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Arts grant brings history to Mattapan

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

Middle schoolers at Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan have wrapped up a two-month grant-funded program of musical and historical enrichment. About 40 students participated in “Emancipation Chronicles,” a workshop series led jointly by Opera Boston and Mssng Lnks, a Boston nonprofit that provides vocal training to underserved youth.

The program was made possible by the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Arts Expansion Initiative, developed by BPS and managed by EdVestors, a Boston organization that channels private investment into schools. The initiative, which supplements the $16 million already in the BPS budget for arts, is serving an estimated 5,000 students in some 40 schools this year.

For the Mildred Avenue School students, the extra funds paved the way for a series of workshops covering the music, themes and historical context of African American composer Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha.”

Mssng Lnks Founder Sam Martinborough and professional musicians from Opera Boston came to the school each week in December and January to work with seventh- and eighth-graders enrolled in teacher Sheryl Pedone’s music classes.

“Treemonisha” is set in the time of slave emancipation. Its message celebrates the value of education for blacks in the late-1800s South. Using the opera as a springboard, Martinborough created a curriculum combining vocal music with lessons on the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery in 1865, granted former slaves citizenship in 1868 and gave black males the right to vote in 1870.

On a January morning at the school, Martinborough led students in a theater game about guarding and stealing keys. The game had the kids laughing and shouting out support as a series of blindfolded “keepers” tried to swat away would-be key thieves with a rolled up sheet of paper.

Afterward, workshop leaders asked questions to spark a discussion on holding and relinquishing power. The keys were a metaphor for the right to vote — a right held tightly by whites but finally granted to black men by the 15th Amendment.

“If I hold the power,” Martinborough asked the class, “what do I gain and what do I lose when I allow everyone to vote?”

The question proved difficult for the kids, who may not yet grasp the full significance of voting rights. One girl said, “Well, I can’t vote anyway, I’m too young.” Some guessed that the person in power will get more money and more votes if everyone can vote.

A more vigorous response came when the girls were asked how they felt on hearing that voting in 1870 was for men only. “Mad!” said one. “Left behind,” another offered.

Before moving on to singing, Martinborough had the students vote on how to perform one of the songs they were learning. Did they want to break it up into segments for their final performance, as Martinborough had envisioned, or sing it all at once? The seventh-graders overruled him, opting to sing it as one whole piece. In the next class it went the other way, as the eighth-graders voted for segments.

Arts instruction is by no means absent in Boston schools, but it is uneven, according to a detailed survey conducted in 2009 by the Arts Expansion Initiative team. The survey showed that some schools have art or music teachers on staff, some have outside partners coming in, some have both, and others offer no arts at all.

“When we looked at the data, the glass was half-full,” said Marinell Rousmaniere, the Arts Expansion Initiative project director at EdVestors. “There was arts, but the equity was random. We wanted to move the needle in grades K-8 so that 100 percent of students would receive weekly yearlong arts instruction.” The initiative is also working to expand offerings at the high school level, she said.

The in-school “Emancipation Chronicles” performance included spoken word pieces written by the students as well as songs from “Treemonisha” and other songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “Ease on Down the Road,” from the musical “The Wiz.”

To Martinborough, the merging of music and history teaching is natural, and even necessary.

“Each piece of music comes from the experience of a particular time and place,” he said. “[For example], you’re not going to be able to sing Bach and discover what Bach means until you know where he lived and what he was struggling against, and what was going on politically at the time. You can never be the best artist you can be without understanding the time and place.”

He found that helping these middle-schoolers sink their teeth into the amendments felt almost more important than teaching the opera.

“Because they will always have an opportunity to sing,” he said, “but they won’t always have the opportunity for someone to say to them, really dig down deep and discover what your rights are.”