Can making or listening to music shape our identity? Can music effectively challenge stereotypes? How does music impact the way people think and act? What role can music play in a movement for social change? These were some of the guiding questions I pondered recently while taking part in the Facing History and Ourselves workshop entitled “The Sounds of Change” on, quite poignantly, both the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots and the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s historic civil unrest.
Together with my teaching partner, Steve Futterman, I am tasked with preparing our 7th graders for their upcoming trip to Memphis, Tennessee and Little Rock, Arkansas by bringing to life the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and by encouraging the students to consider its relevance to the divisiveness and unrest that seem to be permeating our country right now.
While attending this workshop, I had the opportunity to try out lesson plans that delve deeply into several classic soul songs produced by legendary Stax Records, placing them within the context of the African Americans’ struggle to gain equality and examining how the stories of the artists, the music and the lyrics provide a window into the ways that music can both inspire and reflect social change.
Steve and I are excited to incorporate this approach into the 7th grade Core (Humanities) classroom. Students will analyze the lyrics of “Soul Man” within the context of the Detroit riots, compare and contrast Otis Redding’s “Respect” (later immortalized by Aretha Franklin as a feminist anthem) and “Respect Yourself,” a Staple Singers hit, investigate how music is able to build community among seemingly different groups through a close study of The Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” and examine more contemporary message music.
The soul music that came out of Memphis and the musicians who followed in their footsteps offer a very compelling pathway into some pretty challenging material. The idea here is to give our students the opportunity to engage deeply with the music by exploring each song’s social and political commentary, by reflecting on how they connect with the music intellectually, emotionally and ethically and to consider which aspects of the music challenge their thinking. What shocks or surprises? What is most interesting or intriguing? What is particularly troubling? What can they discover in the music that offers insight into something new or unfamiliar or, conversely, that serves as a mirror of their own lives?
These lessons extend the curriculum that Steve and I have developed to further our students’ comprehension of not only the history that they will encounter on our field trip to the South, but also of the complexities that characterize the contemporary American experience. And they touch on some of themes that run through our instructional program: society and the individual, the oppression of one group over others and those moments when people take action to change the status quo.
This is what I learned at “The Sounds of Change” workshop and through my ongoing work at The Willows: People make choices. Choices make history. And unless people begin to make different choices, history will continue to repeat itself. I am hopeful that as our informed, compassionate and thoughtful students come of age, they will have in their possession the tools necessary to promote greater understanding, inclusivity and kindness.
In the meantime, the 7th graders and their teacher chaperones head to Memphis and Little Rock in early June to learn more about our country’s past, its present and the role of music to reflect and incite social change and to bring people together as we embrace the future, come what may.