Songwriting, Performance Art, and a Room Full of Buskers


On November 22nd, the 2nd grade students at PS 171 Peter G. Van Alst School were presented with a special treat. Their Teaching Artists Jacqueline Raymond and Moira-Jo Trachtenberg-Thielking brought in the multidisciplinary Gary Devirgilio – also a CWP TA – as a guest artist to work with the students on their music and performance skills. 

Using music and performance, their lesson asked: how can we learn what it means to build community while enhancing our knowledge of historical and modern-day New York City and the many cultures that have made it so dynamic?       

For this session, Gary brought in his guitar and harmonica to help the class celebrate Thanksgiving. They talked about the root words and meaning of Thanksgiving, “thanks” and “giving.” Gary told historical anecdotes about the life of Woody Guthrie; how he traveled not only the entire country, but the world, yet lived for a long time in New York City, often busking for a living. The students now know what a busker is! 

The class used gestures to create a moving tableau and act out the chorus of the song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” by Guthrie. For instance, they acted as surfers to represent “California,” and stood tall and still like the Statue of Liberty when they sang the words “New York Island.” It was loads of fun and they learned so much, including how songwriters write songs to not only make people feel inspired, but often to make an important statement.

As a finale, the students brought the song home to themselves and created their own chorus, using the prompt, “This School is My School, This School is Your School.” In the clip, you will hear a student with a great sense of humor and learn how much they really like their new principal. At the very end, where the sound cuts off, one of the students says, “I have a question for everybody. Did you like my verse?” All of the kids said yes. It was truly a communal sharing moment for all!

“Many of the students are immigrants, so it was interesting for them to tie in their own family’s status with what Woody Guthrie was singing about in the song and then to make a new version about their own status in the school. And when Gary asked about other possible versions of the song, the students were happy to volunteer their own stories and even suggested translating it into many languages!” – Mariana Vily, 2017-18 TAP Trainee & Theatre Artist