Fort Mill teacher educates about Gullah culture through song

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comOctober 14, 2013 

What do the University of Connecticut, a music teacher from Fort Mill and the Gullah culture of the South have in common? Individually, not much.

But when you combine the three, you get an organization willing to help teachers implement knowledge about the Gullah culture into their lessons, including those at Pleasant Knoll Elementary School in Fort Mill.

Kim Lee, Pleasant Knoll’s music instructor, was one the teachers who spent a week this summer learning about the Gullah people and their culture through instructors from the University of Connecticut and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“I applied for the grant, received it, knowing that third-grade standards in social studies would align perfectly, and that was the beginning,” Lee said.

The Gullah are descendants of slaves from Sierra Leone who lived on the outer islands of the southern Atlantic states. Just a handful remain, mostly on the islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Because of their isolated nature, Gullah culture remained well-preserved over many years. Who the Gullah are and what their culture looks like are what Lee is trying to impress on Pleasant Knoll’s third graders this year.

In a Monday morning class, the third graders practice what they’ve been learning since the start of the school year. Lee leads them through spiritual songs like “Shepherd, Shepherd” and “Pay Me My Money Down.”

In addition to singing, the students often either dance or play instruments. And Lee says she does everything in her music classes to integrate with the traditional academic curriculum.

The song, “Boll Weevil,” for instance, was about more than just singing notes and words.

“In ‘Boll Weevil,’ you’ve got science, you’ve got agriculture and you’ve got South Carolina history,” Lee said. “You can teach any subject matter through music, which is why it’s fun.”

Students in Lee’s Monday morning class said they enjoyed learning the spiritual songs and learning about the Gullah people and their history and culture.

“We keep learning more things about the social studies that you’re learning in class except we’re making it fun because you get to sing and all that,” said third-grader John Edward Fritz.

Another student said she liked seeing the pictures that Lee took during her trip this summer to learn about Gullah culture.

“I knew about slavery but I didn’t know about all the other parts,” said Katie Dong.

And the students certainly seem to be paying attention. Sometimes days after a class has learned a song, Lee will hear students singing it down the school’s hallways.

“I think we’ve done our job if they can’t get it out of their head,” she said.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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