Inclusivity and empowerment are the focal points at Grace M. James Academy of Excellence, a magnet middle school in Louisville, Kentucky, with an Afrocentric STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) perspective for Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS). The school’s innovative and student-centered vision are what attracted Orchestra Director Gabriella Burdette. “The encouragement from administrators to give students limitless possibilities and new experiences was an important factor to me when I joined the team at Grace James,” she says.
Her goal for the orchestra program is to empower each student to achieve excellence in playing an instrument in the orchestra, while incorporating the specialized curriculum of the school. “Each unit of study is created and developed to represent the Afrocentric themes of Identity, Humanity, Justice and Oppression, African Diaspora, Intersectionality and Black Joy,” Burdette says. “The Afrocentric and gender-specific curriculum provides students with opportunities to share their personal opinions and perspectives, collaborate with others, draw connections between the content and their personal lives, and provide relatable instruction about women’s roles in music.”
For example, for the Identity unit, students collaborated to create a battle composition, where they played their instruments and “battled” with another section in the orchestra. Students then discussed how they were able to apply their own personalities and music choices into the collaborative activity.
For the Justice and Oppression unit, students went on a field trip to watch a youth orchestra perform Western-style music. They then identified, described and compared the music from the concert to African-American composers like Florence Price, Joseph Bologne, William Grant Still and more.
Burdette says that the concerts her orchestra puts on are intentionally prepared with the Afrocentric curriculum in mind. “We have studied history and performed pieces such as ‘Kumbaya,’ ‘Were You There,’ ‘Lift Every Voice,’ rap music, ‘Adoration’ from Florence Price and more,” Burdette says.
She also brings in professional ensembles and musicians from the Louisville Orchestra to her classroom, which opens the door to many collaborative opportunities and perspectives that enriches students’ lives. “I constantly tell my students that I love showing their talent and skills off as much as I can,” Burdette says. “With the support from the administration, they notice how much we invest and believe in their potential. It is truly all about the students and giving them limitless possibilities.”
Grace James students are excited to learn new skills and repertoire, and more importantly, “they are able to see and perform musical selections from artists who look like them, and they, in turn, learn how to be bold, driven and themselves,” says Burdette.