Celebrate Black History Month Through the Arts

With Black History Month upon us, we celebrate the contributions, activism, culture, and experience of African Americans. Many of our artists at Young Audiences have designed performances and assemblies to connect students with African American history and develop an in-depth understanding of the unique stories, struggles, and accomplishments of the past and the present. The following are just a few of the many talented artists available to bring a meaningful connection to African American history into your school.

Black History Month
Pianist Kevin Gift

Kevin Gift introduces renown jazz pianists from Thelonius Monk and Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett in his assembly, Jazz Piano Masters. Students learn not only about the important contributions these musicians made to American music, but they also experience how improvisation can make practicing anything more enjoyable and personally satisfying.

Black History Month
Actress Debra Mims


Debra Mims
has been an actress for over thirty years and was an arts producer at PBS for fourteen years. With additional training in dance, she received a BFA in Theatre Performance from Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan. She has performed at the Georgetown Theatre Company, the Children’s Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Detroit-Windsor Dance Company.

In My Grandmother Told Me: A Tribute to African-American Women, Debra uses monologues, poetry, and song to tell tales of days past and of courageous Black women and their struggles to be free, to vote, and to get an education.

Professional spoken word artist and slam poet Femi the DriFish uses his artistry to encourage his listeners to discover their own unique voices and identities in his writings, performances, and teachings. His poetry performance, Write On, Then Say Word! is a spoken word/slam poetry journey through the various reasons to write and perform. Throughout the assembly, Femi shows students that they can draw subject matter for poetry from their identity and history.

Black History Month
Poet Femi the DriFish

Young Audiences' Sun

Schedule artists and programming to celebrate Black History Month by visiting our website.

Hip Hop and History: Telling Stories of the Past and of Ourselves

By Staci Taustine, Fifth Grade Teacher, F.L. Templeton Preparatory Academy

Jamaal_Oct 2013_blog

During the course of my fifth-grade class’ six-day Hip Hop residency with Young Audiences artist Jamaal “Mr. Root” Collier, walls were broken down, confidence was built up, and the entire context of my classroom changed for the better.

As an educator I work hard to provide my students with diverse learning opportunities that give each child a chance to shine. However, I did not anticipate how effective Mr. Root’s strategies would be for the many different types of learners in my class. I went into this experience hoping that Mr. Root might be able to give a fresh perspective that would help my students summarize and internalize autobiographical texts. By the end of the residency, I knew that my students gained abilities far beyond that, having learned more deeply about how they express themselves and their story along the way.

Our time with Mr. Root began with an interactive assembly where he introduced the history of Hip Hop and taught students about the five components of this complex art form. Mr. Root motivated students by giving them the opportunity to participate in making beats and validated their contributions by recording and using their input right there on the spot. The students cheered and looked on as he mimicked some of their favorite Rap musicians.

The real magic happened when Mr. Root returned to our classroom and engaged with the students in a more intimate setting for a series of workshops. In a classroom of 20 students he quickly learned everyone’s name and became part of our classroom community. The kids shared with him that we were reading “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and he began to teach them how to summarize the content through the use of rhyming couplets. This strategy challenged students to return to the text over and over (an academic demand that is typically frustrating to them) to fish out the most important information. They reflected on the value of certain facts and determined which details could combine to most effectively summarize the text.

Together the class wrote a rap that brought the story of Frederick Douglass to life. It was truly amazing to see students who are usually self-conscious about participating come to the front of the room to offer input on better ways to write a line or to question if the number of syllables in a line would be best for the flow of the rap. The class later performed their work for the whole fifth grade during our culminating assembly at the end of the residency.

This was their final product:

Listen to the audio here!

Frederick Douglass was born a slave
Maryland-born he knew to be brave

1817 when he was born
When his ancestors left him he was torn

Owned and leased by several masters
Forced to work he had to work faster

Thought they were happy when slaves sang songs
But they sang about pain… Slavery was wrong!

After discussing the components of autobiographical writing in reference to our work with Frederick Douglass, we turned our focus to the need to know oneself in order to write an authentic autobiography. Students shared that sometimes people act certain ways to get attention but this behavior doesn’t necessarily accurately represent who they are as a person. Students brainstormed a number of ways that people wear “masks” on a daily basis to cover up how they are really feeling or to alter the way that the world perceives them.

Mr. Root led the students in an essay-writing exercise about how the “masks” each of them wear impact their relationships with others. Each student considered what they wanted to show the world through their actions and their autobiographical writing. To accompany their essay, students also created actual masks with construction paper, which were proudly displayed at the school-wide literacy fair in October.

In the end, my students learned how to be vulnerable with one another, brave enough to share their feelings, and empowered to use their voices to express everything they learned. Whether through singing their Frederick Douglass rap, expressing their ideas visually with their masks, or by simply having the confidence to think creatively, each and every one of my students came away with a unique perspective on who they are as individuals.

Going forward, I am excited to continue incorporating the components of Hip Hop to benefit my students’ learning and I am so pleased with this incredible learning experience. Thank you, Mr. Root!

Learn more about Jamaal “Mr. Root” Collier’s assembly and residency programs here!

How can the Blues be used to learn fractions?

By Curtis Blues, One-man Blues band

Young Audiences artists and teacher partners have written case studies documenting their work in schools and their exploration of one essential question. Each study provides a snapshot of how the artist or teacher works with students to integrate the arts into the curriculum and provide opportunities for students to imagine, create, and realize their full potential through the arts.

Project or Program Summary

My co-teacher and I met with Arts Integration Specialist Maria Barbosa to create a lesson plan that connected fractions to Blues music. We aimed to create a lesson that was aligned with the state math and fine arts curriculum as well as the Common Core Standards. Specifically, we wanted to address how music arises from a person’s cultural context. I immediately thought that the first Blues instrument, the single-stringed diddly bow, might serve as a great physical model for a number line fractions lesson.

The diddly bow was created by Delta blues musicians in the South before they could afford six-string guitars. It was usually put on the side of a barn door and played with a bottle, but my classroom model is a single string on a board, using the resonance of metal jar tops to project the sound. It is a piece of musical history that shows students the ingenuity of the men and women who invented Blues music.

Maria went to work to figure out how to put versions of this instrument in the students’ hands. She came up with a brilliant cardboard and rubber band version of the diddly bow that each student could play. Maria felt that the strength of the lesson was in having the students not only see and hear my instrument, but to play their own.

I started the class off with the art form, playing a Blues song on the diddly bow while the students clapped the work-song Blues rhythm with their hands. The students were fascinated with the instrument and understood how the Blues arose from the context of African Americans working on farms without access to instruments other than homemade ones like the diddly bow.

My co-teacher reviewed the material about fractions and number lines, and then it was time for the students to make their own instruments and apply their knowledge.

After attaching the rubber band to their cardboard, students marked the fractions along the number line below the string. This was their first experience of comprehending the relationship of fractions on a number line physically. Students were eager to get this right because they knew that only after filling in their number line correctly, would the real fun begin!

Purpose and Rational

My fine arts goal for the lesson was to show the students how Blues music was invented in the context of real people’s lives. This is how art emerges within cultures all around the world. I believed the diddly bow instrument would be an appropriate metaphor for the number line fractions lesson, but was not sure how to get the students involved beyond a demonstration.

The challenge was to create a lesson to help students who were having trouble remembering the relationships between different fractions, as well as being able to accurately place them on a number line. This difficult cognitive jump was a perfect candidate for an arts-integrated lesson to help students really own these distinctions by looking at them in an original way.

Analysis & Outcomes

What are your overall conclusions regarding the documentation gathered for this case study?
I think the strongest part of this project was the description by my co-teacher of how students used the diddly bow model as a conceptual tool for their tests. I would like to be able to follow up with test scores in the future.

What conclusions have you drawn from the responses to the assessment tools you have developed?
It was obvious through our final assessment of the students that they had mastered the material through this project. Students who could not tell us which was bigger, one-quarter or one-third, at the beginning of the class could answer the question correctly at the end of it. They also answered questions on the music objectives correctly at the end of the lesson, demonstrating a deeper understanding of how humans invent music within their culture and daily lives.

Back to the initial inquiry question, can it be answered?
The initial inquiry was whether or not teachers can use building a simple, single-stringed Blues instrument in their classrooms to help students better understand the relationships of fractions on a number line. The answer is a definite “Yes.”

Summary & Conclusions

What was learned?
There were many different examples of what was learned for each of the participants. The students learned how to build a simple instrument and then they learned the proper placement of fractions on a number line. Students overcame their natural cognitive challenges of conceptualizing abstract fractions in a concrete way. They learned the proper answer to questions like “Which is bigger: 1/4 or 1/3?

My co-teacher learned how to use an arts-integrated approach to help students master material. I learned how to manage a classroom during such a project from my teacher partner.

Combining my co-teacher’s classroom management skills with Maria’s innovative ideas made this lesson possible. Now because of their help, I can bring this powerful lesson to other classrooms. I have learned the skills I need to guide the students to get the most out of the lesson. My teacher partner can use this tool in her classes when I am not there, to help future students grasp abstract principles with something concrete and experiential.

How will this inform the work moving forward?
I am better prepared to deal with the specific logistics of classroom management during a craft building project. My co-teacher now has more tools for achieving the testing goals for the class. The students gained a conceptual tool for mastering abstract concepts that they can continue to use in their tests.

Curriculum Connections

American History
Music
Math
Common Core Standards
21st Century Skills

Learn more about Curtis and his assembly, residency, and professional development programs.

Read other case studies written by Young Audiences teaching artists and teacher partners