Blog contributed by GITC Executive Director, Jess Baron
San Diego, CA
July 27, 2020
It's the end of July now, but back in late January, 2020, I began meeting meeting with the leadership of SAGE Magnet, a first-of-its-kind middle school named for promoting Sexual and Gender Equity that resides inside the larger Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, California. We were meeting to explore designing a teaching artist residency to teach 6th grade students about social justice through making music. SAGE's mission is to provide opportunities for all students to become self-motivated, life-long learners in a safe environment where students are encouraged to become self-reliant and disciplined citizens. The school promotes academic and character development and fosters individuality, creativity, and teamwork.
Mr. Joseph Porter, the SAGE Magnet Coordinator, had an inspirational vision to teach SAGE students how social change can be brought about in different ways. In alignment with the mission of the school, he wanted students to understand how working towards social justice can go beyond attending rallies and protests in the streets, chanting and carrying signs. He wanted to teach these sixth graders to discover the power of music to move hearts and minds toward justice. When we met, introduced by Shana Habel in the L.A.U.S.D. Arts Branch, there was no turning back. GITC has been sharing music from the Civil Rights Movement with teachers for 20 years. It couldn't have been a more natural setting in which we could bring music to learning.
We began planning these music integration classes for the students at SAGE 7 weeks before the Coronavirus began turning life as we knew it into a fond memory. The plan was to teach voice, ukulele, songwriting and group music in service of encouraging students to use their own voices to become agents for social change. Little did we know we'd need to overcome technical hurdles galore to make it happen. But everyone hung in there- parents, teachers and students- and with leadership from Mr. Porter, we figured out how to create inclusive, authentic, student-centered instruction, even though we were all separated and could only see each other inside of little rectangular boxes.
The project had been set to take place in person at the school, but when schools closed and teachers and students went home to shelter in place, we immediately pivoted the project to conduct the classes online over ZOOM. GITC sent instruments for students to Los Angeles and participating families picked them up safely from the porch of the SAGE parents foundation's president.
The design of the project included 10 weekly group music lessons revolving around learning about social action for civil rights that included music, and instruction in singing, playing and writing additional lyrics. This allowed sixth grade students to connect current advocacy for justice with the history of change.
Classes started well before the tragic murder of George Floyd sparked international uprisings to protest police brutality against Black Americans, bringing #blacklivesmatter to the forefront of public conversation and into the heart of vibrant, widespread social action. When people began taking to the streets, SAGE students were already studying the power of music to change hearts, minds and policies when they began seeing civil protest in action on their screens. The project became more real and important to students as they began coping with the complexity and seriousnes of the situation.
"This Little Light of Mine" was chosen as a focus song for the class because it is simple, powerful and positive and is recognized as one of our nation's most jubilant and effective civil rights anthems. Today, demonstrators still leverage its message to push back against injustice.
Mr. Porter's guidance and direction to students to study the history of the song and its role in civil protest was critical to the success of the project. In fact, highlighted in the SAGE video is footage of Reverend Osagyefo Sekou who used "This Little Light of Mine" to curb passions during a counter-protest, before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The students speak to this use of song to combat violence with compassion and unity.
Mr. Porter explains the heart of this collaboration. “For this specific project, I wanted to teach SAGE students how songs and singing have been used as successful tools for voicing specific needs for change throughout the history of social justice,” he says. “I feel it is important for them to know about the history of the traditional protest songs- who wrote, led and sang them, and when, where, and how they have been most effective in promoting non-violent movements for justice. To top it all off, I wanted the students to actually learn how to play and sing those same songs.”
In addition to teaching the traditional lyrics, as the music teacher with the beginning students, GITC's hallmark student songwriting was woven into the class. Students composed their own verses of resilience to “This Little Light of Mine.” This allowed students to use the song to reflect on where resilience in their lives comes from. Students identified the positive activities they could engage in to uplift and encourage themselves despite the risks and losses caused by the spread of the Coronavirus. Each created a personal line or verse to the song. Together the old and new lyrics provided SAGE students with a way to help themselves and others.
The project was made possible through a generous grant from the Rosenthal Family Foundation. Monica Rosenthal, an enthusiastic supporter of SAGE got directly involved with the project, attending class with Mr. Porter and the students. Her presence added extra enthusiasm and energy to the music making.
Thanks to their own determination and a supportive learning environment, SAGE students found learning about social justice through making music to be an engaging experience. Their attendance online was excellent. The end result was a team process, involving the classroom participants, GITC staff and SAGE family members who supported the students to practice and to make their own videos and wonderful leadership.
"This truly was the result of the village all joining hands to lift up its children,” Mr. Porter explains. ”Together, the adults worked to encourage and empower these dedicated students to shine their lights with intention and clarity into our world during a pivotal moment in history and these kids came through wiser, more musical and empowered.
We share this project with great gratitude to Mr. Porter, Ms. Habel, LAUSD's Arts Education Branch, and to the Rosenthal Family Foundation and Ms. Monica who made all our lives brighter by joining the class.
Now, one parting shot. Please enjoy this little backyard recording Mr. Porter, a new musician himself, made to contribute to the overall class piece. Each time I listen to Mr. Porter's voice, I wonder how on earth he has escaped stardom!