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Friendships via music: Dickinson and South African students exchange folk songs

The world seemed a little smaller when 10 students from Dickinson's Berg Elementary School talked with learners from a Grahamstown, South Africa, classroom through Skype. Even though the schools were separated by more than 9,000 miles, the students discovered they had similar interests.

The conversations were arranged by Dickinson State University assistant professor of music education Carolyn Burns. Because of the time difference, the video face-to-face conversations were arranged at 5 a.m. May 2 at DSU but the students didn't mind.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing you won't ever get to do," Berg student Ariel Hampton said after the discussions ended.

The Berg students talked with sixth-grade learners of the Xhosa ethnic group from Good Shepherd Primary School -- a public school for disadvantaged children in the township.

The students exchanged questions about national holidays, games, favorite foods and pets. The South African students were curious about Halloween, while the American students wondered if the learners liked wearing school uniforms. They did. The conversations concluded when each group sang a song for the other. The Berg students sang the folk song, "Pick a Bail of Cotton."

The conversations were the culmination of a cultural music exchange by Burns as part of an "Internationalizing the Curriculum" grant she received through DSU.

"The purpose was to internationalize the curriculum -- to pull together culturally other countries or projects," Burns said.

She visited Grahamstown from March 10-29. The city is on the southeastern edge of the country -- 30 miles from the Indian Ocean. It was the third trip she has made to the Grahamstown school. The trips were a result of contacts she made through the International Society of Music Educators.

Burns was looking for a project for her doctoral dissertation when the first trip became available in 2006.

While the learners may speak their native language at home, they study in English at school.

"In grade 4, the learners study Afrikanns -- a language that is derivative of the original Dutch," she said. "By the sixth grade, they are fluent in three languages," she said. "I was really immersed into their culture and visiting their homes. I learned about their music, dance and literature."

Burns also introduced American songs into their classroom during her visits.

"I became interested in the freedom songs that were used against the struggle against apartheid," she said. "So anyway, in 2010, I was given DSU faculty development funds to return to Grahamstown."

While there the second time, she studied the freedom songs of the Xhosa women.

"Then for this project, I wanted to return -- I've been collecting South African children's songs," she said.

Including American students

Wishing to include American students in the project, Burns approached her friend, Laurae Dykema, who teaches music at Berg Elementary School. She also met with Renae Ekstrand, DSU assistant professor of education, who teaches a children's literature class on campus.

Ekstrand's students wrote children's books, making them available through

"They wrote them based on folk tales, illustrated them and used their voices as the audio," Burns said.

Dykema selected a core group of music students to participate in the South African cultural exchange. Burns presented information about South Africa, taught them South African songs and video-taped the students singing American folk songs.

"Then in South Africa, I taught the American songs that the Berg students recorded, and I also recorded indigenous songs," she said.

Dykema felt the exchange was a good fit for her students because it fosters cultural diversity.

"It went very well; we'd definitely do it again," she said adding, "It was such a wonderful experience for our students -- it really opened our kids' eyes."

Returning to Dickinson from her latest trip, Burns practiced a South African song with the Berg students. They presented the song during a World Voices talent show April 26 at DSU.

During presentations about South Africa, the Berg students realized Good Shepherd School had little playground equipment. Consequently, they raised $124, which is equivalent to 1,400 in South African rand currency.

"Our dollar is so strong, we were able to purchase three soccer balls, two netballs, 10 hula hoops, bean bags, baseball bats and other items and we still had 400 rand left over," Burns said.

Burns also filled a suitcase with children's paperback books for the school library. The books were collected by Iota Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society and several other individuals.

While in Grahamstown, Burns also was invited to be the keynote speaker at the South African Association of Music Teachers conference.

She worked closely with Good Shepherd Principal Cecile Mager, along with Bronwyn Jacobs, who is the liaison between the parent school, St. Andrew's, and Good Shepherd; and Matarie Veliti, local expert on the Xhosa indigenous songs.

Through her experiences in South Africa, Burns learned that water is precious. The city went without water for two days after Burns arrived, and her host family used bath water to water their plants.

"The electricity is pretty good, but not always reliable," she added.

"When I first arrived, the school had lot of computers, projectors and a DVD player, but nothing hooked up yet," Burns said. "So working with the IT people, they were able to make the connections."

With the connections complete, Burns arranged for a Skyping session from South Africa to Dickinson.

"We used my laptop and set it up in the hallway," she said. "For the second Skype, they had their projector hooked up and we could see entire room."

Burns said the South African learners value their education, but sometimes it takes a secondary place in the township.

"The unemployment in Grahamstown is 85 percent," she said. "It's very difficult for a learner in these schools to further education into high school."

Burns believes she's made a positive difference in the lives of the learners. She cited one sixth-grader whom she met in 2006. He is now tutoring high school students and has the goal of attending college.

"You don't know as a teacher how many people you impact," she said. "It may be a few years down the road when somebody says you have a difference in their life. Having a relationship with a school for so many years now with the same teachers, they know my face and know I will leave something behind."

Burns is a native of Illinois, and taught music for 26 years in Montana. This is her fifth year at DSU.

"Music is such an important part of the black culture," she said. "It's used for ceremonies and you hear people singing on the streets. They use their songs for political purposes and calling attention to their needs and concerns."

Even as Berg prepares to dismiss for the year, Dykema's students will have an opportunity to stay in touch as pen pals.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them," Dykema said. "We started in February, and now in May we still will remain connected."

Dykema also appreciated Burns' program because it keeps the university and public education system connected.

"They are doing the research at the university that we don't often get to see -- it's nice to stay connected with the college," she said.