My teaching career is often highlighted by the actions and comments of my students. It is always a great experience when a student says or does something that leads into a perfect pedagogical period. It is crucial for a teacher to act on her feet and take advantage of every teachable moment. I can reflect on an instance where students in my first grade class underwent a stage of whining about their problems as opposed to finding appropriate solutions. Seemingly students would complain about every minor detail in their lives. For example, I recall when a student of mine was crying because her crayons were misplaced. She told me “I lost my crayons and my pencil too. And teacher I don’t know what to do.” Her tears stopped immediately when I exclaimed “sweetheart sounds like you have the blues”. For days my class engaged in creating and singing their own blues as well as listening to compositions by such artists as BB King and Billie Holiday. I was surprised to discover that my class of six year olds knew a great deal about the blues. I was so surprised that I felt compelled to explore the blues ideology a bit further.
The blues had their origins in early slave laments. These blues could be defined as secular sorrow songs. After Emancipation, the majority of southern blacks moved from being plantation slaves to being sharecroppers for white landowners. Their sorrow songs were now more likely to be sung by individuals, rather than by groups. The instrument most commonly associated with these songs was now the guitar, though most poor blacks learned on a makeshift instrument far different from what we know today as a guitar. Often it was a wire taken from the handle of a broom and nailed to a wall, stretched so that it had proper tone. As one hand plucked a beat, the other hand slid a bottle along the surface of the wire to change the pitch. The wall served as a resonator. These one-stringed wall instruments were very similar to instruments common in West Africa.
The songs played on these instruments were called the blues. Like the sorrow songs of the earlier plantation slaves, the blues represented the cries of people who had nothing, who seemed to get nothing no matter how hard they tried, and whose lives seemed hopeless. By this time, such songs were often sung in lively rhythms—like laughing to keep from crying.
The blues can be considered a survivalist’s coping mechanism. As stated earlier, the blues originated in slavery. The blues were a kind of musical cry-croons, work songs, and field hollers. Road workers or cotton pickers put whatever words that came into their minds to songs—singing out their own personal thoughts or sorrows. The blues were made up in the fields of the South to relieve the monotony of working or to express some thought passing through the singer’s mind. The pattern of the blues is: a twelve bar musical pattern—one long line of four bars which is repeated, then a third line of four bars to rhyme with the first two lines that are always the same. In essence, their melody and beat are like those of a field holler.
The blues are almost always sad songs about being out of work, broke, hungry, far away from home, wanting to get on a train but having no ticket, or being lonely when someone you love is gone. In the blues, behind the sadness, there is almost always laughter and strength.
The blues has its primary expression in musical form. However, one can find the blues expression revealed in other forms of artistic representation. The blues can be considered a means where one can record the survivalist details of one’s life experience. This artistic expression manifests itself not only in music but also in literature and visual arts as well.
I like to embrace in my classroom a multicultural curriculum. In this society children will be confronted with many cultures and races different from their own. It is a teacher’s responsibility , if not every adult’s responsibility, to help children understand the differences as well as similarities between cultures. It follows logically that while it is necessary to learn about other people, it is imperative to study one’s own history. Since the blues has its origins and history in slavery, this unit, “Finding the Rhythm of Blues in Children’s Poetry, Art, Music”, will focus upon slavery in the USA along with the blues ideology. The unit is designed for first graders of a New Haven Public School, though it could be adapted for other grade levels. The students are predominantly African American, belonging to a low socioeconomic level. Their academic levels range from very low to high. It is this teacher’s opinion that the students are all able to achieve .
My intention for devising this unit is to help children discover the blues aesthetic as a form of artistic expression. This curriculum unit will evolve in a language-based classroom. All projects are geared to achieve the goals of language acquisition and development, and artistic expression and interpretation. Therefore, all related activities will center around poetry, art, and music related to migration, slavery in the U.S., and African American culture.
My students often spend a great deal of time exploring their own emotions. Methods that I use with my students to explore emotions often include verbal, written, and/or artistic expression. This exploration gives way to the crucial language development of young learners. Often in the beginning of the school year, I find my students suffering from the “happy sad mad syndrome”. In other words, many young students limit the description of their feelings to those three aforementioned categories. As a facilitator of learning, I attempt daily to illustrate and model for my students that the words “happy sad mad” do not always accurately and adequately describe how one might feel in a given situation or circumstance. I also try to convey to my pupils that one’s own life experience often determines feelings, perspective, and interpretation. This particular curriculum unit is intended to increase and develop language acquisition within students.
As a result to the exposure of the blues aesthetic as represented in poetry, art, and music, students will utilize Writer’s Workshop. Writer’s Workshop is a teaching strategy which demonstrates that craftspeople(authors, poets, artist, etc.) are actively engaged in creating, exploring, and manipulating materials and ideals for the sake of artistic expression. Students will realize that writing is more than a mere assignment, but it is a process that follows a many structured steps. (See attached diagram for conceptual model of the writing process.)
(figure available in print form)
Instructors must keep in mind that students should be given an amount of freedom to explore topics in a classroom setting. They must have the freedom to write and converse as a means to self-examination and open the door to their own beliefs. The setting must be risk free, where modes of expression are not only accepted but also encouraged. Instructors must afford the opportunity for students to share their works in progress.
When educating students it is necessary to promote positive youth development. Children must realize that confidence and effective expression and communication can ultimately help one function as a productive member of society. It is important to implement social development lessons within this unit. The city of New Haven has adopted a social development program called
Project Charlie .
This program is designated to boost the self-esteem of students. It is intended through
that student decision making skills and self-awareness will increase. Several of the lessons deal with emotions. The user of this unit is encouraged to look through the
Primary Project Charlie Manual
and employ the materials already developed.
When dealing with the sensitive nature of the effects of slavery, an instructor must be prepared to handle the range of emotions that might occur. Some students may become angry while others may feel hopeless or possibly even ashamed with this portion of American history. Every child should feel empowered within the classroom. An instructor can not predict how students might react to learning about slavery. However, an instructor can help students understand by giving accurate accounts of their history as well as encouraging students to make definite, positive affirmations.
An affirmation is a statement which declares a situation to be true. It is the bringing forth of the life energy in a concise and positive way and releasing that energy in a concise and positive way. Everything we say is an affirmation. We can create our reality through speech. We can use our thoughts and emotions to create what we want and then speak the words which will then manifest as a reality. An affirmation is an empowering statement that is always positive, specific, and spoken with conviction.
After the exposure to slavery in the U.S., a child may internalize the concepts and history taught in a negative fashion. A student may feel ashamed to be African American or angry. In past lessons, I have had students shout “I don’t want to learn about this!” and completely shut down. A teacher must alter and convert this negative language. Instruct students to repeat the following affirmations:
I am peaceful.
I am facing my history with courage and understanding.
I am proud.
I am strong.
I reiterate that the purpose of this unit is to find the rhythm of blues in poetry, art, and music centered around slavery in the U.S. As mentioned earlier, young students can identify with the blues impulse. However, the concept of slavery is somewhat difficult to teach the first grader. For some young minds it is not easy to comprehend a time and space outside of their immediate surroundings and environment. This fact is not so incredible. After all, it is just as difficult for adults to relate to a situation in which they are not directly involved as it is for children. According to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who is internationally renowned for his studies in the development of children’s thinking processes, the mental framework for processing and organizing information and ideas is one’s environment. One does not learn in a vacuum, When teaching history to young learners, one must not merely spew a list of dates and facts. Learning is social. Therefore, learning must take place in a context relative to the learner.
It is the teacher’s task to create a setting where children can comprehend what life was like as a slave in the U.S. specifically for slave children. This goal can best be attained through active experience and social interaction. There is substantial importance of children’s actions on the environment. Active experience is a key element in cognitive development.
Actions may be physical manipulations of objects or events or mental manipulations of objects or events(thinking). Active experiences are those that provoke assimilation and accommodation, resulting in cognitive change.
Educators often focus on Piaget’s work on cognitive development in the intellectual growth of children. Another significant factor in cognitive development is social interaction. By social interaction, it is meant the interchange of ideas among people. People can develop concepts classified as follows:
1. those that have sensorially available physical referents(they can be seen, heard, and so on) and
2. those that do not have such referents. The concept ‘tree’ has physical referents; the concept ‘honesty’ does not. A child can develop a socially acceptable concept of ‘tree’ (physical knowledge) relatively independent of others because referents (trees) are usually available. But the same child can not develop an acceptable concept of honesty (social knowledge) independent of others. To the extent that concepts are socially defined, the child is dependent on social interaction for the construction and validation of concepts.
Social interaction can be of many kinds. Children interact with peers, parents, and other adults. The events that take place in a schoolroom are most frequently the interaction of students with other students and with their teachers. There is also interaction with parents and others in their environment. All of these interactions are important for cognitive development.
It is my firm belief that the concept of slavery is an abstract one for young learners and is thus dependent on social knowledge. In most cases, the concept of slavery has no physical referents available. Therefore, social interaction is needed. I have stated that my students often focus on their own feelings. Since feelings, deep passionate feelings, are intricately woven throughout the blues ideology, students will be required to keep a personal journal. The journals will afford students the opportunity to discuss the dynamics of their everyday lives as well as the emotions involved. The journals will serve as a vehicle for students to explore self-evaluation, expression, and their development as readers, writers, and thinkers.
It is imperative that students acquire a firm language base that accurately captures their range of emotions. As mentioned earlier, words such as “happy sad mad” do not always best convey how one might truly feel. Through a teaching strategy called Synectics, in which students engage in role play, students will not only build vocabulary and increase language skills that is indicative of the blues, but students will also gain an understanding of slavery. Synectics should be done on a daily basis.