On a recent afternoon, our Middle School arts rooms were abuzz with activity. In them, students were beginning unique lessons featuring various elements from the fall history curriculum developed by Class 7 History teacher Kymberly Mattern in collaboration with our MS arts department (Lindsay Quinn, Drama; Marianne Brand, Art; Jamia Jordan, Dance; and Patricia Norchi, Music).
The essential questions guiding Class 7’s unit centered around ‘How do geography, climate and natural resources affect the way people in the U.S. live and work?’ and ‘What story do maps tell about U.S history?’ Students learned about the expansion of U.S. geography over time and gained familiarity with our country’s major geographic features. Then, over the course of four days, students rotated through each arts discipline and engaged in dynamic lessons designed to deepen their knowledge and expand their ideas.
Inside the MS art room, students were meticulously drawing various plants and herbs. However, these were no ordinary plants – these were used for centuries by Indigenous people and known to have medicinal uses or benefits.
Earlier in the period, the students selected and identified a particular plant, researching its advantages. They would later annotate their striking drawings with the facts they found. MS Art teacher Marianne Brand noted the importance of documenting the plant visually, saying, “Doing so helps to understand its structure.”
One student, for example, painted a vibrant yellow dandelion using watercolors, then applied contrasting black ink to note that the leaves, flowers and roots of the plant have traditionally been used to treat swelling, upset stomachs, kidney disease and skin problems. Another drew a coneflower, also known as echinacea, a pink-purple plant in the daisy family. Indigenous people, she noted, used the “upper parts and its roots” to soothe snakebites and sore throats. Today, it can be used to treat the common cold.
As Class 7 found spots on the floor of the ninth-floor studio, Dance teacher Jamia Jordan led a discussion around two connected events in American history: the Louisiana Purchase, during which the U.S. acquired the Louisiana territory from the French First Republic in 1803, and the 1811 Louisiana Slave Revolt, also known as the German Coast Uprising.
“Now we’re going to think about how we can use dance as its own music,” Ms. Jordan explained as her students stood up. “When slaves communicated, they needed to find common ground. Today, use dance as your common language and put together your own map.”
After arranging themselves into small groups, the students were instructed to decorate white puzzle pieces with a color that corresponded to a key illuminated on the board (for example, yellow indicated a jump; dark blue was a gliding motion). When their puzzles were assembled with their colorful pieces, the students were tasked with translating their map of sorts into a dance. One requirement: whatever movement a student executed, the others had to replicate.
After several minutes of brainstorming and experimentation, it was time for an informal share-out. “It should look and feel like a solid dance, but be gentle with yourself,” Ms. Jordan told the students. In quick succession, the groups demonstrated their original dances. They twirled, twisted, spun, jumped up and stood still, arms outstretched.
As a final step, they jotted down on cards one new thing they learned before putting their shoes back on and heading to their next activity.
Scattered around the ninth-floor practice rooms, clusters of Class 7 students were hard at work creating their own songs. Leaning over laptops, they researched and shared ideas for a history-focused assignment that needed to be informed in some way by an American landscape, such as a mountain, river, lake, valley or field.
To spark their imaginations and strengthen their geography skills, MS Music teacher Patricia Norchi distributed a sheet of questions to consider, including “Which region is the river folk song from?” and “What states is it connected to?”
Over the course of the period, Ms. Norchi, who is also Coordinator of the Music Program, popped into each space to offer encouragement and suggestions as her students collaborated on their multi-step projects. Most groups were in the information-gathering phase, investigating musical genres throughout American history like classical, folk, popular and jazz, while drawing correlations between geographical locations and folk songs circa 1900. A few were trying their hand at composing.
With the lyrics to the famous folk songs “Shenandoah,” “Beautiful Ohio” and “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” in front of them, the students considered the American stories they wanted to tell. What would the music sound like? What words would accompany the tunes? Were there visuals that could enhance their pieces?
Although the students would have more class meetings to complete the compositions, they were clearly thoroughly engaged and well on their way.
With “Who is Sacagawea” written across the whiteboard, students considered what they knew about her and what they wanted to know. Spread out in groups in the Black Box Theater, they used large white poster board to record succinct facts as well as their questions.
Next, the students watched a video to learn about the “seven Grandfather Teachings,” a belief among Indigenous people belief that love, respect, bravery, truth, honesty, humility and wisdom are the principles that all should live by. “It is believed that if these elements are present, you will lead a good life,” Head of MS Arts and Integration and Drama teacher Lindsay Quinn said. “Where can we find evidence of these in Sacagawea’s story?”
Prior to this class, Ms. Quinn selected 12 short scenes from “Bird Woman: The Story of Sacagawea,” a play by Ric Averill, for her students to examine and encouraged them to explore how the play connects to the Grandfather principles.
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” Ms. Quinn said as students read through the acts aloud. “Which scenes in her journey do you see her living through these principles?”
With a goal to deepen their knowledge of Sacagawea (and themselves) through the lens of the seven grandfather teachings, the students delved into their scenes and characters with animated enthusiasm.