One of the things I like about arts integration is that engaging with an art form often lets us jump to much more advanced questions than we might be able to by staying within a discipline.  As Math in Your Feet creator Malke Rosenfeld puts it, using dance lets your body think through problems more in the way that mathematicians do: using ideas to answer questions that we don’t have answers for yet.

So you can believe that I jumped at the chance to guest lecture in an arts integration class at a neighboring university.  (My friend who teaches in the education program there was singing at Carnegie Hall with the symphony chorus, which I suppose counts as an excused absence.)

I also happen to be taking a class focused on research and issues in teacher education this semester (which I explain to non-education friends as “You know how they say those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach? Well, those of us who are completely clueless try to teach teachers” – my friends laugh, though I don’t know what my professor would say about this – it’s never been my favorite expression either, obviously…).

Anyway. One of the things we’ve learned is that teacher certification programs often require so many methods classes and observation hours that there isn’t time left for one’s own intellectual exploration.  In other words, my elementary social studies methods students get a chance to reflect on how kids understand history, but they probably won’t get to take a university-level history class where they get to debate ideas with classmates and delve into research on their own.

It’s not fair. And it’s ironic – you spend so much time trying to learn how to light a fire in your future students that you don’t often get to nurture that flame in yourself. One of the sacrifices of being a teacher, right?

So I tried to right that wrong, just a little bit, by first giving these future teachers an experience of art and music for themselves as adults, without making them jump to “but how will I use this in my future classroom?” (Don’t worry – we’d circle back to that question at the end of class.)

For art, I drew on my museum background (and a friend’s research) to lead a discussion about Richard Serra’s Rosa Parks – something which took on new significance given our position in post-Ferguson Saint Louis.

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For music, I turned to the recently released album The Elizabethan Session. If you haven’t heard of this, go check it out – essentially, a rather eminent group of English folksingers listened to a talk about the Elizabethan era from historian Ian Mortimer and then spent the week writing songs that would form that Saturday night’s concert program.

I loved the daring nature of the project. And then I heard the first track, The Shores of Hispaniola, and was hooked. A contemporary folksong written from the perspective of an African woman whose husband was enslaved in Haiti, calling out the hypocrisy of Empire and Church alike while taking on Queen herself? You’ve gotten my attention.

So in this methods class I gave the students copies of the lyrics and a set of discussion questions to mark up while they watched the YouTube video. Here’s what my sheet looked like:

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Our discussion sprung off the questions I had prepared (see the sheet above). Turning our attention to a musical analysis, we talked about the way the music built the emotion of the song and how the rolling beat evoked a nautical effect.

At one point, we took a break to google unfamiliar terms: Gloriana, Albion, Hispaniola, privateer… Realizing that our sense of this period was probably more informed by Pirates of the Caribbean than actual history, we also looked up information on colonialism and Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.  (Then, even though it’s not in the song, I couldn’t help but draw their attention to what would happen in Hispaniola about 200 years down the road.)

We analyzed the lyrics to connect these concepts, noting the use of sarcasm in “pious and holy” in the verse that refers to the Church of England.  With our attention on language, we started asking if the “light:dark” “good:bad” (and, returning to Serra’s artwork, “white:black”) binaries were really the best metaphor given the topic at hand. As we started to consider the role of emotion, we discovered our own connections with race and identity woven throughout the whole thing.

In other words, we started asking the questions that you can’t google, the ones we don’t have answers for yet.

Here’s the one I’m still working with: given the choice to write the song in the first person from an African woman’s perspective, there’s a point to be raised about voice – what philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff has called “the problem of speaking for others.”

Now, as a folk musician, I love the way our tradition has often spoken truth to power.  In truth, some of the best social justice critiques I know are embedded in songs.

But as a history educator, I know that there are major questions about whose voice gets recorded and heard through the ages. We value some voices and sometimes want to speak for others. That’s a fair question here.

For the moment, though, I’m noting that the scatted “revisionist history!” critiques I’ve seen online suggest that this song might be speaking to just the audience that needs to hear it. (Which, hey, includes me!) And there’s a lot to say about the history of British abolitionism too…

Music. History. They both ask us to shake our desire for right answers and start becoming comfortable with ambiguity – and ourselves.

It’s the perfect jumping-off point for talking about questions of who we were, who we are, and who we might want to become.  And I got to do it with members of the next generation of teachers, who will serve generations of students yet unborn.

Like I said, I may be “completely clueless” – but even I know that this?

This is the kind of practice you only miss to perform at Carnegie Hall.

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