If you were looking for an effective way to get 200 primary children talking about the civil rights movement, staging a jazz opera might not be the first thing that would spring to mind. Yet this aim is at the core of the opera Shadowball, written by UK jazz artist Julian Joseph. The opera tells the story of the "negro" baseball leagues in the US in the run-up to Jackie Robinson breaking the "colour line" in 1947, becoming the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era.
The project is part of the work of the Hackney Music Development Trust (HMDT), an organisation that uses music as an avenue to other forms of learning. Adam Eisenberg, who has been running HMDT for 15 years, explains its approach: "Shadowball is a story about black athletes in America during the 1940s, but thematically it's about discrimination and achievement."
Each of HMDT's seven musical projects comes with an education programme that can be used in different ways in the classroom. At Gayhurst primary in Hackney, East London, children recently took their production to the stage, and baseball was introduced into PE as part of the project. Pupils Pearl and Cordell, both 9, were keen to explain what they had learned.
"We saw how bad segregation was," Cordell says.
"It's made us all appreciate each other more," Pearl adds.
Certainly, there can't be many nine-year-olds who know about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, whose stories raise challenging issues for young children to tackle. Teachers at Gayhurst say the project has encouraged pupils to think about their own roots. "There have been huge improvements in confidence and behaviour, too," says teacher Annie Molloy.
In English classes, pupils tried their hand at journalism. The result is a wall of detailed feature stories on the heroes of the "negro" leagues. In music, alongside rehearsals for the opera itself, there were jazz composition classes with Julian Joseph, a lively and inspiring educator. The project even found its way into maths lessons, where tasks included calculating pitch perimeters and negotiating the baseball scoring systems.
Shadowball was first staged in 2010, and each subsequent performance has involved a different group of children. Now it's taking its rich and adaptable education programme on tour, stopping off in Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield.
Orlando Bird is a music writer with a special interest in education. For information about the Shadowball tour, visit www.hmdt.org.ukshadowball_1.html
Emphasise the important role of music in history with the Holocaust music site from World ORT.
Or explore the civil rights movement in more detail with sparklycrayon's lesson.
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