Oh, Freedom

Leah Shaeffer HeadshotLeah Shaeffer is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Director of Education. She will be blogging every Thursday throughout the 2014-2015 season.

I am an arts educator.  And although I am still very young, I have been blessed to teach in a wide, wide range of students in a wide, wide variety of circumstances.  Every time I teach, I am moved in some way by the impact that the arts can have on students.  I think that most arts educators would say the same.  That’s one reason we commit our lives to the underrated, underfunded mission of bringing the arts to children who need it—that is to say, all children.

But when your work so consistently moves you, touching experiences don’t necessarily stay at the front of your mind for quite as long.  You say to yourself, “Wow, that was great,” and you move on, preparing the next lesson, writing the next grant, scheduling the next meeting.  You have to.  It takes an unusually meaningful and weighty experience to stop you in your tracks; to make you truly remember and reflect on why you are working so tirelessly.

That happened to me today, and I want to share it with you.

Today, I had my fourth session with a third-grade classroom in a Title I school in Lee County.  I have been coming into this classroom once a week, leading arts-integrated lessons that connect to their curriculum.  I had led some really lively and effective lessons with this classroom, from roleplaying Paul Bunyan folktales in Language Arts-integrated lessons to using improvisation and movement to identify animal groups in Science-integrated lessons.  I have a great rapport with this group of 22 exceptionally bright and eager students, so I decided to challenge them this week with a Social Studies-integrated lesson on the Boston Tea Party.

The session began as usual, with the students rushing to the door to greet me with hugs as I entered the classroom and settling down on the “storytime” area at the front of the room.  They buzzed with excitement as I explained to them that I had written a play just for them, that they would all take part in and act out for each other.  I assigned roles, from Samuel Adams to Governor Hutchinson, and we acted out the events of the Boston Tea Party together.  In-between scenes, we would pause to discuss the important points of the action, from important vocabulary words like “taxes” and “colony” to the reasons behind each character’s actions.

During one of these discussions, the students were musing on the familiar phrase, spoken by a student playing a protestor in the classroom drama: “No taxation without representation.”  They had a lot to say about this once they grasped the meaning behind the motto, basically different incarnations of the same sentiment: “That’s not fair!”  Until one student, an African-American girl, solemnly raised her hand and said:

“They wanted their freedom.  You have to fight for that.  They had to stand up for themselves, or lose their freedom forever.”

Then she began to sing in a strong, clear voice.

“Oh, freedom,
Oh freedom,
Oh, freedom over me”

The rest of the class, a veritable multi-cultural rainbow, raised their voices with her, joining in an adaptation of that well-loved spiritual turned civil rights anthem.

“And before I’d be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And I’ll fight for my right to be free.”

The classroom teacher and I listened, stunned, as the class sung on.  “Wow,” the teacher whispered.

“Wow” is right.  Where do you think these students learned that folk song?  From their music teacher.  Through the theatre and musical arts, these children were able to identify the universality of the struggle for human rights and freedoms; to make connections across the curriculum and across America’s history.  Imagine what might happen if the arts were even more supported in our schools.  Imagine how many more of these moments would happen.  Imagine how fully our students could understand and connect to the curriculum.  Imagine how much more meaningful their learning experiences would be.

If you come across someone who is not yet a believer in arts-integrated learning or the difference that arts experiences make in the lives of children, please tell them this story.  I know that I will.

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