The Beginnings of An Inquiry Unit For Black History Music Appreciation

Once upon a time, I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of months. I was studying screenwriting (not very hard) and did a film internship (not very often). One day I was walking around the city and saw an old man who looked to be homeless with a ragged marionette. But it wasn’t like the marionette that you’d associate with a Vaudeville show, it was like this fuzzy purple giraffe monster who’s fur was clumpy and matted with dirt. Anyway, this old man was doing the best he could to make a couple dollars with his little marionette. His biggest move was to make the marionette jump a little. Not very high. More like a pulse. Bip bop bup bup. I couldn’t tell if he thought this was funny or if he was trying really hard to make revenue with whatever he had on hand.

But you know, I feel like I know this guy a little better now that I’m a first-ish year teacher trying to survive three schools in the middle of a pandemic. We’re both just trying to make a buck with a little bit of engaging content. And no one can tell if our narratives are a comedy or drama. Including the homeless guy and myself. None of us know what is going on.

Allow me to show you what I mean with this dumpster fire of an inquiry lesson.

For the month of February, I wanted find a way to celebrate Black History Month. So I decided to do a unit on Black History Music Appreciation and bought this unit (I mean, “resource”) off of Teacher’s Pay Teachers. Which is completely legal, by the way. You can make some serious moo-lah sharing your ideas to brain dead teachers like myself. So I bought this unit that highlights a bunch of African American blues and jazz singers. And there’s lots of great things about it. Like the kids are learning about black history, they are learning about discrimination and racism and how some of the musicians weren’t treated the same way as white musicians. They are learning how to analyze music and practice listening. We’re also listening to some really good music that doesn’t kill their brain cells and they are coming up with some very interesting questions. I love this because I want to learn how to create more inquiry in class. It’s a great way to engage students and learn research skills. Plus the kids get a say in what they are learning about.

The problem is they are so obsessed with death. Like, any time I introduce a new artist or musician to them — doesn’t matter if they are white or black — they need to know if this person is alive or dead and if they are dead, how? Here’s an example. Today, I gave them an exit slip to begin the inquiry process. The prompt was, “If Scott Joplin was here in this room, what’s one question you’d want to ask him?” And about five people plan on asking him how he died.

One of the grade 2/3’s asked him how to play the recorder. She missed the part about him playing the piano but I was proud of her for not running to stereotypes or death.

Since so many of them wanted to know how he died, I researched it after school. Found out that he died of syphilitic dementia in a mental institution in 1917. He worked in a lot of bars and brothels because other establishments discriminated against him. He was buried in an unmarked grave with three other people. I forget when they gave him a real tombstone but his official obituary came out in 2019. He was the father of ragtime. How do I tell the kids?

Should I tell them? Do I have to tell them? I don’t know. How do I tell a grade 3 what syphillis is? Do I even know what syphillis is? Will parents get mad?

I tried some kid-friendly search engines and asked them “How did Scott Joplin die?” And I’m so happy that very few of them said what he died of. Maybe I’ll be able to get out of this predicament altogether if we just stay on Kiddle and investigate all our question for inquiry there. If we investigate on Google, we’ll get the real answer so as long as I keep them off of Google, we should be safe. But am I doing my job by not telling them that he died of syphillis? Am I keeping them ignorant? They know about residential schools and that’s totally horrific. Is it time to tell them about sexually transmitted diseases? Oh god. What have I done? This was meant to be a celebration of black history, not a rabbit hole of death and epidemiology! I thought Scott Joplin was safe because he’s in MusicPlay with is the most kid-friendly, curriculum-loving music resource in the world!!!! There’s no swear words. Maple Leaf Rag is such a fun song. Why is Joplin’s story so sad????? Ugh. Why MusicPlay, whyyyyyy?

And another thing. In the unit I bought, there’s this one part where a cartooned Ella Fitzgerald takes us on a virtual tour through a slideshow presentation. I as the teacher have to read the prompts she writes. It’s all in first person. On the last slide, Ella tells everybody how she got diabetes and had to have both of her legs amputated.

The kids aren’t going to remember anything except that she died without legs. I can just see it. It’s going to be the highlight of the whole lesson. Seriously, today I tried to explain how dates work on a tombstone and gave myself a tombstone with a timeline of my life to explain how it’s possible to die before your birthday. All because Scott Joplin died and his dates were wonky so we had to figure out EXACTLY how old he was because these grade fours, like, really needed to know. And they weren’t getting it so I had to demonstrate with a timeline of my birth and estimated death.

How did I even get this job?! There must be a real professional around here who can lead this discussion properly.

Regardless, I need to figure out how to lead an inquiry discussion without us going down a rabbithole. I also need to figure out how to have these conversations with kids in a culturally-sensitive way. My goal in talking about black history is not only to learn but to create empathy and inclusion. I’m worried this is causing the opposite effect. I’ll try again tomorrow with some middle year kids and let you know how it goes.

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