Teaching through Questions

 

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Sometimes I find that the most powerful lessons aren’t the ones I spend hours planning but the simple ones the children spend minutes questioning. This blog post is about how my third grade class learned by asking questions and how I learned to allow them to lead the lessons.

Last year a little girl in my class skipped art to finish up an ELA project. While she was cutting and drawing she started singing,

L- is for the way you look at me, O- is for the only one I see….

-Wow, Hailey, that’s a very old song, where did you hear that one at?

I don’t know…. maybe a movie. But I really like it. Ms. Hurley, who sings that song anyway?

-I am not sure. I think Frank Sinatra.

Who is that? 

-A white man who sings really good.

What? He’s not black.

-No. Hailey. Maybe a black person does sing it but I think Frank Sinatra sang it first.

-You should look it up.  

I got up from my desk and went to the computer.

-Wow Hailey, a black person did sing it as well. It looks like Nat King Cole was the first to sing it. 

Who is Nat King Cole?

-That’s a great question. I am not sure who he is outside of being a singer. 

I clicked the video and we listened to the song.

-Wow Ms. Hurley. He sounds really good! I would want my boyfriend to sing like that!

-We should find out more about him.

Yes, we should.

The conversation changed the entire school year for us. I couldn’t answer Hailey’s question by reading the class a picture book on Nat King Cole because there isn’t any (that I know of) so we had to do our own research.

When the class returned to the classroom, Hailey asked if she could sing the song and tell the class where it came from. We played the song and that was just the beginning… The class agreed that they should know who he was.

We stared with his music. We listened to some of his songs which meant more questions. This allowed me to teach them how to conduct research.

I sat and watched as they spoke in groups and was very impressed when they jotted down their questions. Since the Black History Show was approaching, I picked a Nat King Cole song and worked his life into the  lessons. They went home and watched YouTube clips about his life and the sad life of his daughter. Some of their parents shared that they danced to his music at their weddings. One little girl watched an entire documentary by Candacy Taylor on Route 66. Needless to say, the lessons got deep. Real Deep.

One night I stayed up pondering if teaching them about Route 66 was too much. They wanted to know more about it and Gabby was telling the class about the documentary. I didn’t think they would sit there and be interested in it.

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I was still pondering the thought when I went to Massachusetts during Dr. King’s birthday weekend. I met African American Storyteller, Onawumi Jean Moss at the Eric Carle Museum. Initially, I had a desire to meet her because I was interested in hearing stories about the south but it’s true that story tellers don’t just tell stories. They teach! And that’s what happened when I was in her presence. She spent over two hours mentoring me! (I felt so much love)!

During the conversation, she spoke on how to teach terminology to children, and I shared with her that a little boy had asked me the meaning of kicks, while I was teaching them the song, Route 66.

Route 66, she replied, in our history is over two thousand miles long. It is a sun down strip. If black folks were caught on that strip… after sun down anything could happen to them. Don’t teach [them that song], unless you teach that history. 

Her comment said two things to me. If I knew my class was ready for this, then don’t hold back. But, if there was any doubt, then don’t teach it to them. I thought about them asking questions and fining out answers before me. Not waiting for my validation.

The next week, we spent the entire week learning about Route 66.

They sat through the entire documentary and jotted down questions to ask Candacy Taylor. They watched the Nat King Cole documentary and discussed why they thought  he sang Route 66 even though according to history it wasn’t a friendly highway for blacks.

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They wrote their own stories about Nat King Cole’s life. Drew pictures. Wrote plays. They learned to listen to jazz and swing. When I played the Nat King Cole station from Pandora, whenever they heard his voice, they would say, That’s Nat King Cole! When we went on trips to enhance understanding of history and art, they compared Bobby Troupe to Jacque-Luis David and Nat King Cole to Kehinde Wiley.

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“Nat King Cole made the song, Route 66, popular, even though Bobby Troupe wrote it. Just like this painting of Napoleon…for me, Kehinde Wiley makes it more…better….”

They immersed themselves in the content entirely, drawing me in as well. I didn’t know when the lesson would end and found myself hoping it wouldn’t. They built on each touching conversation about segregation in the south and about the hypocrisy of America.

When it was time for their show in February, they performed with power and exuberance. It was a honor to hear our  principal tell me that their skit brought tears to her eyes ( I need the school permission to post the video of their show).

At the end of the school year, they performed their own play titled, Nat King Cole and the Green Book and had great reviews from the teachers and children alike.

While I taught many lesson with this class, this by far was one of my favorite and it wasn’t even a lesson first thought of by me. It was taught because they were asking questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Brooklyn Museum

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Casey, Allyson and I at the Brooklyn Museum.

During the early winter, Casey and Allyson and I met up at the Brooklyn Museum to see the exhibit,  Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. 

When I arrived at the museum, Casey was there waiting for the both of us and had already passed about 20 percent of the exhibition, which was okay since I had already saw the exhibition twice.

My friend is coming to join us.

Oh, okay.

She said she’s here but she probably is still on her way…you know how that goes.

Yep, I certainly do. We both laughed.

While we waited for Allyson to show, Casey filled me in on different art mediums. Even though I saw the exhibition twice; I had walked past certain work I did not understand. That was the work that excited her.

Like,  Noah Purifoy’s work.

 

I love Noah Purifoy, she said, this medium is not mixed media nor is it statues, its more of ‘assemblages’. It’s one figure made using different types of materials… He collected material after the riots and made assemblages”

Only then, did I look in the case… and the nails and wood meant something.

We viewed his untitled, cased in work. On the top sat a head. Under the head a body of wood and in the wood, nails. A whole slew of nails. The only part of the figure without nails was the circular wooden head (this is as far as I can see).  I understood this assemblage as the whole body of pain. The brown body in pain. The brown community in pain and the nails just stay there. Some times the nails are removed and the pain is not so severe anymore but then, they return.

After viewing Noah Purifoy’s work we looked at John Outterbridge and Betty Saar’s work… work that I had passed before.

Outterbridge’s About Martin  evoked thoughts about the 1970’s. I thought about  King walking the earth and fighting for a people who had been taught to turn the other cheek. He fought with that cheek. The one they had turned for generations. He fought with love and peace. Who would have thought that fighting in this way would bring change?  I scanned the Moneta Sleet Jr.’s photo of Coretta that sat in the upper left corner of the open casket.

Betye Saar’s, Liberation of Aunt Jemina, wasn’t too far from Outterbridge’s About Martin. I didn’t know what to think.  Is this really an image of liberation? This idea of being liberated…and putting it with an image of a woman with a gun and raised fist suggests to me that liberation has an image. Freedom looks like something. But does freedom look like guns or peaceful protest?

When Allyson arrived we viewed work from more artist.  With Hammons we discussed 70’s slang. I had no idea ‘spade’ was a derogatory word.

Of course we discussed Sam Gilliam’s work. His canvas’ were eye catching.

There were some images, I kept my views to myself. I didn’t want to discuss it so much. Viewing One Nation Under God by Timothy Washington, gave me chills. It made me think of the reconstruction era and the time now. Don’t expect much, it seems to be saying. Don’t put your hopes high. Blacks are still waiting for their 40 aces and a mule.  I also was moved by Charles White Wanted Poster. The wanted images have grown since then. How much different is this poster  from the poster that sits in the office with all the innocent slain black and brown people? 1619- 19?  is now changed. 1619- 20?.

I watched and listened as the two artist conversed about the art and gave their honest opinions. They spoke about the art as if they were giving and listening to good gossip. It was that good of a conversation.

My critical eye among Casey and Allyson had a voice and they were interested in what I had to say as well, about what I saw and how I saw it.  Listening to them helped me to understand terms I read on the wall (that without my phone meant very little to me).

It also helped that they lived during the 70’s.

After we saw Howardena Pindell’s work, we moved pretty quickly through the hall.

We sat down and over broccoli soup Allyson told me about the art in the Fergus McCaffrey which lead to a conversation about race in Canada and the history of the Underground Rail Road….

  • learn more about Nova Scotia (which I found out, my principal’s family is from there)
  • look up information on enslaved Africans who were given freedom to travel back to Africa around 1719 or…something
  • learn about The Underground railroad that went all the way to Mexico and through the west…because to run all the way North wasn’t that safe for enslave people who lived in the deep south (did not know that one…)
  • When I am ready to travel to Chicago tell Allyson so she can hook me up with her friend who lives there