More to the Story

A grade-school musical offers educators and students a chance to reexamine history.

Portland hip hop artist and educator Mic Crenshaw works with students on lyrics.

Fred Joe

What if what we've learned about history isn't all there is?
There's probably so much more than meets the eye—more stories, not just “his.”

If we took some time to listen, if we took some time to feel
Maybe we can write a new book. Maybe we can keep it real!

—"What Is History?" lyrics by Jana and Mic Crenshaw

Many of us remember elementary school as an orderly place where kids were spoonfed an orderly view of the world. But at Southeast Portland’s Sunnyside Environmental School it’s clear that a different educational ethos is at work. Student-tended gardens line the entrances to the 1925 red-brick building. Inside, stairwell murals that you might expect to lionize the Founding Fathers instead extol Cesar Chavez and the farm-labor movement. And amid the busy, crowded space of Heather Chaney’s third-grade classroom—along with a map of the world, a photo of African tribesmen, handwritten word definitions taped here and there, a student “jobs” board pinned to a door, cabinets and cubby holes stuffed with tools, sea shells, corks, and other miscellany—a small, orange sign on the wall quotes Albert Einstein: “I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am.”

The spirit of antihierarchical open-mindedness and inquiry that those visual cues suggest is borne out in the workings of the class, as kids practice a song and try to fashion a surrounding scene for a new musical. Students share instruments, make lyric and staging suggestions to Chaney and visiting songwriter Jana Crenshaw, and talk with Mic Crenshaw (a noted Portland hip-hop artist, activist, and educator, and Jana’s husband) about how to fairly represent multiple sides of the story. That last part is a particular challenge, as the song and scene are meant to grapple with the subject of immigration and the lines between assimilation and integration of communities.

A few doors away, another group of third graders, led by teacher Jeremy Thomas, is finding its groove studying Portland’s mid-century jazz scene as a window into the experience of the city’s Black community. Meanwhile Levia Friedman guides spirited debates among her students as they look into the histories of the Chinook people and the nineteenth-century influx of Chinese workers to the area.

All three classes are helping to create a show called More to the Story, spending several weeks in the spring of 2017 to reexamine prevailing ways of looking at their city’s history.

More specifically, they are reexamining Portland’s history as it’s been told to—and by—many Portland third graders for the past twenty years in a popular show called Portland: A Musical, by Ralph Nelson. Beloved as that show has been at Sunnyside and many other schools in the city, Sunnyside principal Amy Kleiner wanted something that was more in line with the school district’s goals for racial and cultural equity in instruction, something that made more room for the perspectives of historically marginalized communities. In re-creating a third-grade musical through a lens of critical thinking with a focus on equity, Kleiner, the Crenshaws, the teachers, and the kids are helping those communities to reclaim their place in history. But perhaps even more so, they are claiming history as an interpretive act, as more a question than an answer. 

Or you might just say they’re trying to keep it real.

Principal Amy Kleiner watches years of work come together on performance day.

“Like it was back when I went through Portland Public Schools, part of the standards [for third-grade education] is that you learn about the city—the bridges, city government, and so on,” Kleiner says, talking over cups of tea one evening at the Crenshaws’ kitchen table. Kleiner has worked at Sunnyside for ten years, a little more than half that time as principal. Ever since she can remember, part of teaching Portland history at Sunnyside has been Ralph Nelson’s musical, performed by the students each year in early spring. 

The founder and artistic director of the Bach Cantata Choir, Nelson wrote the show in 1997 to complement the curriculum used by his wife, then a teacher at Kelly Elementary. In the decades since, Portland: A Musical has become a beloved tradition around the school district. Nelson, according to his website, “works with 20 schools per year as an artist-in-residence, reaching over 2000 children each year.” He’s also created several other curriculum-targeted shows, from Harvest Festival Time for kindergarteners to a fifth-grade American history pageant called Ring Out the Bells of Freedom. Willamette Week’s 2010 “Best of Portland” issue included Nelson as “Best Singing Historian.”

The musical is well stocked with memorable tunes and colorful staging, and covers a broad swath of city lore. Characters included in a 2012–13 version of the script range from Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea, to city founders Asa Lovejoy, William Overton, and Francis Pettygrove, to nameless fur trappers and rail workers to 1990s mayor Vera Katz. There’s even a leprechaun and a leprechaun helper, for a song about tiny Mill Ends Park. Perhaps most important, it imparts a positive message about the city’s character: that Portlanders are willing to pull together and help one another.

Kleiner says that several years ago PPS started to focus on racial equity work and within the Sunnyside community, Kleiner, teachers, and members of a parent-led equity group began to have second thoughts about the musical, primarily because of stereotypical renderings of some of the characters.

It’s important to note that Portland: A Musical also includes a scene lauding Abigail Scott Duniway’s early twentieth-century progressive support for women’s suffrage. And in 2009, a blog called A Little Red Hen—“bread, politics, feminism”—wrote of a production at Sunnyside: “We were impressed that there was no whitewashing the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII.” But this scene—in which a schoolgirl forced to leave her community for the so-called internment camps laments her mistreatment by singing, “I’m an American, too”—was among the sticking points for Kleiner. Communities of color, she says, only showed up in Portland as victims of misfortune, such as this wartime incarceration or the flooding of the city of Vanport, which was home to many of the state’s Black residents.

As ingrained in the school culture as Portland: A Musical had become, Kleiner felt a change was needed. “In general, parents love it, they look forward to it, their kids look forward to it every year,” she says. “It is a community builder. And it’s a sweet musical! If you ask my son, who’s in fifth grade, he could sing you all the songs."

Kleiner describes a process she says the school undertook to address the concerns with the show. First, teachers asked Nelson if they could add to the scenes, for instance, inserting a small part for York, the slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark. Next the parent equity group deconstructed a scene from the script to help other parents understand what about the language was Eurocentric and dehumanizing to Native Americans. Then Kleiner, teachers, and the equity group met with Nelson to ask about rewriting several of the scenes, but Nelson said he'd done all of his research at the Oregon Historical Society so he stood by the work.

For the 2016 production, they forged a compromise: to pause at a few different points in the musical so the kids could present a counter story. 

Kleiner opens her laptop and clicks open a video from that year’s performance, which starts with her introducing the show, reading from a statement the students and their teachers wrote: 

“We, as a third-grade community this year, while studying Portland history, did so a little differently. . . . We’re asking the audience to participate as learners in kind of a different way. . . . This musical brings us joy, and we’re so proud of our hard work. We hope you feel the amazing energy tonight. Through our learning this year as a third-grade class we have also been grappling with our curiosity in critical consciousness as it relates to history and storytelling. All year we’ve been learning about the importance of asking, ‘Whose version of this story is this? Whose voices are missing? What more can I learn? And what questions do I have?’ Tonight we ask you, our audience, to remember this: history is a story; it is open to interpretation.”

Jana and Mic Crenshaw worked with teachers and students at Sunnyside Environmental School to produce a musical about the history of their community.

“To me it was a matter of perspective, not so much a matter of historical accuracy,” says Mic Crenshaw. “A lot of the conversations I’ve had with Amy are about efforts to make sure that conversations with young people coming from educators are critical. I felt that she wanted me to be able to put some of that critical thinking on the lyrics in the play, because that’s what I do in my classroom work.”

After leaving his street-fighting youth in Minneapolis to move to Portland in the mid-1990s, Crenshaw almost instantly became a respected leader of the city's hip hop scene, fronting the band Hungry Mob. Along with his continuing solo career in music, he heads arts and education initiatives locally and in Africa through the nonprofit Education Without Borders and frequently works in high schools helping students explore issues around social justice.

Crenshaw met Kleiner when he visited Sunnyside with the Obo Addy Legacy Project, named for the late Ghanaian master drummer and Portland music stalwart. It turned out Kleiner and the Crenshaws had mutual friends and began to see each other at parties. Their kids became friends. Eventually, Kleiner asked Jana Crenshaw, a talented keyboardist and songwriter, if they could write a musical for third graders.

“Between Jana and Mic together,” Kleiner says, “I thought we could create something pretty amazing.”

In March, just after spring break, the Crenshaws began making regular visits to the three third-grade classes at Sunnyside, helping the teachers facilitate discussions, gathering student suggestions for lyrics, and eventually leading rehearsals of the finished songs. Their creative process, like their view of history, emphasizes inclusivity. 

Though the musical (which is, in large part, paid for using PTSA funds) will be be seen by a few hundred other students and scores of parents, in a way it is the icing: the classroom discussions leading up to it are the educational cake.

One Wednesday morning, Levia’s class (calling teachers by their first names is another egalitarian aspect of the Sunnyside culture) is talking about Chinese immigration to Portland during the nineteenth century. A girl mentions that Chinese Americans eventually improved their lot by working harder than others. A boy raises his hand quickly.

“I want to disagree with [that] argument, because you can’t say that they worked harder than anyone else, because a lot of other citizens worked hard.” The girl replies that she’s read that Chinese Americans worked harder because they wanted to give their families better lives. The other child is unconvinced.

“But has that newspaper looked at every citizen and how hard they worked?” he counters, his voice rising slightly. “You can’t say that because you don’t know that!”

“This is a good debate,” Jana interjects. “But if we have a bit more representation of the people we’re talking about, I think that’ll be more what we’re looking for.”  

“If I had to guess,” Jana observes later, “I’d say that Levia has at least five lawyers in her class.”

Jana takes a few students to the auditorium to work on piano and percussion parts. When she returns, Levia explains that they’re having a conversation about white guilt.

I attended grade school a half-mile away from Sunnyside, a member of the only Black family at the school, so for me the notion of white guilt as a discussion topic for eight-year-olds is mind boggling. But these days such topics are part of the fabric of instruction in Portland Public Schools, or at least that’s part of the goal. According to the PPS Racial Equity Plan: “All staff and students shall be given the opportunity to understand racial identity, and the impact of their own racial identity on themselves and others.” 

“The challenge of engaging mostly white third-grade students around these questions is something that I accepted with a spirit of curiosity and adventure,” Mic Crenshaw says. “Every day is a learning process because I’m constantly aware that I have to not impose my point of view on people, but at the same time I need to keep present the integrity of critical thinking and the reason why I was asked to be part of the project. 

“I think the really important question that comes up for me is how do you tell a story about someone’s lived experience that’s not yours, and do so respectfully without appropriating it? And the other is, how do you create a conversation that’s critical of white supremacy among people who are beneficiaries of it . . . in an all-white environment in a city that’s struggling with these questions?”

Questions of inclusion and appropriate representation come up again and again in varying ways. There’s only so much that any given small group can do to make sure people from communities of color have their say in the telling of a complex history, especially a group of eight-year-olds in Southeast Portland. But Kleiner and the Sunnyside teachers take pains to emphasize the agency that all people should be free to exercise. 

“Part of what we’ve worked on as a staff is [to teach] using asset-based frames rather than deficit-based frames,” Kleiner says. That is, how can they show the positive characteristics of marginalized communities, their strengths and successes rather than just their travails? “Human resiliency is a pretty powerful thing. How can we examine that given true events of history and the current day?

“So, when we’re in Jeremy’s class and we hear the story of the Vanport flood and then hear a line in the song about ‘whatever’s floating on the water looks like a crown,’ that’s intentional. That’s Jeremy teaching about resiliency and hope and happiness despite hardship.”

Jeanine Fukuda (left) from Portland Public School's Office of Equity and Partnerships and long-time Portland civil rights leader Ed Washington attended the evening performance.

On May 25, 2017, the students showed their hard work, creativity, and critical thinking in a morning performance for their schoolmates and an evening one attended mostly by family members. If a receptive audience is to be expected anywhere, it’s at a third-grade musical, but even so, there’s a palpable sense of excitement—of newness—about these events.

The show is simple in structure: The opening theme song, “What Is History,” followed by a scene and song from each of the three classes. Levia’s class goes metatheatrical, relating their interest in the Chinook Nation and their decision to focus their scene on that subject, culminating in an ensemble rap song. Jeremy’s class has little girls in fedoras and neckties, acting out midcentury stories of Vanport and the Albina neighborhood, incorporating voice recordings of Vanport survivor and longtime Portland civil-rights leader Ed Washington, who attended the performance. In tribute to the Black community’s resilience and its vibrant jazz scene, they sing a swinging tune called “Improvise Your Life.” Heather’s class gets personal with immigration and migration, recalling a classmate who moved away to Japan, and singing about community connectivity: “I can’t be me without we, and that means you.”

Following the early show, Dian Christensen, a Sunnyside physical education teacher who’s seen Portland: A Musical a dozen times, is in tears: “It’s so wonderful to see the evolution of this musical to encompass more, to bring in more of everyone’s story. It’s really quite touching to see what they’ve done. That was beautiful.”

After the evening performance, Kleiner is surrounded by parents congratulating her and chatting excitedly. If anyone misses the old show, with its historical certitude and its sweetly mainstream feel, Kleiner doesn’t hear about it this night. Whatever political risk may have been involved, Kleiner’s move appears to have paid off.

“The longer I’ve been a principal the more I agree that everything is political, including being a principal. I don’t have time or the bandwidth to be an activist all over the state. Where I can do that is at school. I feel more and more, throughout the K–8 curriculum, in a mostly white school, if I churn out white kids that are not aware of their privilege and not able to be critical thinkers [who can] listen to perspectives of people of color, and really deconstruct their own whiteness, then I’m not doing my job as a principal. It’s hard to change culture in a school. It’s slow, you’re working in a bureaucratic system that’s mostly white despite the equity policy. . . .  It’s a process, but that’s my vision for the school. We’re about 80 percent white. I used to think we needed voices of color and students of color and all cultures represented, and that is true. But I’ve learned more and more that’s not a developed way of thinking for me. In a way that puts it all on the small percentage of people of color. So the responsibility for the most part is on the 80 percent of us—white kids and white teachers—to really examine our whiteness and our privilege and deconstruct those narratives in everything that we do.” 

Note: The families of Oregon Humanities Executive Director Adam Davis and Editor Kathleen Holt live in the Sunnyside Environmental School neighborhood. Their children all attend the school, though none was in the third-grade musical this year.


Art and Music, Education, History, Oregon


1 comments have been posted.

Here is some great new music by Mic Crenshaw!!! Check it out y'all!

Brother Jonathan | August 2017 |

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