Freedom. How can you really teach a concept as large, vague, and personal as freedom?
For one teacher at Alexander Mitchell, a bilingual MPS school on Milwaukee’s south side, the idea of exploring freedom came to her after last year’s election. Disheartened by the divisiveness of the election, 6th grade teacher Nora Justin found herself feeling pretty uninspired. But that didn’t last for long.
When Ms. Nora heard the song “Letter to the Free (feat. Bilal)” by Common as she was getting dressed for work, she knew she could use music as a way to start a conversation about freedom with her class. She says that “as a teacher, you want to be able to successfully address social issues in a way that fuels dialogue.” She wanted her students to, all politics aside, just have a space to discuss what freedom means to them.
And they did just that. Ms. Justin put the word “freedom” up on the whiteboard. Her class did a classic brainstorm session prompted by questions like “if you were to walk outside your house in your neighborhood and you could be who you really wanted to be, what would that look and feel like?” These sixth grade students ran with it. Excited and energized about being asked for their opinions, they came up with an abundance of ideas.
Ms. Nora then wanted to empower them too. They did another brainstorm the next day with the theme: “things that we can do when our communities are going through a rough time.” Again, her students came up with tons of simple, yet powerful ideas. They began to make connections between the small actions that they can do, such as asking their neighbors how they’re doing, and what it takes to build a stronger, better community that can foster the ideas of freedom that they had been thinking about.
All the while, the students had been studying the song “Letter to the Free,” first examining it as a poem. Studying the song alongside the brainstorm sessions connected the ideas about freedom and community with music and being able to reach many people. The students were prompted to then write essays about freedom and community both in English and in Spanish. It was at this point that it became very clear to Ms. Justin that she had to give the students some way to allow their voices to be heard and ideas to be spread.
Ms. Justin reached out to Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, local artist and musician, and a real-life community member who is tackling issues related to freedom and empowerment. Mikal came into the classroom and worked with the students, transforming the class into a workshop and the room into a recording studio. The students selected their favorite line from their essay in either English or Spanish and headed to the coatroom-turned-recording booth to become the stars of their very own song inspired by “Letter to the Free.”
Photos of Mikal working with Alexander Mitchell's 6th grade class
Mikal reached out to other local artists SistaStrings and Klassik to produce a song out of the lyrics that these students had created. Mikal brought in a rough draft of the song and asked the students for their input so that they could be part of the editing process as well. He also asked if he could add his own verse to the song. The students were honored to have been asked by a real musician to be a part of their song. When Mikal returned to the classroom, they all listened to the song together, debriefed about the process, and shared their thoughts and feelings about the project.
After all was said and done, this exploration of freedom never felt like a traditional lesson, yet it taught the students enormously. Through the opportunity to work with community members on an artistic endeavor came inspiration on how to take words and ideas and turn them into action to improve one’s surroundings, especially during hard times. These young students were so excited to be asked how they felt during hard times because it is clear that they had many emotions and ideas about what was going on in the world. Empowering these young minds and teaching them how to translate their thoughts into actions to be agents for change is essential for creating healthy communities. And it’s clear that these young, but mature students really want to be these agents for positive change.
The students, when asked what they wanted to happen with their song about freedom at the end of the whole project, said that they wanted it to be shared with and spread to as many people as possible. Listen to the song by Alexander Mitchell’s sixth grade class, Mikal, SistaStrings, and Klassik below.