Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Broadway as an Educational Tool 2: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" . . . in Kiddie Jail

There are some things you only do for money. Prostitution and teaching in a juvenile detention center are high on the list. I think dressing in that spider costume from Tarzan might be on there somewhere as well (but no judgments). Selling drugs is high on that list too, I think, and if you're under eighteen, it comes with no 401K but a great free meal plan in a juvenile detention center.

Let me start at the beginning. I first encountered Jason Robert Brown's song "Stars and the Moon" on Audra McDonald's first solo CD, Way Back to Paradise. In fact, hearing his work on that album was one of the main reasons I made it to Parade on tour (that and seeing the performance on the Tony Awards).

"Stars and the Moon" is a song about a woman who wants to marry for money. On the road of life, she encounters men who offer her excitement, romance, and adventure, but they don't have what she really wants in life. Finally, she accepts the proposal of a rich man who provides her with a life of the rich and indulgent. By the end of the song, however, she looks back on her life of wealth and security and realizes all the things she's missed out on. It's a beautiful and moving song, starting with a soothing and memorable piano intro, and topped, of course, by McDonald's stunning voice and interpretation.

I first taught "Stars and the Moon" to low-ability sophomores my first two years of teaching. In that class, I was always trying new works to pull the kids in. Some things were effective--Sherman Alexie, short plays, short stories dealing with gangs--some things were not--Maya Angelou, anything in the literature book, anything long. When I first selected it, my principal was coming to observe me, and I wanted something good. "Stars and the Moon" was just the thing.

I began by having my kids draw pictures of what they wanted their life to look like in fifteen years (it was always the big car, the big house, all the money), and then we'd share. When we got to the song, which I'd always play for them as they read along, we discussed the different sections of the song--looking at what each of the men are offering (i.e. what is "the open road" representing, what is meant by the stars and the moon). Then we discussed the ending, exploring how she could be unhappy after getting exactly what she wanted. After that, we evaluated the message of the song and kids shared ideas about what is of more value, the stars and the moon or champagne.

Okay, so I'm not exactly doing justice to the lesson here, but it may help to know that my principal was very impressed with the selection, and essentially for the same reason I was, because it would speak to the kids at their level without talking down to them. There was some new vocabulary in the song, but it wasn't so far beyond them that they couldn't comprehend it. And it was high interest. Best of all, the kids really liked the song and enjoyed getting to share their ideas about the concepts in it.

"Stars and the Moon" has come in handy at all the schools I've taught at. When I taught a discussion class, I used it as a basis for the kids to enter into a discussion (and my singers were all writing down the name of the song and songwriter for later use). When I taught middle school, I used it in a unit with Our Town as a pre-read activity to get the kids thinking about what in life is of value. I also used it once in an eleventh grade unit on The Great Gatsby as a related work. The Great Gatsby is about the American Dream, and "Stars and the Moon" ties in so beautifully with that concept.

The most interesting response to the song, however, was when I taught summer school at a juvenile detention center. Talk about a horrible place to teach. The first day on the job was a training on self-defense techniques--what to do if a knife is held up to your back, what to do if a student has you by your hair, that sort of thing. We learned the different emergency codes to use (one was if you needed a student removed from your classroom, the other if you needed emergency assistance from about everyone in the building--I used that one once).

I'm an idealist, and as much as teaching wore me out more than inspired me, I really worked hard for my kids. I always put in 110% and really longed to inspire and motivate my students to become more than what they imagined they could be (I am, at heart, a nurturer).

But let me tell you, it was hard there. As everyone young and naive (or is that stupid?--I was 30) thinks, I really felt like I had the chance to change their lives. But as the days wore on, I realized the chances of that happening were slim to none. Dean (not his real name), for example, started out really eager to do work, to read, to engage in conversation, but then two days later, he was belligerent and rude and remained that way the whole five weeks. Mitch informed me that when he got out he'd go back to dealing drugs because that was the easiest thing to do and the whole time refused to do any work, to focus, or to even be pleasant. Little John was in for spray-painting a police car (he was about fourteen), and though he wanted acceptance more than anything, he could not earn anything but scorn from the older kids. He would certainly never do anything as un-cool as be respectful or do work.

And it wasn't a question of me being nice. I was so nice to those kids and did everything I knew how to do to bond with and engage them, but for the most part, it just didn't work.

When I wound up with about forty-five minutes at the end of the day with no district-endorsed curriculum (though I quickly learned the district-endorsed curriculum was worthless for these particular students anyway), I decided to round up some songs to teach. I wanted to find songs that had some literary depth to them but would speak to something about their situation in life--give them hope, give them motivation, inspire them.

I don't remember all the songs I used, but the one that the kids liked best was undoubtedly "Stars and the Moon." Here's a room with eight or so really tough kids, most of them people of color, and I'm playing for them a song performed by operatic Audra McDonald. And they liked it!

There was one kid, Jimmy, who would close his eyes and move his head to the music, playing an imaginary piano. He was trying to get a response from the other kids, but at the same time, I could tell he was connected with the music. After discussing it, he said, "That was a good song." And he wanted me to play it again.

At the end of the summer, five weeks after I had originally played "Stars and the Moon," we discussed our final song, and Jimmy asked me to play "that one with the piano." There were some new kids in the class now (there was a constant rotation of kids in and out of the detention center), and he wanted them to hear it too.

When I gave up the district-endorsed curriculum, I replaced it with high-interest articles from People and Ebony. Like the songs, I tried to find articles that gave them hope--stories about people rising out of poverty, using their time in prison to develop their talents, that sort of thing. A number of times, after reading the articles or the songs, one of the kids would say, "Are you trying to tell us something?" or "Did you pick this just for us?" I'd always answer, "No, I just thought it was interesting."

They always believed me. I don't know if that's a good thing. Yet, I still hope that one of those kids remembers something from that summer, maybe even that sacrificing your freedom and joy to make quick, easy money won't bring true contentment.

I don't know if any will, but I will always hope.

the Broadway Mouth
January 28, 2009

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