay, I love performing but I want to find a way to have a job that is artistic, but doesn’t involve me singing all the time and that kind of led me down the production route and doing more recording arts. I continued to study recording arts in college, and now I’m kind of doing a mix of stuff, right?’ So I’m teaching music here at FLC, but I’m scoring films and I’m performing on my own and I’m writing my own music and now I’m kind of looking at some other work too. So yeah, I mean, I just feel like music is the one thing that I have consistently loved and I feel this sort of soul connection to music. Music is the one thing that I will forever, every single day, think, I love this and I feel the most self when I’m doing this.”

Working somewhere where you can laugh while you work is probably a dream come true and MJ seems to be living that dream with her students. 

“I think I laugh, belly laugh, every single day. Because you guys are just so funny. You guys just say the funniest stuff. You guys don’t even know how funny you are, I like that you guys are just hilarious.” 

Photography of MJ portrait-style. Smiling at the camera. Contributing photographer Debora Oquendo-Serrano.

Music might be MJ’s favorite thing, but here at FLC, it’s the students and the entirety of the music department. 

“I just love the students here and I love Miss Frank and I love Mr. Sharp and I love the music department. I love watching students gain confidence in themselves. I love watching the musical come together and watching kids who were really shy and never said anything, get up on stage and they’re bombastic, incredible performers, that makes my heart want to explode. I think it’s the little things right? You’ll think that you’re not really connecting with a student, they don’t seem to care about you, they’re not giving you much and then they come up to you after class and they’re like, “Hey, man, give me a stop.” That means so much to me. And y’all don’t know that because I don’t think it really fazes you, but that means so much to me to know that, me just being in the classroom, is positive and helps in some way.” 

MJ is only at FLC for the year, but is already making an impact on her students and her fellow staff members. Ms. Frank knows how important it is for FLC to have people like MJ.

“I think we need more people like her,” Frank said. 

Irizarry knows the difference MJ makes too.

“She definitely cares about everybody and how they feel,” he said. “I noticed that when somebody is down or somebody feels or looks upset, MJ makes sure that they’re included.”

Although MJ has only been here for a short amount of time, she’s definitely made an impact in her stay. 

“I feel like there’s so much more to MJ that I don’t know because I’m just a student now,” Irizarry said, “but I can’t wait to learn more about her after I graduate and after she leaves to see what she does.”