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K-12EducatorsThe Arts

Cultural and Historical Meaning – Lesson Plan

Students perform a folk dance and discuss its cultural and historical meanings.

  • Length: 1 class period
  • Grades: 1-5

Concepts/Objectives:

  • Students will be able to perform the dance/game “Little Johnny Brown.”
  • Students will be able to keep the beat while moving (grades 3-5).
  • Students will know the origins of the dance.
  • Students will know the symbolism of the circle, the blanket, and the buzzard-lope.

Resource Used:
Little Johnny Brown
Found On: Dancing Threads – Community Dances from Africa to Zuni

Vocabulary, Materials, and Handouts

Vocabulary
beat, recreational dance, shape, time

Materials
Screen and video viewing device, “blanket” (piece of fabric about two feet square), instructions and information on history and meaning of “Little Johnny Brown”
Optional: audiotape of “Little Johnny Brown” song made from the videotape

Handouts:
The Story of “Little Johnny Brown”
How To Do the Dance “Little Johnny Brown”
The Meaning of the Circle
Exit Slip for “Little Johnny Brown”
Exit Slip Answers

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Instructional Strategies and Activities

Tell the story of “Little Johnny Brown” or give out the handout about the story. In African-American communities (as in many cultures), stories, songs, and dances were used to teach values important to the community. This is a recreational dance, for the purpose of having fun, but it also teaches important lessons.

Teach the “Little Johnny Brown” dance/game. Make an audiotape from the video if you like.

Idea
Students may make their own blankets by tie-dyeing, block-printing, or weaving, so that each will have his or her own blanket. At least four blankets are needed to do the dance, but one per child is preferable. If there is no time or opportunity for students to create blankets, you can use inexpensive purchased handkerchiefs.

Warm Up
Have students improvise movement to “Little Johnny Brown,” making sure to use their arms, legs, heads, and shoulders. Form a circle and have students take turns being the leader who dances in the center of the circle while everyone else copies the movement. Discuss the importance of the circle and give out the handout on the meaning of the circle.

Have four students improvise movement in the center while everyone in the circle claps to the beat of the song, so that students can feel the atmosphere of support: Whatever movements they do, they are doing just fine. There is no right or wrong, but they should try new things. Point out the dance elements employed in performing this dance: moving to the beat (time), moving in a circle (shape), etc.

The Dance
Teach the “Little Johnny Brown” dance. Remind students that the open blanket represents honesty and the circle represents community support. The buzzard-lope in the circle shows the community honoring the person by dancing in a circle to take him or her for a proper burial though he/she died in the field.

Have everyone practice doing the dance together. You can dance the “Show me y’motion” part while students copy. Practice doing the dance to the beat of the song.

Watch the discussion on the videotape in which Paula Larke explains the history and symbolism of the dance to Anndrena Belcher.

Ask students to tell some things they have learned. Point out the references to the origin of the dance and to the blanket, the circle, and the buzzard-lope.

Culminating Activity
Review the dance and perform it, beginning with four individuals who will dance with confidence right from the start.

Distribute Exit Slips for assessment of historical and cultural knowledge.

Follow-Up Possibilities for Students

  • African dance often includes mimicry of animals or of everyday work activities. Have students develop dances using either of these elements.
  • This dance/game teaches community values. Ask students to discuss the dances they do and the values they express.

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Performance Assessment

Performance Event: Now we will perform the dance “Little Johnny Brown.” Be sure to dance and sing with full energy and do your movements to the beat of the song. Fill out the Exit Slip about the history and meaning of the dance.

Directions:

  • Remember the whole dance and song and perform it with lots of energy.
  • Remember to keep the beat of the song while you dance.
  • Be sure you know when this dance was first danced and who danced it.
  • Also, remember the meanings of the blanket, the circle, and the buzzard-lope.

Performance Scoring Guide

4 3 2 1 0
Student remembers the entire dance and song. Student performs the dance and song with full energy throughout and keeps the beat while dancing. On Exit Slip, student states the origin of the dance; the cultural group who developed it; and the symbolism of the circle, the blanket, and the buzzard-lope. Student remembers most of the song and dance and performs with confidence through most of the dance. Student keeps the beat most of the time. On Exit Slip, student states the origin of the dance, the cultural group who developed it, and the symbolism of two of the three items. Student remembers some of the dance and song. Student performs in a matter-of-fact way and keeps the beat some of the time. On Exit Slip, student states either the origin of the dance or the cultural group who developed it and the symbolism of two of the three items. Student remembers a little of the song and dance. Student performs with little energy and rarely keeps the beat. On Exit Slip, student is unsure about the origin of the dance and the cultural group who developed it and states the symbolism of one of the three items. Student does not remember the dance and song and/or does not perform the dance. Student incorrectly answers or does not answer the questions on the Exit Slip.

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Support - Connections - Resources - Author

  • Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1972.
  • Downloadable teacher’s guide for Dancing Threads (PDF format)

Author:
Susan Spalding

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