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Submitted byAndres onMon, 06/24/2024 - 16:50

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At Sistema Toronto, we believe that music education can be a catalyst for growth and critical development for young people. As such, bringing music education to children who would otherwise have trouble accessing it is foundational to Sistema Toronto’s mission. 

In pursuit of expanding access to music education, Sistema Toronto began a pilot project in May of 2023 at the TDSB Africentric Alternative School. The Africentric School was opened in 2009 in response to the high dropout rate and academic success gap affecting students of African descent. Now in its 15th year of operation, the school serves 120 students via its mandate to focus on the lives, experiences, and perspectives of Black people. In response, students have reported feeling confident, secure, and affirmed not only by the curriculum, but by the teachers and their fellow students. 

Despite deep interest in music programming amongst the enthusiastic students at this school, the Africentric school does not currently have a music program or a dedicated music teacher. Hoping to bridge this gap, and recognizing the parallels between the Africentric School’s mission and their own, Sistema Toronto began offering classes to students from Junior Kindergarten up to Grade 2. These students attend Music & Movement classes in which they gain foundational music knowledge in a fun, energized, and supportive environment. Students have been thrilled to have the opportunity to sing, drum, and move together along with their teacher, Terry Cade, who sees them once a week for an hour-long class.

These classes have gone on to share their musical learning with the whole school community, performing in their school’s Kwanzaa celebration and their Black History Month (BHM) concert. As part of their BHM performance, students worked with Terry Cade and their teacher, Lisa Asiedu, to learn about influential Black Canadians and write a song honouring them. The result was I Am The Dream, a song originally written for Mr Pete’s Playhouse that students adapted to include Black people who have inspired them.

The Context

The TDSB Africentric Alternative School centres the experiences of Black people beyond Black History Month, aiming to help students see themselves reflected in successful people who share their backgrounds. While I Am The Dream was adapted and performed for Black History Month, it was a continuation of the work students had previously been doing in their other classes. This work included a study of Martin Luther King Jr, with students reading books and watching videos about him, and listening to his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Students were invited to talk about their own dreams and wishes, which they later animated into a slide show with the help of Asiedu. They created an avatar of Martin Luther King Jr with a speech bubble next to him, and used that space to write about their own dreams.

In teaching Black history and impact to her students, Lisa Asiedu noted that often, portrayals of successful Black people in the media centre people from the USA. In adapting I Am The Dream with her students, however, Asiedu wanted to focus on Canadian historical figures. Using the song’s lyrics as a springboard, the students began refocusing towards Black Canadians and learning about the ways in which Black people have changed the course of Canadian history.


The Process

In the beginning of the process, Asiedu talked to her class about people they already knew of, using music to help them remember the names of Black people who have changed the world. Once again, though, she found that the names the students recognized were largely American. To direct students towards Canadian figures, she would choose a person to focus on and read about them to her students, focusing on the mark they made in society. The students would then write notes in their portfolios so that they could review them as the class moved through Asiedu’s list of influential Black Canadians. 

Asiedu found that the students retained the knowledge well and she worked with the students to choose pictures of the Black Canadians they discussed, ultimately turning the images and information into a slideshow guided by the students. At the end of this learning, Lisa asked them: Who do you see yourself in? Who stood out to you? And finally, Who do you want to include in the song? Afterwards, Lisa brought the students’ work to Ms Terry to adapt into the song.

The original version of I Am The Dream is available on Youtube, and included verses about Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Donovan Bailey. The students added three more that they chose as a class: Viola Desmond, Jean Augustine, and Karina Leblanc.


What’s Next

Sistema Toronto’s work at the TDSB Africentric Alternative School continues to make music education a reality for students who would not otherwise have access to it. By September of last year, the programming was going so well that it was expanded to include violin classes for students in grades 3-6. This represents the first time that violin has been offered to students at the Africentric School. Sistema Toronto also has plans to further expand this programming during the 2024/25 school year, ensuring that the universal language of music not only uplifts and excites these young learners, but empowers them to become engaged citizens and future leaders in their communities.