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Mississippi Arts Commission Launches New Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum

Image courtesy of UM Communications
Image courtesy of UM Communications

Ole Miss alumna helps develop materials to give students, visitors ‘an authentic experience’

Mississippi fourth-graders will get a chance to learn more about the state’s history through the words and images of bluesmen and women as part of a new curriculum launched by the Mississippi Arts Commission.

The 18-lesson Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum, including an interactive, multimedia resource page, is available free at http://www.msbluestrail.org/curriculum. The curriculum is the brainchild of project director Mary Margaret White, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi.

White credits her connection to the Mississippi Blues Commission, the governing body of the Mississippi Blues Trail, as the inspiration for the curriculum.

“When folks come to Mississippi, they want an authentic experience. That’s where the Blues Trail comes in,” said White, MAC’s folk and traditional arts director. “While the markers tell the stories of these great musicians – how they lived and how their music continues to influence music today – I was painfully aware that many young Mississippians knew little about our blues history.”

After securing a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, White immediately set out to find the “dream team” to pull the project together. Mark Malone, curriculum designer at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, and Scott Barretta, who teaches anthropology of the blues at UM, joined White for the project. Barretta also is the editor of Living Blues magazine and hosts the “Highway 61″radio show, produced at UM by Media and Documentary Projects for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and works as writer and researcher (along with Jim O’Neal) for the Mississippi Blues Trail.

“Scott was my first choice,” she said. “He’s a widely published music journalist, former editor of Living Blues magazine and a renowned blues historian. Dr. Malone is well-known as a curriculum designer and was able to take this history and put it together in the language teachers need.”

The main thing the team wanted to do was draw upon the history already provided on the state’s 170 Blues Trail markers, Barretta said.

“Each marker is thoroughly researched and we already have a wonderful website with a wealth of information,” he said. “Teachers are encouraged to go there to find more details about the lives and music of blues legends such as Robert Johnson, and then draw upon that information to illustrate the broader cultural issues in the curriculum.”

White agreed. “It’s not just a bunch of biographies; we used the blues to broaden the understanding of social studies concepts, including civil rights, geography, media and much more,” she said.

In fact, the curriculum’s 18 lessons are spread across six core areas: music, meaning, cotton, transportation, Civil Rights and media. Although the curriculum is designed specifically for fourth-graders studying Mississippi history, teachers may modify the lessons to accommodate students through 12th grade.

Each lesson also is aligned with established state and national standards, which help teachers share the skills needed for high student performance on standardized tests. These standards include the Mississippi Studies Framework for social studies and music, the National Standards for Music Education, and the new Common Core Standards for writing, language, speaking and listening.

Besides providing the curriculum online free of charge, MAC has printed copies of the teacher’s guide, which will be distributed at four regional workshops this fall. Participating teachers can earn Continuing Education Units and will learn how to best utilize the curriculum in the classroom. The four workshops are scheduled for Sept. 14 at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Sept. 21 at the University of Mississippi’s Blues Archive, Sept. 28 at the 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis and Oct. 19 at the Mississippi Department of Education auditorium in Jackson.

The Mississippi Arts Commission is a state agency funded by the Mississippi Legislature, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mississippi Endowment for the Arts at the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson and other private sources. MAC is the official grants-making and service agency for the arts in Mississippi. The agency serves as an active supporter and promoter of arts in community life and in arts education. — Deborah Purnell, Ole Miss News Desk

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
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