Aspiring poet C.J. Burgos is beginning to wonder about his place in the world.
Last Friday, 12-year-old Burgos, who is half Puerto Rican and lives in Buffalo's Fruit Belt, read his latest poem "Where Do I Stand?" to 100 eager fourth- and fifth-grade pupils at Nichols Middle School:
"One day," Burgos shouted, "blacks will overcome.
And be a free people once again.
But when that happens,
Where do I stand?
As a Puerto Rican?
Where do all the other minorities stand?
I represent the red, white and blue.
With one star."
As Burgos finished his poem, the crowd of Buffalo-area students, most from the inner city, roared in approval.
"Ever think you'd hear kids screaming and yelling for poetry?" whispered Lucinda Ingalls as the next student bounded onto the stage to read a poem of her own.
Ingalls is the executive director of MUSE -- Musicians United for Superior Education -- a 14-year-old foundation that teaches Buffalo students through art, dance, music and oral traditions from many cultures.
This summer, MUSE has joined forces with Buffalo Prep and the yet-to-open Oracle Charter School to create a daily educational program designed to give gifted Buffalo-area students a head start on the upcoming school year through unconventional teaching methods.
It's all part of a new drive in the Buffalo educational system to integrate cultural education into the general curriculum. "It ties in with cultural programming that they're doing in the classroom," said Coleen Size, a program coordinator at the Bennett Montessori Center Annex.
"No matter what art form it is, if you can partner that with teachers and students, it's a powerful thing," Ingalls said. "People remember it forever."
Throughout the school year and in this new summer program, MUSE and its partners are finding new ways to integrate drumming, dancing and music into what used to be everyday subjects taught with chalk and a blackboard.
This summer, students participating in the program learn everything - math, history, computers, English - as it relates to the music, poetry and culture of the Harlem Renaissance.
In math, they learned to map out the amount of space it takes to dance the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. Later, they learned and practiced the dances as a group.
"When the kids learn geometry by learning the Lindy Hop," Ingalls said, "that's arts in education."
In Keith Keiper's history class, they watched Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary and explore issues of oppression surrounding blacks in the '20s and '30s. They also interpreted the lyrics of "I Can" by Nas and "Strange Fruit" as sung by Billy Holiday. Later, they sang Ella Fitzgerald songs, James Weldon Johnson's "Negro National Anthem" and the early swing tune "Zoodio."
"They're looking at lyrics and the political environment during the Harlem Renaissance of how those lyrics reflected the spirit and the politics of the time," Ingalls said.
In language arts, they learned the poetry of Langston Hughes from teaching artist N'Tare Ali Gault, and wrote their own inspired poetry.
When Gault first heard the poetry of Burgos, whose father is a close friend of his, "he just blew me away," Gault said.
Poetry reflects local issues
The issues that come out through the students' poetry usually remain hidden during the regular school year because they're not asked to think about them, Gault said.
One student's poem was about gang violence in the area, about how he was scared to walk to Wilson Farms to buy milk. Another wrote about the drug culture in his neighborhood, and still others wrote hopeful poems comparing themselves to the sunshine, waiting to burst through the clouds and become something great.
"It's there inside of them," said Gault, who has been performing his own poetry in the area for years. "I don't ask them to talk about race. I'm sitting surprised at how deep they can get with it."
Even in computer class, the students engaged in a "Web quest" to find information on Langston Hughes and write a biographical report on him.
At first, Jacobbi McCant, a sixth-grader, was reluctant to dance to the music and recite the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, but once he learned the steps, you couldn't tear him off the dance floor. His face lit up when the jazz started playing, and when it was all over, he spoke about his respect for the culture of the Harlem Renaissance.
"Jazz was an expression of how the people of the Harlem Renaissance felt," Jacobi said, still visibly excited from the afternoon's program.
Helps teachers, too
It's as if the children hardly know they're learning.
In addition to this summer program, MUSE also trains teachers in the city and some suburban school districts to integrate some arts programming into their own curricula while still teaching to the tough standards set by New York State.
One of their more successful school-year programs, "Leap and Learn" is targeted at younger children and helps them learn simple tasks like the spelling of their names or how to read an analog clock.
"What I love about the program is that I believe everything it's about," said Lynne Czysz of MUSE. "Healthy choices, the natural world, the seasons and movement and music -- this is what life is all about in early childhood."
As the desire for alternatives to traditional education increases, MUSE and its partners are continuing to work on new and innovative programming for Buffalo-area students, with expanded programming hitting schools this fall.
"We're getting better at it, we're honing our craft a little more and the kids are the beneficiaries," Ingalls said after attending a conference on arts and education in New York City.
"Drumming and dance is infectious and it's attractive to all different kinds of people,"Ingalls added. "It's about looking at new cultures and understanding the world we live in better through the arts."