Through the lens of a 5th-grade musicologist: Mississippi Delta Blues

At the end of quarter one, the 5th graders wrapped up a thrilling final unit in the performing arts quarter rotation! Using primary sources as the entry point for discovery, students learned about the Mississippi Delta Blues and applied their greater understanding through a culminating jam session. 

In small groups, students cycled through centers comprised of ethnomusicologist field notes, old photographs, original audio recordings, and supporting secondary sources to discover major themes, cultural context, instrumentation, and musical form. Using centers allowed me to incorporate primary sources into classroom instruction in a way that preserved the practical aspect of music education and kept students in the driver’s seat as the interpreters, creators, and performers.

Working with the i2 team, each center was outfitted with an iPad for audio access. These held a range of tunes from field hollers collected during a 1939 expedition to a new music video of local bluesman wunderkind, Kingfish, recently highlighted by Rolling Stone magazine. 

I created a packet of multi-modal assessments to guide students in their discovery. Students created mindmaps, drew pictures, crafted color-coded representations of musical form, and filled in thought bubbles to demonstrate their understanding within each center.

As a culminating activity, I invited Scott Albert Johnson, a  jazz and blues harmonica player, to work with the kids. He brought in his collection of instruments and taught us about the history of the harmonica, the influence the blues tradition has had on popular music throughout the western world, and life as a performer. Applying the historical and contextual knowledge in a very practical way, we wrapped up the unit with a jam session. 

Click here to watch a clip of the jam session!

I first presented this unit as a final project during a Teacher Institute at the Library of Congress. Through this unit, I was able to make use of a number of sources from their digitized collection. Follow this link to the Library of Congress Teachers Page to find more information about pre-compiled resource sets, primary source classroom activities, and professional development opportunities.

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