Friday, March 25, 2016

Year 6: Week 28 – Finding 8th Grade's American Skin

Eighth grade is a tricky year in music class. They aren’t content to do the folk music of 6th grade but they don’t necessarily have the skills to play more advanced music they find interesting. They have strong opinions about the music that they like and it’s take a lot effort to get buy-in.

We’ve tried many different things to get kids invested in music class. Utilizing technology has helped, doing more pop music really hasn’t. Creating a variety of activities has helped make rehearsals more engaging and what has really made the difference is doing music that has meaning and depth.

Last year we did music from Green Day’s “American Idiot.” While the music was exciting because of the genre, what made kids interested were the themes of disillusionment, patriotism and Green Day’s perspective on what it means to be American.

This year, we decided to dive deeper tackling one of the most important and controversial topics of our times: police shootings of African-Americans. To learn about this topic we are focusing on “American Skin (41 Shots)” by Bruce Springsteen (I talked about this song in this previous post).

This song and this topic are difficult issues but with the work the students are doing studying the American Civil Rights unit in eight grade history and reading books like “Black Boy” in English class, we felt well-supported in this unit.

Last week I summarized the tragic death of Amadou Diallo, connected it with some themes they have studied in music class, history class and their English class. Then we watched this performance:



This last Monday we watched this documentary, which was actually made by students at my school a couple years ago.



We asked the students to write down their reactions to this video and to make connections with other things they have learned in school. It was important that we started there before having any classroom discussions. We needed to get a sense of where students were with sensitive issues related to race and privilege.

The student reflections showed an awareness of what was going on a good level of empathy.  However it was hard to gauge our students’ level of interest in this song and this topic through their reflection.

Today in music class I have them their parts to “American Skin.” I prepped them explaining that we would do one section at a time and hack our way through this piece. We ran the first eight measures and when I stopped, they immediately started talking and playing. I was about to stop them and explain that they needed to be quiet when I cut them off but I hesitated. The students were asking each other about notes and rhythms and practicing the piece. So I let them work for another minute.

I yelled at them to stop and we played the introduction again. After I cut them off, again they went back to work. We worked this way, going section by section and I let them help each out and practice after I cut them off. No, this is not the way I would like to them to rehearse, but they were invested, working really hard, so I decided to let it go.

With eight graders, actions often speak louder than words and their focus and interest in learning the song today, showed me that they were into this song and that it was connecting with something that made sense to them and mattered.

The next step is to explicate the lyrics, help the students figure out what the phrase "American Skin" means in the song and in their lives.  It's going to be a challenging unit, but the students have already impressed me with their thoughtfulness.

I'll let you know how it goes.  

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