Thursday, March 21, 2013

Using the Arts to Discuss Racism, Freedom and Passover

In previous blog posts, I explained what my students did for Black History Month. To wrap up my racism unit, I decided to integrate the arts into my classroom.

The Harlem Renaissance in Music

Rabbi Gedaliah Jaffe, a colleague and musician, came to my junior American Literature classroom and gave the students a lesson on the Harlem Renaissance and jazz artists. Even the next day, students came into class singing Louis Armstrong:

Rabbi Jaffe explained to the students how indomitable Armstrong's spirit was. Though he was often humiliated, forced to wear embarrassing costumes and perform with ridiculous props, his power as an artist and that signature smile ensured that no one who heard and saw him could mistake him for anything other than the great man he was.

Rabbi Jaffe compared Armstrong with Cab Calloway, a black performer who deliberately catered to a white audience, unlike Armstrong who remained a black artist who may have performed for whites but in the ways he did for his fellow people. Here is Calloway:


The Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance 

After the music lesson, we were ready for the poetry of Langston Hughes -- "Cross" and "Dream Deferred" -- Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool," Countee Cullen's "Incident" and -- to end on a positive note -- Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," though the latter is not of course from the Harlem Renaissance.

The End of Slavery and Passover

Since Passover is right around the corner, I ended the arts unit by giving the students a chance to work with the texts and poems we had studied about racism in order to come up with a found poem or an artwork about bondage, slavery and the holiday of liberation and freedom.

Found Poems

Some students didn't know what a found poem was, but one of the students in my class had recently won Best Poet on a poetry slam she had attended through the school. As it happened, the found poem she had to write had to have been about Passover or her Jewish identity. I asked the student, Jamie, to teach her classmates about the genre of found poetry. You can view her found poem, which she took from the first chapter of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, here. Once the students understand what a found poem was, some of them began working:

Here is the above students' found poem:

This year slaves
   Next year free men
There ain't nothing in the world so good
You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable
        We cried out to God
God heard our voice and he saw our suffering
In every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction
Nobody else could come a-hunting after me
   Out of the chains in no time
   There ain't no place for a n-----
         Baruckh atah Hashem Ga'al Yisrael
         I knowed I was alright now

Here's the found poem the above student created from the civil rights chapter of her textbook (which is American History: A Survey by Alan Brinkley, just in case you wanted to know):

Loss of Innocence

he had collapsed
romantic vision snapped
the stable cords had once bound
basic principles
and existing terms

champions of the new
-- already inferior --
concept of slavery
they were the slaveowners
the fire eaters

slavery's unthreatening presence
had risen to such a point
that it was threatened
not even backed by gold or silver
certainly not by morality
only mortality

The Visual Arts

Some students didn't feel comfortable creating poetry, so I gave them another choice: they could use iPads to find an image in the school that to them had something to do with racism. They had to download the image into Educreation and then explain how it related to the texts and/or poetry we had learned on racism and the black experience in America. Here are students working out what they're going to photograph and how they're going to relate it to our class discussions:

AP Art History

Check back with us over the holiday and after as my students from AP Art History compile information on the haggadah, which we will then use for the art exhibit during RealSchool's Yom Iyun. The exhibit will be called Texting and will be interactive. My art history students will take Yom Iyun participants through the history of Hebrew illuminated haggadot, and then participants will be able to make their own "manuscripts" using a text they studied that day. The Yom Iyun is on April 14, 2013, from 4:00-7:00 pm.

And Finally . . .

Freedom calls to us in different ways, in each new generation. The Maccabeats have done a good job in showing us how various cultures can speak to each other about this topic. Chag kasher v'sameach -- have a kosher and happy Pesach!

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