As Birmingham transitions into 2013, many city organizations hope to gracefully execute plans for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement.
These organizations strive to remember that once among us were the venerable persons determined to eradicate injustice. Once among us were the people reigning over such injustice and the people enduring its burdens.
Now among us are educators, aiming to impart the wisdoms and scars of past residents to those present, specifically the city’s youth.
To a child, history seems otherworldly. But connecting a young mind to the seemingly unimaginable is as accessible as the child’s imagination itself. Art, music, story—the same mediums through which adults access empathy, emotion, and understanding—are the mediums for a significant program in Jefferson County.
In 2012, the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Jefferson County School System became members of the Partners in Education Program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The school system is one of only 11 schools chosen by the prestigious arts center for Partners in Education.
Selected by the Kennedy Center because of demonstrated commitment to the improvement of education in and through the arts, Birmingham’s Partnership team participates in collaborative efforts to provide professional development opportunities in the arts for educators.
“The goal of the program,” says Stacia Jacks, Visual Arts Supervisor for Jefferson County School System, “is to bring more art instruction into the classroom, while simultaneously using engaging methods to teach the content of the common core curriculum.”
Partners in Education leads local teachers in multi-modal workshops. This style of learning has proven successful for both engaging students and lending to better comprehension of subjects.
“Providing a new perspective with hands-on, multisensory practice is a very effective way to reinforce curriculum content,” says Jacks, “and reach children with varying learning styles.
“Making art after learning about a specific historical event or period allows students to express their own ideas about what they have learned. This requires more higher-level thinking skills than taking a test with multiple-choice questions, while still allowing the teacher to assess what the students have gained.”
Although this year’s series of workshops will focus intently on literacy, select programs are tied into the 50-year-commemoration efforts.
“Studying art gives students a unique look at the world through the eyes of individuals who lived in various places and times,” says Jacks. “For example, looking at artwork made during the times of slavery, sharecropping, and later during the Civil Rights Movement, gives students specific details as well as emotional experiences that bring history alive in ways that a textbook cannot.”
Performance poet Glenis Redmond of Greenville, South Carolina, agrees with Jacks.
“Stories and poetry are a way into a person or a culture,” Redmond says. “Looking at history, I become Sankofa, that mythical African bird with its head turned back to the past. I investigate my ancestors’ plight. I bring to light that which has not been recorded in history books. I take those stories down through oral tradition and I create poems that will teach, instruct and entertain.”
In a poem titled “Story,” Redmond writes, “This story is a useful thing. / It guides me clear / and helps me stand.”
Redmond kick-started the 2013 Partners in Education movement—leading a workshop for educators, visiting local classrooms, and accompanying blues musician and historian Scott Ainslie at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s 50-year-commemoration kick-off event on January 11 for “Southern Voices: Black, White, and Blues.”
That inaugural performance was the embodiment of successful multi-modal learning. In addition to his steel guitar, Ainslie incorporated African instruments like the gourd banjo, giving mini-history lessons on rock and gospel during tuning sessions. Redmond, decked out in flowing gray garb and long black hair, enchanted the audience with her sonically driven poems—like “If Ain’t African”— transporting listeners to a different place or time.
Redmond was born in a momentous time, 1963, the same year the bombings occurred. “I’m very mindful of the bombing,” Redmond says. “A lot of my poetry hinges on social justice and looking through that kind of window.
“That moment in history was palpable and sent shock waves throughout the African American community. I was born a month before the bombings, I was raised in [their] shadow. I cannot speak for all artists, but my mission is intricately woven with social justice.”
In addition to social justice, Redmond says, historic events inspire her poetry. Harriet E. Wilson, the first African American to publish a novel in the U.S., prompted a series of poems from Redmond.
Such a spark is exactly what Partners in Education seeks for local students. If students are intrigued enough by an historic event to represent that event through art, then the student stands a chance to move beyond fact retention into the realm of real knowledge.
Stacia Jacks and the Partners in Education plan to bring more artists like Redmond into the city’s schools.
As for Redmond, she calls her participation in the city’s commemoration “powerful” and notes that the arts offer a way we can all come together and see how to move forward.
“The arts,” Redmond says, “gave me a wonderful way to look at and grow from the past.”
Upcoming workshops include: Using Visual Arts to Encourage Thinking and Writing with Sandra Phaup, and Reading Portraits as Biographies with Jamin Carter.
For information on upcoming workshops or Partners in Education, contact Suzy Harris, Associate Curator of Education at Birmingham Museum of Art, at 205.254.2668 or email@example.com.