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!

Spreading joy through song to Baltimore’s youngest learners

By Sue Trainor, Young Audiences artist and singer/songwriter

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In 1998, I sang for the first time in a classroom for and with children who have profound special needs. That 45-minute gig rocked my world: the children may not have been “typical” physically or cognitively, but their connectivity was palpable and potent! I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Ever since, my motto has been, “meet people where they are,” because you miss out if you don’t reach out.

This spring I had the opportunity to work with William S. Baer School in Baltimore City, another school attended by children with profound special needs. During my eight-week residency at the school I worked in four preschool classrooms with children who were three to five years old, but were approximately 12 months old developmentally. Many of them were very fragile medically, most were non-verbal, and some were non-locomotor. Several were blind and/or deaf.

This residency followed the Wolf Trap 16-Session Literacy Residency model. I have been on the roster of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts since 2003, and I’m thrilled that Young Audiences has just joined the Wolf Trap family as the Maryland sponsor of Wolf Trap programs! In the Wolf Trap model, the teaching artist’s primary goal is to provide professional development for the classroom teachers by modeling arts-integrated strategies and coaching the teacher to practice the strategies in the classroom with students. It sounds serious and technical, and it is in some ways, but didn’t we just have the best time ever!

I’m a musician, so the artistic interest for me is the exploration of my art form’s fundamental expression and interpersonal connectivity. What does it mean, for example, to sing with someone who is non-verbal? It’s not singing in the traditional sense, but what is it that makes singing together work? Can we still engage in a more basic element of joined vibration? We can, and it is joyful—all the more so because it’s usually a brand new experience for the children and the response is profound.

I think fondly of Sean, a four-year old student at Baer. He is blind and non-verbal, and he loves music. I would play my ukulele and he would belt out his sounds. It was delightful! One day while we were waiting for the class to assemble, I sat face to face with him and joined his vocalizing, using his sounds. He was surprised at first, but he leaned in, kept “singing,” and together we created a joined sound-space and a profound connection. Now his teacher understands and can do this as well.

One of my favorite lesson experiences that came out of this residency was “Funky Duck.” The children were learning shapes, and the traditional math teaching strategies had them focusing on a specific shape which was velcroed to a felt board. The student’s task was to pull the shape off the board (or focus on the shape with their eyes if they were immobile). More advanced students were supposed to choose a specific shape from a small group of different shapes

I used the same fundamental teaching strategy, but I transferred it to a puppet that I dubbed “Funky Duck.” I velcroed shapes on the puppet’s chest, taught the teachers basic puppet manipulation, and created a chant for them to recite to a steady beat:

“I’m Funky Duck, hey hey
I’m Funky Duck, hey hey
I want to know, can you find
My circle today?”

We had 100% success—the children loved the puppet, focused intently and reached out to pull off the shape. The teachers promptly scoured their classrooms for puppets of their own that they could adapt to this and other purposes, including lessons about numbers, colors, and letters.

I look forward to returning to Baer School this fall, to reconnect with my preschool friends and to develop new connections in classrooms with older students.

Click here to learn more about Maryland Wolf Trap residencies. To schedule a program, please contact Young Audiences at 410-837-7577.