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@DamienSneed mixes music and history @FlynnCenter

Lovely bit of wisdom from the National Gardening Association.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was mulling over how to teach my New American students about MLK Day and all the history that that implies, I found an email in my inbox from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. They were offering a teacher workshop with Damien Sneed, who was performing with his group. If I paid $20 for a teacher workshop after school, they would give me 2 tickets to the evening performance, We Shall Overcome, for free:

Join visiting artist Damien Sneed for a workshop inspired by the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sneed is at the Flynn presenting student matinee and evening performances of his work We Shall Overcome,  which ties together a living lineage of music and culture that includes traditional and modern gospel, classical, jazz, Broadway, and spirituals, all interwoven with excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches. Fee includes two free tickets to see the evening performance of We Shall Overcome. This workshop links to civil rights, activism, music history, African-American culture/tradition/history, voice, expression.

I thought, “Why not? I need a date night. And maybe I’ll learn something” So I emailed my partner, secured a place on the calendar, and planned to go.

And then I totally forgot about it. And my partner got confused, because I also that same week had asked him to get tickets for me to see Dr. Ibram X. Kendi who is speaking as headliner this week for UVM’s 2020 MLK series. He wrote the book How to be an Antiracist, which is on my list of things I need to read, ever since I heard about in during the #leadingequitysummit at the beginning of the year. But I have a conflict with my afterschool commitments. So I told him that I didn’t need the ticket after all. And my partner thought our date night was off the books. But I did register to see Damien Sneed; our date was still on, even though I had forgotten.

Wednesday morning, I looked at my calendar and realized that my evening plans needed to be altered. I wouldn’t just be going to bed early. We had a concert to go to, and I was going to make it happen.

I am so glad I went.

In case you’re interested, here’s an interview in which Damien Sneed talks about the tour:

The first hour of the workshop was all about his story and how he got here. I wish that were something my students could hear in a language they understand. He spoke of his adoption, of his parents, particulary his mother, dying, of the power of music and of opportunities lost and gained, struggles and triumphs. And, yes, of music.

The second focused on what we might hear that night and how it connected with moments in history. We sang and marched together. He remarked how lovely the people of Burlington were (which we are) and said he really needed to look at properties. 🙂

Then he asked if we had questions.

I asked how to make this relevant to students of color who did not grow up with this historical context.

I struggle with this, being white.

In my last blog post, I talked about my approach to teaching MLK for real, that instead of reaching for elementary-school-aged materials, which consists of the kumbayaya that we settle on for kindergartners (I have a dream… people couldn’t sit where they wanted to on the bus, so Rosa got arrested and Dr. King fixed it), I wanted to help my students understand why they might feel uncomfortable today, about our country’s more than checkered past and present when it comes to race relations, and about why many people just prefer not to bring up those uncomfortable ideas of race and racism (because of course, we in our white fragility do not have a racist bone in our bodies) and prefer focus instead on images of MLK preaching love and unity and celebrating identity. I want them to understand that claiming colorblindness is not OK.

So how do I get there? How can I take this rich history of music and turn it into something my students can sink their teeth into, in a way they understand?

I told Damien that recently resettled refugees have to live with the stigma of color without having the context of history. This is really hard. And it shouldn’t be a one-day introduction to Everything Black U.S. History. So how to I teach them? How do I make them understand that sometimes they might be watched in a store, just because they are African? How do I explain why white people might not sit next to them on the bus? How do I explain that just by walking with a group of friends, they might be perceived as “dangerous” or “suspicious”?

He found my question “interesting” and asked the person who was documenting to film while I asked my question (which I pushed back against because I was emotional, as I always am when I talk about things that fire me up) so that he could think about the answer a little later.

For me, this has become an issue of necessity, of security, of safety. My students need to know. And we can’t just celebrate the positive and paint pretty pictures.

He talked to us about resources offered by the Smithsonian Folk Ways resources, about Eileen Southern and her research on Black American musical history. But he said that he liked my question. He liked a challenge. And that he would be in touch through the Flynn.

So I’ll wait for more answers.

But in the meantime, I went back to the Flynn to listen.

The Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir sang backup, announcing they would be reviving GospelFest this year, which had taken a hiatus.

And the concert was outstanding. Music blended with historial speeches. We listened to music from the past, from gospel standbys to pop hits. The group of singers who traveled with Damien were artists worthy of headlining their own concerts, including all these amazing people. My partner, a lover of all things musical, nearly jumped out of his seat when Damien announced that one of the singers, Linny Smith, had won a Grammy for his work on The Greatest Showman. “Can we hear that?” he whispered.

Damien Sneed’s style was one that left all of his compatriots guessing. They didn’t always know which direction he was going to go next. He’d play a few notes, and they would stare at him until they finally nodded with recognition at the song he wanted them to croon. And he made his keyboardist get into the action a bit, sliding in to take his place on the keyboard has he handed him the microphone and asked him to scat. This fly-by-the-seat-of your-pants performance made it all the more real. You had to pay attention. Damien told the audience that the elementary and middle school crowd from that morning had danced in the aisle, then they challenged us to dance.

And we did.

We didn’t really have a choice. But it was delicious to be invited to jump up and move. It was exciting and exhausting and lovely and beautiful.

I’m excited to see if I actually will hear back about how I can connect my students to this rich musical history.

But in the meantime, I will rejoice in the fact that I spent a glorious Wednesday engulfed in music and story, and be forever grateful for my opportunities to connect with such amazing people.

Thank you, Flynn Center for the opportunity and the tickets. And thank you Damien, et al. For everything.

As promised, a view of our walk

This video shows the pictures my students captured of field, forest and beach, a short walk outside our building.

I asked them on Monday what their reactions were to this course in general were overwhelmingly positive.

Nobody wanted to fill out the sentence frame that said, “I didn’t like EXCEL this year because…”

And that feels nice.

 

A beautiful day for a walk

Thursday was our next-to-last day of regular classes and our next-to-last day with Susan Palmer, our Flynn artist.

When we were talking about what would make sense to cover a couple of weeks ago, I just kept coming back to time. But when it’s so hot outside (93 degrees! It’s not even summer yet!), it’s just not prudent to stay indoors.

So I ran to the store and got water and food, and Susan brought some chips, and we were ready to go.

We did have Susanna Olson with us, another Flynn artist who I worked with many years ago at the Integrated Arts Academy. She told me at the end of our walk that she had been meaning to come by, and it suddenly was the end of the year. And now we were finishing. So my students got to play a little name game/greeting stuff before we took off.

At the classroom, we prepared for our outing, talking about what students could see in a field, in the forest and at the beach. We brainstormed and made movements (which I sadly did not catch on video) to reflect items that we might see. How many different ways are there to show “forest,” for example?

We had spent a third of our time getting ready (in addition to the name games and brainstorming, we also were assigning photos so that all would be walking with a purpose). It all felt kind of last minute, making it up a bit as we went along, because although we were planning, we were both kind of planning past each other. I brought a list of a scavenger hunt; she had in mind something that came more from the students. Two different ways to deal with the same issue of keeping students’ heads in the game.

That’s the drawback of not really having that face-to-face time and of making up lessons week by week. Maybe next time I have the chance to develop a project with the Flynn, we need to build in some google hangout space so we can see each others’ faces outside of that five minutes at the end. Even just a few minutes to get our thoughts together the night before or over the weekend would be so helpful. Email just isn’t sufficient for getting the job done.

Soon I’ll post all the photos students took. They each had an ipad and an assignment. The boys were all going a bit crazy with finding every single flower in existence to photograph, which led to me needing to herd the group every once in awhile.

The rain we’ve been experiencing of late, along with the heat of Wednesday and Thursday, brought a few swarms of mosquitos our direction. It also brought up the chance for Susan to explain to students about ticks, a pretty big concern in the area at this time of year.

We ran out of time to eat, but we did see a snake and we collected artifacts on our walk. Susanna got the opportunity to meet a few of my students, and we reconnected a bit. It was overall a lovely day, and a nice way to begin ending our time with Susan for the year.

 

 

 

A sweet and sour and salty and bland day

Ever have one of those days where it just feels off?

This one kind of did.

blackeye_pigmentationWe were working with Susan Palmer on describing people and things. We walked tall and short. We walked big and little. We described our height and our eyes (which, other than mine and Susan’s, are all brown. That’s usually why we don’t talk about eye color much, because they all think they have black eyes, and then we have to explain that black eyes to English speakers means when you get hit in the face. Hard.).

We talked about clothes and colors and played color tag again. But it was stuff that I really had gone over and over with them before. Nothing new. And we could all feel it. One of my students feigned illness. Hadn’t had anything to eat. Refused to go to the nurse to get crackers. I have a headache, yet I want to sit in this corner and listen to music blasted into my ears because really what you are doing is just no fun.

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So in continuing the descriptions vein, we decided to focus on food. Talking about food is a pretty essential part of life. So we showed a diagram of the tongue and the taste regions and then tasted such things as:mapoftongue2

  • lemon juice
  • lime juice
  • apples
  • carrots
  • bread and jam
  • sriracha peanut butter with maple
  • raisins
  • Thai peppers
  • potato chips

 

And my student with a headache suddenly was able to participate when the chips came around.

We peppered them with questions: Do you like salty food? Do you like sweet food?

It was interesting seeing what drove them. And what didn’t.

But I think we are all itching for that last week of classes to come and go.

Beginning-Middle-End

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What makes you happy?

What makes you sad?

These were the questions we started with when we met with Susan Palmer on May 8. The idea was to build on the work we had done during the previous meeting, when we read a book and talked about the beginning, middle and end of the story and how the characters’ moods changed throughout.

We this time asked students to create their own movement piece and have the other student follow those movements, then to add all six movements together to make a finished piece. Performance. Creativity. I should really be tagging these blog posts to the Graduate Expectations they are bringing to students… But on with the story.

The focus was on beginning-middle-end, and then creating a collaborative sequence.

We expanded from pairs to triads:

After working with groups, we were ready to move on to something that was a step harder. What we didn’t realize was how big that step actually was.

We returned to the imaginary box, but this time, we each took an animal that Susan introduced, held it, and made the sound that it made. For this, we started to get a little pushback. It was odd. They had been brave for so long, taking what we were asking them to do and performing with gusto. But this time, the mood was a little off. Even though everybody claimed, yet again, to be feeling “OK” or “fine”.

Ugh.

We then took these characters and tried to make a simple story in groups, the boys in one group and the girls in another. You added one sentence to the story to make the next part and added a sound effect to make it come alive.

And this, I think because of where we are with English language development, did not go as planned. It was hard and answers had to be pulled out of students. It happened, but in the end, it was a difficult activity for this level. Not one we’d try like this again.

It’s hard to be original in another language. And it’s even harder to keep lists of original ideas in your head when they are not your own. Here are our results:


For the girls’ story, we found out afterwords, the most proficient student created it, and then they all just took their roles.

Just goes to show that there’s more than one way to skin (or in this case, sting) a cat…

Another visitor! And a book!

IMG_5984

Today, Susan Palmer floated a different idea: Let’s connect beginning-middle-end with the curriculum. We talked briefly about what would make sense: A story? A painting? A photograph?

final-bhs-ges-graphicShe mentioned that she knew a lovely picture book, but it was probably too young for this group.

Picture books however, particularly wordless ones, make sense for beginning English Learners. They open the door to having meaning come from the page. And wordless means that you don’t have to find meaning in someone else’s words. You make it up. Creativity. One of the Graduation Expectations for our school.

Although this could have worked with almost any medium, including video, that we would choose to bring in, a book is kind of magical.

On the day of our meeting, Susan brought Jenny Norris with her. She is another Flynn artist who is doing work with Parent University, a district-supported initiative to get new American parents involved in their children’s schools. She came to watch our work to get some guidance on how to teach students who were beginning English learners.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 9.06.27 PM.pngThe book Susan chose was this one, Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle.

We were able to focus on our own feelings and on what we do that makes us happy.  We talked about before and after: What do you do before school? What do you do after school? We acted out what our partners did before and after school. And adding in that element of time really messed with some people’s concept of what we were doing. Time is just such a hard concept in another language:

And then we looked at the book. As we explored, our conversation required a deeper vocabulary to look at the issues. We introduced the words jealous and curious. And then we created with our bodies still pictures of what happened at the beginning, middle and end of the book.

It was a very simple, yet rich, conversation that I would have never brought to these students. The key is always trying something. Even when it falls flat, it’s important to try. I would love to grab some important paintings and have them do the same kind of activity: what happened just before the artist painted this scene? What do you think will happen next?

We focus on these shifts in time every day when we look at the calendar. What is the date today? What will be the date tomorrow? What was the date yesterday?

Our final activity was to reinforce giving an opinion before we practiced again IMG_5982expressing an opinion about the lesson (which, of course, ends up being focused on what students liked. It’s fine, but I’d really love to find out what they really think. For that, we may have to work in their first language. They are always a bit reluctant to criticize…).

When I worked with Lida Winfield in my classroom a few years ago,  We did an activity after talking about my wedding in which we tried to discover what students did at celebrations in their home countries. For example, we eat cake after a wedding. Do you eat cake at a wedding? To respond to the prompt, students would choose the “yes” side of the room or the “no” side. And then we would ask students to tell us how they celebrated and ask if others did the same.

We had also used this same kind of response with expressing opinions. I had told Susan about it, and we tried a game in which students got to ask questions, and we all responded by running to different sides of the room: Do you like winter? Do you like rain? Do you like dogs? Do you like sweet? Do you like spicy?

We asked the first dozen or so questions, and then the students took over. It was amazing and beautiful as they started jumping over each other trying to ask the next question. And then the questions moved to areas that I would rather have taken more time with, for example: Do you like God?

I was left alone on the “no” side of the room as I had to explain that as an atheist I have no god. And that was a little weird. And then the same student wanted to know if we liked Judas, but he didn’t say “Judas”, he said “Juda,” which left the Westerners in the room confused. And then I had to explain that not everybody knew Judas because not everybody was Christian.

Do you like the United States? Most students said yes. One said no. (Telling. I’d love to have that conversation, too.) But all three of the English-speaking teachers went to the middle, undecided part of the room.

So when we got to the part about expressing opinions, there was no confusion. The answer was echoed across the room:

https://app.seesaw.me/pages/shared_item?item_id=item.d2b064a4-615d-46d5-86b8-ed9790526b06&share_token=Gnm5t9NDS06CvwW0mHibHg&mode=embed

Working with a partner: Mirror me!

One of the most tried and true theater games is mirror, where one person leads and the other follows, with the object being to be so in sync with one’s partner that an outsider cannot tell who is leading. A lesson plan for it can be found here. This game calls for concentration, focus and body awareness.

We’re still working on this, as you can see from the mirror game we played:

This day’s focus was varied. We did so many things, such: color tag, where the students had to touch a color in the room before being tagged by whoever was “it”; mirror; invisible ball, in which we threw a pretend ball to each other demonstrating size and weight; invisible box with invisible clothes, for which we pantomimed putting on while naming; and shake-out, where we shake our limbs to get us warmed up or to get our blood flowing again in a low point.

Activities Ms. Susan brings into the classroom reflect the content that I am trying to teach. They need to know clothes to be able to describe themselves and others. They need to know colors to help describe the clothes. They need to know opposites to help describe the world and people around them. So many things in such a short time.

For What Did You Do This Weekend?, we shared one activity and then found a way to show that activity to a partner. Then, to make things a little more difficult, we introduced using pronouns he and she to describe what our partner did (past tense). We’re still working on using complete sentences, so this was a much needed activity:

At the end of class, we worked on stating opinions, a skill that is reflected throughout the common core, but is not normally a skill for beginning speakers. My goal is to build this into “because” statements to help provide the beginning workings for eventually defending a theory, a skill needed across the curriculum. The sentence frames, shown in the picture above, were to help students choose what activity of the day that they enjoyed most.

Although I always introduce the negative, we never hear the negative. I can count on the fact that everybody in the class is good/OK/fine every day. Even though I model my own varied moods, which seem to follow weather patterns.

The sweetest thing happened, though, and I’m not sure you will see it in the first short video, but one student was helping another with recording his video. He is brand-new and just didn’t understand the concept. So he got directions in Nepali and then she demonstrated:

I just love it when my students take care of each other. Oftentimes it shows up within a language subgroup, but through my work with Flynn artists, we are building a caring community that crosses language subgroups.

It makes me so unbelievably happy to work with these students when I see this kind of empathy in action!

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