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Middle School Museum of Identity

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Ballad for Americans

I think the nature of political blogs is that the primary focus is on the negative. I know in my own posts I tend to do a lot of complaining about people in power. This post is very different. It is a report on a wonderful student program and some amazing public school students and teachers. I wish the Arne Duncans and Joel Kleins of the world could have seen these students and their teachers. They might have learned that real education is not about scores on standardized tests.

I am a teacher educator at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. For the past half a dozen years School of Education, Health and Human Services has sponsored an annual "middle school museum." This year's museum theme was "Identity." About three hundred students from Westbury, Hempstead, Uniondale, Queens, and Bronx public schools participated. Their teachers are alumni, cooperating teachers, or current students in the Hofstra program.

The Fordham Arts High School from the Bronx performed a play that students helped to write about the nature of personal and group identity and their own lives. The audience was widely appreciative of the actors and younger students rushed up to the stage after the performance to get autographs.

Middle school students explained the significance of family artifacts, read poetry, and exhibited cultural displays. Some of the students were immigrants to the United States and their cultural displays were about life in their countries of origin. Students who were just learning English took tremendous pride in their ability to use their new language.

The many teachers who participated deserve special recognition. They include Bill Hendrick of Halsey JHS in Queens, Rich Tauber, April Francis, and Kiesha Wilburn of Lawrence Road in Uniondale, Atif Khalil and Marlene May of Fordham Arts, Maria Incalcaterra from Westbury, and Leigh Hendrick from Hempstead.

In Brooklyn where I live you have to have a special tag in order to have "street creds." Students in the city know me as Reeces Pieces because I rap better than Eminem. As part of this year's museum I performed a rap I call Ballad for Americans in which I answer the question, "Who is an American?"

In the 1930s and 1940s John La Touche, Earl Robinson and Paul Robeson wrote and performed a song called Ballad for Americans. It was song during the Great Depression and World War II. The song proclaimed that we were all Americans. I rewrote parts of that song to include the people who were at Hofstra Middle School Museum of Identity.

Ballad for Americans

You ask - Are we Americans?

We're just Irish, African, Jewish, Italian,
Haitian, English, Mexican, Russian,
Chinese, Philippine, Indian, Salvadoran,
Jamaican, Palestinian, Pakistani, Dominican,
Greek and Turk and Czech and Native American.

And that ain't all.

We are Baptists, Orthodox, Congregationalists,
Lutherans, Atheists, Roman Catholics,
Moslems, Jews, Pentecostals,
Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah Witnesses,
And lots more.

Because we're
Students, teachers, college professors,
Engineers, musicians, and carpenters,
Gardeners, secretaries, homemakers,
Hospital and factory workers,
Mail carriers, truck drivers
Seamstresses and ditchdiggers,
All of them.
We are the people who do the work.

And you ask if we are Americans?

We're the nobody who anybody believed it.
Anybody who is anybody had their doubts.

Out of the cheating, out of the shouting,
Out of the greed and polluting,
Out of the wars and the lies,
Out of recessions and depressions
Our song of change is here.

Precious is this planet,
Deep are its valleys,
High are its mountains,
Strong are the people who make it.

For we have always believed it,
And we believe it now,
And now you know who we are.
We are the Americans!

But we are even more.
We are all the world's people!