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Q&A: Teaching Reading, History, and Art With the Mississippi Blues

Last week, the Associated Press published a piece about Chevonne Dixon, a 4th grade teacher in Mississippi who is teaching cross-curricular lessons around a topic of the utmost historical importance in her state: the blues. The article described a classroom in which students write blues songs about math and the weather, learn about growing cotton through blues lyrics, and produce videos on legendary blues singers.

The Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum, which the AP reports Dixon was one of the first teachers in the state to implement, was written by Mark Malone, a music professor at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss. With the help of Scott Barretta, a blues historian at the University of Mississippi, Mr. Malone designed the curriculum's 18 lesson plans across six topic areas—music, meaning, cotton, transportation, civil rights, media. The lessons are also explicitly tied to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts. The curriculum is available, including the associated audio and video resources, for free online.

I decided to catch up with Mr. Malone to learn more about the curriculum, his motivations, and why he thinks the blues are so important. 

Where'd the idea for the curriculum come from?

The state of Mississippi wanted to create a tourist attraction—there are lots of Europeans, Asians, and South Americans who are very much into the blues. The first idea was to create historical markers throughout the state that people could come to visit. The road is called the Mississippi Blues Trail. Scott Barretta wrote the text for the historical markers.

There didn't seem to be as much interest among young people in the blues, so the idea was try to begin educating the children of Mississippi in the blues. It seemed like generations of Mississippians were not understanding or being taught about their heritage. A National Endowment for the Arts grant was written to focus on 4th graders. 

My role was to write the actual lesson plans because I am a music educator.

Why do you think it's so important for students in Mississippi to learn about the blues?

The Mississippi delta is where the blues began. But it's not just limited to music—the curriculum includes history, geography, social studies, theater arts, visual arts, musical arts. ... It's more than just music, more than just the art form. There are lyrics that refer to places, transportation, media. ... It's full of ideas and possibilities.

Describe your favorite lesson in the curriculum.

Unit 4, lesson 3—the lesson on highway transportation. You create, using blue painters' tape, a large map of Mississippi on the floor. Then the students research where the highways were, for instance where Highway 61 road runs along the Mississippi river. ... They take different colored streamers and lay them along the route where the roads go. It's so colorful, and you can take a step back and visually see where the roads crisscross. They learn the symbol for U.S. highways, the symbol for state highways.

These are important roads in the transportation unit. Of course, one of the reasons for writing a blues song is to get away from your troubles. The ways to get away started with river travel, then railroad travel, then having your own car or the bus to get out of town. When students get into the next unit on civil rights and politics, the Freedom Riders and buses are all part of it.

Can the curriculum be adapted for other grades?

We had several people in middle schools, at the Mississippi Whole Schools Institute where we piloted the  curriculum, who said they can adapt it for their social studies or history classes. They were really tickled with it. In high schools in various places you have to have American history or state history, and for those kinds of things it could be adapted very easily.

What are some ways students learn about civil rights through the blues?

Historically the way the blues songs were couched in early years, is 'I'm having trouble with  my spouse, I don't like my job.' Even though there was the political oppression of Jim Crow and other laws, that's how it was couched. By the time we reach the 1950s and 60s, all of that becomes vocal through blues, and people begin to protest mistreatment, discrimination, oppression. It's melancholy, but it tends to be cathartic for the person singing the blues away and for the audience, too. In the lessons, we also harken that back to spirituals in the pre-Civil War days.

Do you think the content and lesson plans are transferrable to another location, where the blues are of less a part of the local history?

Yes and no. The ideas are and learning about the blues is. Students can transfer to their own reference point. That's why we start with the "Homework Blues." The parts that aren't [transferrable] are geographical. The roads have such an impact in the writing of the songs and why they're composed.

Though teachers in other places might research the blues in their area—Louisiana does have a history of the blues, Arkansas does, Tennessee does.  And if you're studying civil rights and politics it can definitely transfer.

(This interview has been edited for content and clarity. The videos embedded  in this post are available on the Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum teacher resources page.)

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