Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Music, memories & fun: a day with John McCutcheon

On October 9th we welcomed folk music legend, author and storyteller John McCutcheon to our school! To prepare for his visit we read his books and of course listened to his songs – in the library learning commons, art, PE and homerooms. In music, students learned to sing his classic Kindergarten Wall, as well as studying some of the more unusual instruments he plays, such as the autoharp and hammer dulcimer.

John exposed our students to traditional American music that was new to many of them. He also described the origins of the instruments he played - did you know that the banjo came from Africa?

Here is John showing K-2 students how to play the world's oldest instrument: your own body! Together they created a rainstorm!

And here he is performing "How Can I Keep from Singing?", a lovely Quaker hymn, with a talented group of 4th graders who rehearsed with our science teacher, Mr. Hollinger!

Another way we prepared for John's visit was by learning about historical connections to his music. Many classes heard Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People by Bonnie Christensen and John Henry by Julius Lester. They were then better prepared to appreciate John’s performances of “This Land Is Your Land” and “John Henry”!

I was impressed at how even as young as 2nd and 3rd grade, students were able to articulate why the story of John Henry would still resonate with us – how the drama (and anxiety) of human vs machine would feel as relevant in the computer age as it did when it was about steam drills. We also read other tall tales, exploring this uniquely American type of story and its place in US history.

In 4th grade we dove a little deeper into the mystery of John Henry – the subject of many folk songs, now proven by William & Mary historian Scott Reynolds Nelson to have been an actual person. I strongly recommend both his adult and young readers’ books that explain his groundbreaking research in a highly engaging way! They shed light on a forgotten group of people and their valuable contributions to the nation.

Before embarking on reading Ain’t Nothing but a Man, students wrote down what they know about how historians work and what they would like to know. We wrapped up our unit as they embarked on the mystery genre in Language Arts, so they were quick to draw parallels with the huge element of detective work in history, reflecting that, historians “have to look very closely at clues,” “keep on trying to find clues sometimes for years,” and that they “go places to find clues.” This last point was very surprising to many who imagined historians trapped among piles of dusty books. I am hopeful that this will plant in students a seed of love for the wonder that is history!

Thank you, John McCutcheon, for your beautiful performances and for inspiring such a rich range of wonderful related activities for us to explore!

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