Each person has their own history and life is not a single narrative. We are a collection of people living in multiple environments with multiple identifiers. I am a White female, she/her, a mom, daughter, sister; I am a musician, teacher, artist, author, blogger, and crafter; I am also the mother of a child who was adopted from China so our family is Chinese American; I am a singer, actor, dancer, and jewelry maker. I was raised in Maine but live in the South and love to travel. There is no single story to me, no single story to you and no single story of the human experience.
Please watch "The Danger of a Single Story":
Recently there was a lengthy discussion on Facebook about White teachers using spirituals in the music classroom. Though there were many perspectives, it is important to remember that each of us teach from a place of our own stories; positive, negative, and somewhere in between. It is important to remember during Black History Month that it is a time to pause, remember, and celebrate the music of Black and African Americans. That is not a single story of spirituals and Civil Rights music, but so much more.
Today we have a guest blogger. We are going to learn from the amazing Franklin J. Willis.
Mr. Franklin J. Willis currently serves as the Elementary Music Coach for the Metro Nashville Public Schools district. For the past decade Willis has taught both general music and choir at the elementary and middle school levels. He is a three-time recipient of the prestigious Country Music Association Foundation Music Teacher of Excellence award. He specializes in providing musical instruction that will empower and engage all students and teachers to achieve their best through authentic culturally relevant learning experiences. Click on Franklin's picture below to learn more about Franklin and his advocacy for music education.
Aimee: Hi Franklin, thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions from your perspective. The focus for many music teachers during Black History Month seems to be on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. What do you feel is important for everyone to understand about Black History Month?
Franklin: First, I think it is very important for students and teachers to understand the history of why we celebrate Black History Month. Mr. Carter G. Woodson [was] considered the Dean of African American History [who] worked tirelessly to educate the public about the achievements of African Americans. His life was dedicated to sharing the history of African Americans. I recently learned about a fabulous resource by two veteran Social Studies teachers, Lanesha Tabb and Naomi O’Brien that provides context on how Black History Month was formed and why we celebrate it. Download this free resource by clicking this link.
Now that we have an understanding of what Black History Month is and why we celebrate it every year let’s discuss how we can celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans in the music classroom. African American music is diverse and has birthed musical genres throughout history. If a music teacher wishes to focus on our sacred slave songs, which we call spirituals I believe that it is fine. However, please give the spiritual the same respect and study as we would give a classical piece of music with our students. Give students the opportunity to ask questions about the music. Provide historical context for them to understand how the spiritual was created. Offer students an example of the evolution of the spiritual, like “Mary Don’t You Weep” by Take 6:
Including all of this information is very important because it just doesn’t focus on the pain of the spiritual. However, it shows through a horrific time in our history these songs were created, and this is how they have changed over time. Spirituals are just as varied as African American music itself. There are songs of sorrow, songs of joy, songs of despair, and songs of hope. Ensure that our students learn the depth and vastness of the spiritual.
Aimee: When done well, Black History Month should focus on ___________.
Franklin: Black History Month should educate students about the accomplishments and achievements of African Americans. There are many appropriate ways to celebrate Black History Month in the music classroom. Listed below are some of the themes I have used for my Black History Month Programs in the past.
· The Evolution of the Spiritual
· The Music of Motown
· The Women of the Civil Rights Movement
· The Music of the Harlem Renaissance
· Lift Every Voice and Sing: Music of the Culture
· Yo! What’s Up? The Story of Hip-Hop Music
· Music of Africa: The Beat of the Drum
· The Dream Lives On! The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.
In order to create these Black History Month programs, I started with the end in mind. Questions that I consider when planning a Black History Month Program are the following:
· Why do I want to present a Black History Month program?
· What did I want my students to learn?
· What do I want the student body or community to learn from observing the BHM program?
· How did I want students to experience this music?
· What grade level did I want to feature?
· What is my school ready for? (I could write a lot about this one!)
· What classroom teachers would be willing to help me plan this program?
· How will I inform students, teachers, administration, parents, and community members about this program?
The greatest question of all these is the first one. Why do you want to present a Black History Program? If it is to check off a list of things that you have done this year, please don’t do it. Take time to consider the importance of teaching the important history and contributions of African Americans. All students should learn about Black History Month. Black History is American History.
Aimee: Who would be your top 10 African American musicians for music teachers to focus on during Black History Month?
Franklin: My top 10 African American musicians, composers, or artists to teach to students would be the following: (These are not in a specific order.)
· Scott Joplin
· Nina Simone
· R. Nathaniel Dett
· Stevie Wonder
· Kirk Franklin
· Marian Anderson
· Margaret Bonds
· Quincy Jones
· Run DMC
Aimee: If you had 4-6 lessons to go deeper into celebrating the contributions of Black and African American musicians to teach about during February, who and what would you choose?
Franklin: If I had four to six lessons to dive deeper into a subject surrounding African American music it would be the subject of African American composers. Often times our students only learn about African American artists, however I think there is valuable information students and teachers can gain in the study of our Black composers. In my undergraduate Music History class, we studied several European composers and only studied one African American composer which was Duke Ellington. I did my own research and learned about many black composers before Duke Ellington who were trailblazers and virtuoso artists. Composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Scott Joplin, R. Nathaniel Dett, Harry T. Burleigh, Florence Price and many others who opened the doors for future African American composers and artists to be accepted for their talents. Listening to their music was empowering and it let me know as a student that just because we were not studying it in class, doesn’t mean it is not worthy of learning. Many teachers simply teach what’s in the curriculum and quite frankly learning about innovative African American composers is not on the list important things students should know in music education.
So, if I were digging deeper with students, I would do a historical overview of African American composers in classical music. Complete listening exercises that ask students to think and listen critically to the music. Compare and contrast the music of these composers with the more famous European composers to find similarities and differences. Finally, I would have students write a personal reflection of what they learned about the composers and to choose a favorite selection that we listened to as a class and tell me why.
Aimee: What kinds of activities make sense for our youngest students?
Franklin: Black History Month activities for our youngest of students could include story books, short melodic songs, and movement activities. Follow this link to get ideas about books to utilize during Black History Month. Stories allow students to read and visualize a character in a personalized unique way. Moreover, when students can identify and see themselves in the literature they are more engaged and learning is relevant. This lesson plan by Charissa Duncanson incorporates short rhythmic activities with the book Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews.
Also an easy way to get younger students involved with African American music is by having them keep the steady beat to the music. That is a major standard for our Kindergarten and 1st grade students. Can students keep a steady beat to R. Nathaniel Dett’s Piano Suite In the Bottoms: IV. Dance. Juba? Yes, THEY CAN!
Aimee: What are your favorite resources to pull from to ensure everyone feels included in the conversations in your music classroom?
Franklin: My favorite resource to use in the music classroom not only during Black History Month, but in general is Expressions of Freedom by Dr. Rene Boyer. This teacher resource does a wonderful job of connecting African American spirituals to the Orff music pedagogy. Every time I teach a song from this resource students absolutely love it!
Listed below are some great resources available from some African American music educators and composers specifically for the elementary music classroom.
Thank you so much for a rich conversation!