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Madison Metropolitan School District

Stephens CAMP Class Explores Identity, Equity by Making Music

Stephens CAMP Class Explores Identity, Equity by Making Music

Ten-year-old Eleanor hunched over the small musical keyboard balanced atop her lap, tapping one key at a time as she listened to the edited track on a computer.

“We’re trying to add stuff to the song to make it cooler to listen to,” she said. “I like taking these sounds and seeing what it turns into.”

Since January, Eleanor and her fifth grade classmates at Glenn Stephens Elementary have been creating poetry, music, and art during their Curiosity, Arts, Mindfulness, and Project based learning (CAMP) class through a special artist-in-residence collaboration with Roderick “Rudy” Bankston.

A former MMSD educator, Bankston founded the organization ‘i am WE Global Village’ in 2021 with a primary focus to understand, develop, implement, and deepen just and equitable practices. At 19 years old, Bankston was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he spent 20 years before winning back his freedom on appeal. He now uses this experience and his previous work as a Restorative Justice coach in MMSD to explore intersecting themes of identity, equity, justice, trauma, and resiliency.

Stephens teacher Marci Speich, who leads the school’s CAMP classes, met Bankston years ago as core team members for the Mindfulness in MMSD staff professional development program. Last summer, the two began collaborating to brainstorm new creative and educational outlets for Speich’s students.

“My job has such flexibility that I really get to just be creative with whatever the kids are excited about,” Speich said. “Rudy and I were obviously right on the same page of like, how can we make this come from the kids' experience and the kids’ wants and needs?”

During one class last week, students listened to a recording of poet Amanda Gorman perform her children’s book “Change Sings.” They worked together to reflect on her poetry:

“I can hear change humming

In its loudest, proudest song.

I don’t fear change coming,

And so I sing along.”

Before long, students were crafting their own haikus inspired by Gorman’s stanzas, tracking their syllable counts along the way. Later, students had the option of which project to pursue; some finished their poems, others, including Eleanor, worked on producing the class’ beats. Many used markers or a computer to draw and design a logo and album cover art for the class’ “record label.”

“I think it was really empowering for the kids to see themselves as musicians and as poets,” Speich said.

According to Bankston, creative outlets like this are an important method for scholars to understand crucial concepts like Restorative Justice, as it encourages them to share their perspectives.

“Student voice. Student voice. Student voice. Music and the arts are platforms that support it. We have to co-create the conditions for it with students,” Bankston said. “The next necessary level is reflecting on what they express to us and commit to showing up more just and equitable in our relationships with them.”

In another one of Bankston’s sessions with Spanish-speaking scholars in a bilingual education class, he invited Madison Restorative Justice practitioner and artist Eugenia Highland Granados and her band. Highland Granados, who lived in Mexico until 2008, connected with students through traditional song and dance; new students who were typically shy were immediately immersed in the performance, dancing alongside the band, Speich said.

“What i am WE Global did was really, super responsive,” Speich said. “i am WE thought ‘how can we seek out a band whose music is more culturally relevant to them?’ The students were completely lit up.”

The collaboration between Speich and Bankston brings focused, personalized learning strategies, innovation, a sense of belonging, and choice to all scholars. These values align not only with MMSD’s key missions, but strike a chord with lessons that extend far beyond the classroom.