Making Curriculum Pop

When I first started teaching my favorite metaphor for education was jazz. I thought, and still do think, that the teacher's job is to create something akin to the chord structure and melody of a jazz song. From there, the kids, like jazz musicians play around with the melody and fill spaces with their ideas in the form of solos, flourishes, and interesting syncopations. Only this weekend did I encounter a better musical metaphor for teaching and learning.

A friend was in town from Chicago so we (Nicole, myself, and friend Derek) went to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo. You probably remember these dudes from their collaboration with Paul Simon on Graceland and their controversial Apartheid era concerts. This clip is incredible...

I love their solo work but even as a non-religious person, I was extremely moved by Mambazo's 2003 collaboration with Ben Harper on his album Diamonds on the Inside. Check out this interesting, if a bit literal, video interpretation of that collaboration - "Picture of Jesus."

If someone wants to translate the text on the video that would be informative.

Anyway, we went to the Mambazo show here in NYC and I was completely mesmerized by the group. Their leader Joseph Shabalala writes a lot of the songs, but he was careful to rotate lead singers and feature every group member. Every performer and some audience members had space to dance on stage. One singer lead the 1,500 person audience in a complex singalong filled with strange rhythms and completely foreign Afrikaans lyrics. I thought there was no way the audience could remember these words; somehow we did and it sounded quite impressive when the entire group came out to sing along with the crowd. Mr. Shabalala did not need the spotlight; he was backstage for almost a third of the show watching Mambazo from the wings.

At times the music was very high energy but all three of us commented in how their smooth voices lulled us into a relaxing trance...similar to the state of flow as described by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This careful collaboration created a musical experience more powerful than your average performance.

On the cab ride home I was thinking about how Mambazo might be a better musical metaphor for teaching and learning because:

1. Jazz musicians need to master instruments, vocal musicians need to utilize the instruments they've been given - each voice is unique. It reminds me of the Sarah McLaughlan Lyrics from "World On Fire"...
I'll tap into the water
(I try to pull my ship)
I try to bring more
More than I can handle
(Bring it to the table)
Bring what I am able

2. Each member makes sure their voice and timbre perfectly blend or compliment the other group members. This is done by careful listening.
3. They actively share the spotlight with all the group members and they make an effort to involve their audience in mass by singing and as individuals by bringing other people on to the stage to dance.
4. They are both amateurs (fun dancing - not quite Alvin Ailey) and professionals (incredible voices).
5. They give each song a narrative context within the entire performance. They frame each song - sometimes they explained how it was written, what it was about or they use a humorous dialogue or anecdote to transition between songs. They craft a "big picture" for the audience creating an experience instead of a mere performance.
6. Whether song was high energy and upbeat or somber and reflective they were all conducive to a state of flow.
7.The leader organizes things and knows when to get out of the way.
8.They are open to collaboration with other, very different groups or individuals - Paul Simon, Ben Harper, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Joe McBride, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant and Zap Mama are just a few of the groups Mambazo has worked with.
9. They sometimes opt to use their voices, lyrics and actions for political purposes.

The jazz metaphor shares a lot of these qualities but, as of this week, I'm thinking that a good classroom dynamic is "totally Mambazo."

What metaphor of teaching informs your classroom practice?

In the Mambazo spirit I got wise today and merged all the cooperative learning guides into one big harmonious PDF. Please give them a try and pass them on to other teachers who might be interested in via the MC POP Ning.

hamba kakuhle totsiens goeie dag gepraat met jou gelater,


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Thanks so much for sharing your cooperative learning role sheets. I have been using this framework for more years than I want to share and have been wanting to "update" my Charles Shultz characters theme for a long time---especially when working with secondary teachers/students. I love what you have created! Karyn

Peanuts sounds cool too - what is Charlie Brown's group work role? I'm glad you liked this remix - my mom and I worked these up last summer so it is great that people are able to use them. Make sure you check out the discussion prompts and the MI chart as those might also be helpful.

Thanks for taking the time to check the materials out!


Ladysmith Black Mambazo was my favorite when I was a kid (thanks Sesame Street, and Marlo Thomas' "Free to be you and Me"), so this is a really great metaphor, and one that has also caused me to pull out Graceland as my soundtrack for the day. I'm not sure what my metaphor is... though in pulling kids together to plan out a community event for the "Nothing Like My Home" project, I have been drawing on this idea of each individual's voice contributing to a collective performance. Somehow I know that my metaphor will come back to hip-hop, but I gotta break it down! Thanks, G!
I also love this metaphor! Thanks for the link to this today on the EC Ning.

I show my kids this series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons before we do our first group work assignment.

C&H 1
C&H 2
Denee, Woza - Glad you liked the metaphor. Did you get a chance to download the PDFs? Thanks so much for sharing these wonderful cartoons - I'm pasting them below for folks who want to check them out on the page. You rule! Ry:)

Joe - Excellent - that's what the playlist is for! Be sure to thank Denee (above) if you get the chance!
Thanks for the cartoons! I'll be sharing them with my students!



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