POSTED ON AUGUST 29, 2012:
The Jazz Hall and the School
Fusing two worlds
During the height of the Republican presidential primary this past spring, Newt Gingrich mused about the benefits of giving public school kids (he was talking mainly about modest income kids) meaningful exposure to the world of work. He went on to suggest something more tangible: routinely employing public school kids as "deputy" janitors in their own schools. The comment created a stink and rightfully so. Most kids -- including most poor kids, have working relatives and some idea of what work is all about. Gingrich's suggestion was repellent and almost certainly wouldn't do the very thing he sought: give kids positive insight into the world of adults, work and the value of schooling.
But there is something to be said about the alarming alienation, the enormous distance, between kids in schools and the "world." Recently, I re-watched Martin Scorsese's film Hugo. What many say is one of Scorsese's best works, Hugo uses a propulsive conflation of live action and vivid animated sequences to chronicle the world of an exceptional orphan. The movie features a budding mechanical genius -- a kid who lives an exciting, if uncertain, life as the hidden master of the giant clocks at the Montparnasse train station in a Paris-like place in the 1930's. Hugo is also an impassioned look at the birth of movie making, at the dawn of the 20th century. Importantly, the film is also an almost poetic mediation on a fully empowered, skill-imbued kid -- and a grand take on how a child can become an outsized contributor.
What if Green Country schools reliably created electric learning spaces like the lucid world in Scorsese's Hugo? Some scholars believe that many kids -- maybe most American kids are alienated from school because they can't see, maybe haven't been shown, the connection between linear algebra, Invisible Man, the history of the industrial revolution, and real world stuff. Few have seen working adults (including parents) actually doing challenging, difficult stuff that requires a full complement of skills -- communications, computation, and cognition. Imagine a great reconsideration that would connect workplaces, in sustained ways, to schools.
And folks who have looked deeply at this world/school entanglement, don't see it as a cheesy "way too early" ready to work initiative. Leon Botstein, of Bard College, and an array of scholars in the constructivist camp are interesting advocates for this line of thinking. They envision inventive attempts to equip kids with the agile thinking habits, persistence and every day improvisational mindset needed to be effective adults and productive citizens. They want schools to produce young people who are able to connect things taught in schools to the ongoing world of ideas, the tangible world of producing things and the increasingly elusive world of getting difficult things done in America.
An Acoustic Crucible
A couple of weeks ago, I dropped into the Union Depot downtown, a wonderful old steam-punky structure, which houses the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. I was on foot, headed to a downtown restaurant as it started to rain: so I ducked into the Jazz Hall briefly. Jason McIntosh, the CEO of the Jazz Hall (and a friend) saw me hanging out on the building's covered entryway. He came out to welcome me inside.
There was a private event underway: a wedding party of some kind that the center was hosting, but Jason invited me in anyway -- he said he had something wonderful to show me.
We went to the first floor of the building. A small army of construction people were hammering, painting and installing stuff on the floor for "Sankofa" -- a new mini school space and music tutorial/performance lab for 4th-6th graders from the nearby Deborah Brown Community School. Sankofa is a wildly inventive "side car" project that the Jazz Hall is doing with one of Tulsa's oldest and most successful charter school projects.
The Sankofa Creative/Performing Arts project is initially designed to be an extended-day program. This new jazz and music immersion program that McIntosh, people with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, the Jazz Hall board and the charismatic Brown conceived, was launched last week, after a long birthing process. The new project entails linking up the fascinating world on an art/performing organization -- in this instance, one that works in the long and intriguing backdrop of the realm of Jazz, with a public elementary/middle charter school.
The project will, according to Brown and McIntosh, wrap a tough academic program wedge around sustained exposure to a musical realm that is one of America's most vivid contributions to world culture. Brown says she has wanted to add a jazz/music/performance element to her school's offering for years.
The Brown school is sponsored by Langston University -- and has been for seven years. The new tutorial/immersion program is designed, this semester, to handle about 60 kids from the over 300 strong Brown school. The new effort promises to be one of the more inventive kid/music programs, together with the privately managed Barthelmes Music Conservatory, in the metro.
The project will not only introduce kids to the singular history of jazz in America and it's particularly vibrant manifestations here in Tulsa, but will also give Brown school kids a deep intro to music theory and history, dance, theater, local musicians, living and deceased legends in the Jazz world and -- importantly, to the mechanics and workings of a real life music/art facility -- the Jazz Hall of Fame.
McIntosh and board chair Jeff Kos told me that the management team was also exploring making the effort a "development lab" for children's music software, instrument making and emerging learning systems. And the group has the "industrial" connections to places like the Smithsonian and other spots that could make this a reality. A successful effort in the months to come could make the Brown/Jazz Hall collaboration a sort of media/jazz lab of the kind featured in a handful of schools across the country.
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