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Through Music, Memphis Students Explore the Complicated and Colorful World of Feelings

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As the second graders at the STAR Academy Charter School in North Memphis settle into their weekly music class, one of their instructors, Carrington Truehart, quickly reminds them of expectations.

Rules related to the virtual classroom: keep the mics on mute unless called on, put comments in the chat box and make sure they’re relevant to class.  

There’s a final one—have fun. And soon, they’re giving themselves popstar names and dancing to a Bruno Mars song in their living rooms and bedrooms.  

The class also has another aim.

“The skeleton of it is really kind of very general music focused—elementary music focused—and the muscle of it is social and emotional learning,” Truehart says.  

This type of learning is a broad concept, but common tenets include developing students’ abilities to articulate feelings, empathize with others and cultivate an overall sense of social awareness.   

“Our philosophy when it comes down to social emotional learning is just really just giving them the tools to be successful adults,” Truehart says.   

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Credit Screen Shot from a virtual music class
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Students listen as their instructor Amaro Dubois (pictured) plays a recording of him and co-teacher Carrington Truehart performing a duet.

  

Through a partnership with the nonprofit Memphis Music Initiative, Truehart and his co-teacher, Amaro Dubois, developed a curriculum for Kindergarten through second graders to build these skills. As musicians themselves with the local Iris Orchestra, they use music, and at times theater, as a catalyst for children to make larger connections. 

Lyrics, melodies and performances, they say, can evoke strong feelings and can help people bond. 

In a typical class, students listen to different genres, from rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop to classical.

Then, they’re asked to reflect. 

“We started them off with very basic emotional vocabulary. Is this song happy? Does it sound sad?” Truehart says. “Then, we were able to expand on that and started adding in: Does it sound a little bit frightening or scary? Does it sound relaxing?”   

The teachers hope as they build that vocabulary, more complex emotions such as love, grief, delight or disgust, become easier to recognize and understand. They talked about some of these in the context of discussions about racism with their students, who are predominately students of color.  

Activities also include examining body language and facial expressions.   

“It’s not being a therapist, it’s just being present in the moment and normalizing emotions and creating this culture around discussion about emotions that makes it okay,” saysSusan Elswick, an associate professor in the school of social work at the University of Memphis, who consulted on the music course.

She says a student’s ability to communicate their needs or struggles are all the more important in the pandemic’s online learning environment because many students, especially young ones, are being asked to academically perform in a way that’s uncomfortable.  

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Credit Screen Shot from a virtual music class
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The students dancing to a Bruno Mars song.

  

“Social emotional learning should happen across the board,” Elswick says. “Not just in a health class, or not just in a homeroom education class, but across the board, we should be utilizing those social, emotional curriculum activities.”

Like regular check-ins with students, which the instructors do. Truehart has them rate their feelings on a color chart.  

In a recent class, some say “green,” meaning calm or relaxed. Others are “blue,” indicating they’re tired or “blah,” which Truehart understands.

“I know, it’s Monday. Mondays are kind of hard,” he says, suggesting that one thing to boost energy levels is making sure everyone eats a hearty breakfast. 

For those identifying as “red”—that is, hyper or out of control—Truehart invites them to message him or Dubois after class to discuss further.  

But just as important as the students’ own self-understanding is learning to relate and empathize with others. Virtual platforms make social skills hard to incorporate and keep kids engaged, but they look for ways to create peer-to-peer interaction. 

“We have done musical activities where kids will create stories or impressions based on the music they hear,” Truehart says. “Then another student will continue with what the previous student said and add on to it.

The instructors introduce the students to different musical styles that reflect another of the course’s foundations: promoting inclusion and celebrating diverse identities, like their own. Truehart is Black and plays cello. His co-teacher, Dubois, is originally from Brazil, and plays viola. 

“We’re not just here telling [the students] about this stuff, we do it,” Truehart says. “So they saw a concert with us performing music by people of color.”   

Dubois even uses himself as an example when talking to the children about acceptance. 

“You guys see how I say things differently. I see that, I can hear,” he says of his accented English. 

The beauty, he says, is that they’re still able to communicate. And while communication may be limited to a computer screen for the moment, they’re preparing for a day when they can share emotions without one between them.