West African Drummer Shows Paterson Kids a New Way to Celebrate Black History

This year, we teamed up with the Folklife Center of Northern NJ and West African master percussionist Victor Marshall to bring music from the African diaspora to Paterson students.

This project began to grow legs in November and culminated in three residencies that took place throughout Black History Month. Two residencies were carried out in 5th grade Math classes, and a third residency was held for students at STARS Academy, a Paterson Public School that prepares disabled high school students to gain independence and transition to the workplace.

During a planning meeting, we asked teachers why they decided to open up their classrooms to this type of program. “We want to show our students a side of Black history that doesn’t have to do with slavery,” said Ms. Gaskin, a 5th grade Math teacher. She also wanted to bring something educational yet fun to students bombarded with endless virtual assignments.

Victor, an experienced teaching artist, had no trouble connecting his lesson plan to the subject matter being taught in the Math classes. Drumming and fractions, brilliant, right?

While telling tales and playing rhythms that originated in countries like Mali and Nigeria, Victor broke down the time signature of each song he played on the Djembe, and had students clap the beats with him. As they picked up the beat, he picked up the pace and they all clapped along.

At STARS Academy, we managed to bring the program to the school’s entire student body in just three sessions. That was all thanks to the help of Ms. Malatesta who coordinated with 11 teachers from her school to bring Victor to over 100 student screens.

Planning for STARS Academy was challenging. From prior experience, Victor knew that students with disabilities had different sensitivities, particularly to percussion instruments. He also wanted to make sure the program would be engaging. In another planning meeting, it was decided how to group students. Some are lower functioning, so a shorter hour-long assembly-style presentation was deemed more appropriate. Rather than focus on content-heavy matter, like time signature and asking demanding questions, Victor dazzled with his drumming techniques and taught them several songs. The smiles on the student’s faces radiated through the screen.

For the higher functioning students, a longer 90-minute performance was scheduled, and more call and response included. Students made their own drums with items they had laying around, and joined Victor in his celebration of West African music.

The planning meetings turned out to be invaluable. After all, I think we all know by now that hosting anything on a virtual platform is risky business. From faulty internet to broken meeting links, the struggles almost make the effort seem fruitless. Fruitless, that is, until the meeting starts successfully, and students marvel at the sights and sounds of something unexpected.

We also found the meeting with Ms. Malatesta to be key to learning about the scope of the students’ disabilities. “We’ve had artists come to our school to perform in the past and none of them asked as many questions as Mr. Marshall did, and their performances suffered because of it. Mr. Marshall really cared.”

It takes effort from all parties to bring meaningful programming to students. It’s not just entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Rather we strive to ensure students learn something new, while reinforcing things they may already know. We aim to inspire them to create and share regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or their abilities.

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