Teaching, flavored by Tiempo Libre and Arts Integration

The conductor of my church's choir waved a song to a stop last night.

"Someone is tapping a rhythm on the wood," he growled. "Stop it."

I looked around at the other members. They were seated on the carpeted platform. Innocent.

I looked down at my own feet and saw naked plywood. It was me!

That's when I realized the full impact of the Tiempo Libre concert I had attended with my students that morning. The group's smooth mix of Cuban rhythms, Salsa dances and musical virtuosity was still tip-tapping within me and working its way outside.

I hadn't been taught--I had been infected!

Take it from a teacher whose mantra is "learning out loud." That's quite an impressive feat of teaching.

The concert kicked off with a rhythm symphony. Lead singer, Xavier Mili tapped out a clave rhythm on a G├╝iro. He was soon joined by three conga drum players, each engaging the beat with a complex rhythm. A final touch came with rhythm from a drum set. So much was going on, it was hard to focus on one performer, although the singer would add some vocal flourishes from time to time.
By the time this performance was finished, one thing was clear to every teacher and student in the room. We had left the outside world behind and entered a unique environment that was saturated by Cuban rhythms. As my exchange with the choir conductor showed above, it was an environment that was very hard for me to leave.
Band leader Jorge Gomez acted as master of ceremonies, introducing the various instrument and showing what they could do, featuring bassist Cristobal Verdecia, trumpeter Luis Marquez, and Luis Beltran Castillo who wowed the audience on both the saxophone and flute. The group then mixed the sounds together in a two-part song that Gomez introduce with, "This is jazz," and then extended with "and THIS is Cuban jazz!"
This was a theme that would continue through the performance. At every possible point, Gomez engaged with a diverse student audience that ranged from 3rd grade through 12th. Speaking as a teacher who had brought 55 11th & 12th-graders, they were all engaged and challenged by lessons that Tiempo Libre integrated into the concert as seamlessly as a saxophone or trumpet solo.
One highlight was the group's lesson on dancing the Salsa. Gomez asked for volunteers to dance with the group, then Mili just waived his arm, inviting everyone up. About 80 students--of all ages--arrived on stage and went through the steps of the Salsa, aided by Gomez, Mili and drummer Israel Morales.
Along with those on stage, the kids in the crowd danced and clapped enthusiastically to the rhythms of the music. Mili was himself a master conductor, teaching the audience the words (there are only two) to "Guantanamera" and developing a back-and-forth with the group.
By the time Gomez announced the group's final song, there was an audible sigh of disappointment. Again, that's a sign of a pretty good teacher. I can't imagine such disappointment when I told students, "The bell's about to ring."

My Arts Integration Unit

Our trip to see Tiempo Libre was the culmination of an Arts Integration Unit that I had developed last summer with TPAC's Education Department. Last summer I spent a week at the program's Arts Integration Institute engaging in creative play with other teachers, and getting a preview of this year's Humanities Outreach of Tennessee (HOT) artists.
When I spotted the Tiempo Libre concert on the schedule, I connected it with a unit that I teach on migration during the spring semester. A key principle of Arts Integration is that it is not some "new thing" to put on top of all the other stuff I have to do. Instead, it uses the arts to enhance existing units, something I've been happy to do on units covering everything from Native American myths to Moby Dick.

Last summer I worked out the timing of the unit and selected goals. I knew, for example, that Tiempo Libre was a fusion group, so I foresaw a unit that would teach how America is a "fusion culture," taking cultural elements from the many places from which Americans have originated. I imagined dance, art, music...in other words, something big.
One other highlight of the summer was my completion of my 120th hour of Art Smart participation, for which I was given a certificate--and a really cool bronze pin that I wear on my lanyard every day.

Step 2: The Teaching Artist

In January, Leigh Jones, TPAC's Education Director connected me with my teaching artist, a local composer named Creighton Irons. By this time I had recruited the Spanish 3 & 4 teacher, Jessie Sheran, to join me on this project--known as "Art Smart" since it includes the assistance of a teaching artist.
With Jessie and Creighton on board, the project took on new dimensions from the rough outline I had sketched last summer. This wasn't a bad thing: collaboration always changes things, usually for the better!
Creighton let us know right away he wasn't a dancer. He's a pretty remarkable composer, though, who spent several years in New York writing musicals before moving to Tennessee. He had learned about the clave rhythm used in Cuba, and he drew on college experiences he had in Jamaica. We drew together a lesson that would describe the origins of instruments that came to Cuba, and how Cuban music "fused" these African and European sounds into something new.
I began by assigning a group researched presentation on origin nations. I put the following nations/ cultures on the board and let students get into groups of three to research them.
  • Senegal/Gambia
  • Congo
  • Spain
  • Biafra (Nigeria and Congo)
  • Gold Coast
  • France
 Then I gave them some basic pieces of information to look up using this checklist:

Once they had this research in place, I was ready for Creighton to arrive and do his thing.

The Teaching Artist's Visit

The phrase I would use for Creighton is "high-energy." At least that's how he came across that day. Perhaps it was because his beloved, home-town UNC Tar Heels were playing their first game of the NCAA Tournament (which they would go on to win). Whatever the reason, he came into the class and had my students' respect from the get-go.
Creighton hands out a high-five.

We got into a circle, and Creighton did several rhythm activities with us, building up a beat, then showing individual students the parts they had played--he was especially good at celebrating students who showed some reluctance at first. The fact was: the moment students' toes tapped the floor, they had participated, and he really knew how to bring this out. He clarified the difference between the "beat" (one-two-three-four) and the "rhythm," which could vary in layers above the beat.

At the end of the lesson, Creighton taught about the unique Cuban/African rhythms--the son clave and the rumba.

On Creighton's second visit, we encouraged students to bring their own instruments. Both Creighton and I brought along instruments as well. We divided up the groups again so that Congo or Spain or Senegal were represented in every new group, which would go on to become a band.

Creighton had a good feeling for this project, because he kept the instructions basic and fun. One band member needed to keep a clave rhythm. The band needed a name and a backstory. And the band needed a song.

On Creighton's final visit, the next day, we moved into a place where the acoustics were pretty good--and where we hoped our racket wouldn't disrupt too many classes. That turned out to be the stairwell across the hall from my room. There the bands told us their names and backstories before performing their pieces, with Creighton acting all the while like a goofy variety-show host.

Creighton (front) livens up the crowd.

This group had interesting costumes and lots of rhythm.

This group had "pipes"--actually, they all did.

The Tiempo Libre performance I attended yesterday with my students was great. But what made the experience really special for me was the fact that it served as the 'icing on the cake'--a cake mixed at last summer's Arts Integration Institute, and baked with the help of a master-chef-quality teaching artist (with assistance from a respected colleague here).


  1. Great review! We really enjoyed Tiempo Libre and had a good time in class.

  2. I enjoyed the field trip we took, and I thought highly of the band. Learning about music, the types of beats, and types of instrument, is an experience I will never forget.

  3. I really enjoyed the experience of going to see Tiempo Libre and the lesson we did in class! We all had a blast.

  4. I loved the visit from Mr.Irons, it was really fun! He really understood the subject and found an interesting and engaging way of incorporating it into a lesson which and I and everyone else enjoyed.

  5. This lesson over music was very informative and extremely exciting. I enjoyed being able to listen to music from a different culture and make music in my own group. The trip to TPAC was my favorite part. The band was able to get everyone off of their feet and dance to the rhythm of the music they were playing. It was so much fun.

  6. it was really cool learning Jorge's history and how the struggles he went through that influenced their music. he and his band mates were extremely passionate

  7. it was really cool learning about Jorge's family history and how his struggles influenced their music. he and his band mates were extremely passionate about their culture.

  8. This was overall a great experience. It was interesting how Mr. Irons was able to help us tie in all different kinds of instruments from different countries and compose music.

  9. I enjoyed the collaboration of music into English class and getting to see Tiempo Libre was an amazing experience.

  10. I learned more about music and Mr. Irons made it exciting. Everyone had a good time at the concert.

  11. Good review! Now I wish I would have experienced the concert at TPAC.

  12. Where are your citations?

  13. Even though I'm not really a musical person, the interactive lesson with Mr. Irons and the Tiempo Libre field trip allowed for the class to let loose while still learning, which was a nice experience.


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