Teaching Literature with Musical (and Written) Notes

Progressive Fenwick English Teacher Geralyn Magrady finds common ground with students; treats sophomores to live duet in classroom.

By Mark Vruno (photos and video by Scott Hardesty)

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Local musicians Rob Pierce (left) and Terry White performed recently for sophomores in Ms. Magrady’s English II College Prep course as part of their Tale of Two Cities literature lesson. (It was a pre-Christmas dress-down day for students.)

What’s on your playlist? A playlist is, of course, a list of digital, audio files that can be played back on a media player either sequentially or in a shuffled order. In its most general form, a playlist is simply a list of songs, according to Wikipedia. And almost all the kids have their favorite, thematically inspired lists these days — and they’re quite passionate about the music they like.

One may not think that playlists in 2019 have much in common with Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities, the historical novel written about the French Revolution 160 years ago. Fenwick English Teacher Geralyn Magrady, however, would beg to differ. Ms. Magrady was introduced to a creative, character-analysis activity when she participated in Stevie Van Zandt’s (“Little Steven”) TeachRock professional-development program. (Yes, that Steven Van Zandt – Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Bandmate and of “The Sopranos” HBO/cable TV fame.)

“The idea is to develop a playlist for a main character, and I chose Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities,” Magrady explains. The next day, she asked her English II College Prep students to do the same. The assignment took off running.

“The final result turned into a virtual album with a mix of every student’s top song,” she reports. In addition to the collection, each morning the classes listened to part of a classmate’s pick. “They took notes as to the connections found between the characters and the lyrics,” she says, “and then discussion was opened to share those insights.”

The teacher asked students which of their peers’ selected songs worked best to describe the Carton character? Responses in one class were as eclectic as the children are diverse: “Humility” by the Gorillaz, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, “Lucid Dreams” by Juice Wrld, “Drinkin’ Problem” by Midland and “Reminds Me of You” by Van Morrison.

Along with her students, Magrady continued her own character-inspired playlist, which included original songs by some local musicians whom she knows. These two artists agreed to perform those tunes for her classes: Strumming their acoustic guitars at Fenwick, Rob Pierce sang “Rise Above” and Terry White played “When Your Hour Comes.”

That resurrection thing

Before beginning, Mr. Pierce offered some context for his young audience: “Just so you guys know, ‘the 101’ is a highway in Los Angeles.” One student recalled, “Hey, there’s a ‘Highway Man’ in the beginning of the book!” The song’s concept of rising ties into Dickens’ resurrection theme, which recurs throughout the story. Brain synapses clearly were firing as students diligently jotted down notes and observations while they listened to the live music. Pierce’s refrain was, “Rise above, rise above; all we do, we do for love.” Another student chimed in after the song was finished: “It makes sense. Sydney [Carton] will do anything for Lucy.”

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Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Martin Lorenzi ’97

For the Martin sisters, Katie and Sarah, CAAEL and its kids-at-risk mission always have been a family affair.

By Mark Vruno

Showing some love to Leroy the service dog at Plainfield Academy after a CAAEL volleyball game. ❤️

Research indicates that extracurricular activities encourage peer interaction, promote cooperation, build student-adult relationships and help strengthen the student-school connection, points out Fenwick alumna Sarah Lorenzi ’97 (née Martin). “Students who participate in these activities achieve higher grade point averages, miss fewer days of school and are more likely to graduate,” she adds.

However, each year thousands of Illinois’ students — those excluded from the educational mainstream — are unable to participate in these types of experiences. “And that’s where CAAEL comes in,” explains Ms. Lorenzi.

Sarah Martin Lorenzi ’97

Lorenzi is president of the Chicago Area Alternative Education League (CAAEL), an organization that provides and governs interscholastic activities for at-risk and special-education students. Annually throughout the eight-county Chicago metropolitan area, CAAEL gives more than 5,000 students access to extracurricular activities they otherwise would not have. “We sponsor a variety of events year ’round: academic bowls, spelling bees, chess, bowling, basketball, flag football, volleyball, soccer, softball, art, badminton and high ropes courses — 1,000 events each year,” she notes.

“CAAEL is unique in that it does not run after-school programs. All activities are directly integrated into each school’s educational curriculum and schedule, with competitions taking place during the school day,” Lorenzi adds.

CAAEL’s participants often share one or more of the following 10 characteristics. For example, they may be:

  • aggressive
  • withdrawn
  • emotionally disturbed
  • learning disabled
  • behaviorally challenging
  • socially isolated
  • gang involved
  • drug dependent
  • depressed
  • truant

“That’s the magic of CAAEL,” she quickly adds. “Our students come in all different shapes and sizes — different races, different socio-economic backgrounds, different disabilities and abilities. Yet they come together each week and interact beautifully.”

The wide range of students CAAEL successfully serves truly defies the norm. As a result, CAAEL kids can learn to see beyond themselves. They develop empathy. They learn to embrace diversity. “As different as our kids are, they have this in common: They deserve to have fun,” insists their leader. “They must be seen and valued. CAAEL is the only organization providing this broad scope programming for Illinois’ growing number of high-risk youth.”

A mother of three children of her own, Lorenzi grew up playing softball in Forest Park, went to Fenwick and Northern Illinois University (B.A. and M.Ed.), then taught at Longfellow Elementary (Oak Park) before making the leap of faith in five years ago to help her father, CAAEL founder John Martin.

Humble, heartfelt beginnings

“My Dad started CAAEL in 1976,” Sarah recalls.  I grew up witnessing the amazing impact CAAEL had on an ever-expanding number of at-risk and special- education students.”

CAAEL founder John Martin lived in Forest Park.

It all began when he was teaching in an alternative school for kids with severe behavioral challenges, remembers Fenwick faculty and Dominican Laity member Dr. Jerry Lordan, O.P.

“Sarah’s father was a high school physical education teacher and coach [at the Stone Park Education Center]. From time to time he would have kids with disabilities transfer into and out from his classes. He could see their desire to participate in sports curtailed by their assignment to alternative-education schools without extracurricular activity programs,” Dr. Lordan explains.

“Rather than whine and moan, ‘Somebody ought to do something!’ he decided to be the change he wanted to see. John started the CAAEL,” Lordan continues. “At first it was just sports like basketball and baseball, which are played indoors. Then they added baseball, softball and track. Then they added poetry slams, spelling bees, art shows, musical performances, dances, etc.” Lordan notes that the Kiwanis Club of Forest Park is a financial sponsor to the CAAEL Coed Softball Tournament held in June in Forest Park.

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