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Connecting Students with History through 'Jersey Boys'

Classroom Connections

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L-R: Mark Ballas, Cory Jeacoma, Matthew Dailey and Keith Hines in the national tour of "Jersey Boys" at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Photo by Jim Carmody.
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Oh, what a night! Please excuse the cliché—I imagine every writer on the planet who has ever penned anything about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons begins with that lyric. But in this case, it would be true, so please allow me to indulge. Three crackerjack teachers from Hawthorne High School joined us for opening night of the Broadway smash hit Jersey Boys, playing the Ahmanson Theatre through June 24, 2017. Estella Church teaches drama, Ruth Cebreros directs the International Baccalaureate program and teaches history, and Stephanie Steele teaches language and literature.

At our pre-show dinner, musical theatre mega-fan Estella Church was excited to talk about Jersey Boys. I have satellite radio in my car so I can listen to the Broadway channel non-stop, she laughed. I drive my husband crazy.

She kicked off our brainstorm about the connections between stagecraft and class curriculum way before the Chianti and pizza hit the table. I would love to have students do a comparative analysis or case studies on a particular artist in the music industry whose careers or choices parallel the Four Seasons, said Church. As a drama teacher, she wants her students to jump into the backgrounds of the artists they study—not just the art itself. She feels that students could follow the lead of a show like Jersey Boys that celebrates not only Frankie Valli's music, but also the socioeconomic, political, and geographic factors that influenced him to create his music alongside the Four Seasons members. Church believes students could explore contemporary artists the same way.

Lil Wayne, J Cole, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Chance the Rapper, Adele, Kendrick Lamar: all of these artists relate to the Four Seasons in some way. It would be fun to have in-class music writing workshops and even have students consider the education level of artists as part of biographical case studies, she said. Lil Wayne comes to mind again since he did attend Virginia Tech and studied business and creative writing, but he did that much later in life—after the fame. Jay-Z is not formally educated, but he's accomplished so much. There's so much to discuss here and think about with students in terms of comparative analysis.

Church firmly believes that students can watch a jukebox musical like Jersey Boys to reflect upon this larger idea: where you live and who you live with can shape who you are and what you do. It's a notion shared by history teacher Ruth Cebreros.

Cebreros imagines her students taking a deep dive into their own ancestry after seeing Jersey Boys. “A lot of kids don't know about the history of their family, explained Cebreros. Students can interview their parents and/or family elders to learn about their own family history and write their own song or story for an oral history project, she suggested. Families don't talk anymore. Kids don't talk anymore. They're texting. We're all guilty of that, but I think this would be a great opportunity to actually reconnect them. Jersey Boys depicts its main characters' upbringing and family history. Jersey Boys is American history. My students have their own history, too. I want them to know that.

Cebreros also noted that the characters in the show display tenacity, or a certain moxie, that she wishes her own students would show more often. She suggested that productions such as Jersey Boys contain models for accessing personal confidence, both onstage and off.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons did not only evolve and transform as musicians, but they also took risks, Cebreros said. I would ask my students to look at how failure, grit, perseverance, evolving, and taking risks are important in life. I'd like to give them a writing assignment that asks them to explore a parallel example from their own life where they took a risk and to consider how that experience has helped them evolve or improve their life skills.

Stephanie Steele shared her colleagues' excitement over the potential for students to delve into their own cultural, environmental, and family backgrounds—alongside the study of language and text.

When I teach novels, there is clearly a separation of narration and dialogue, explained Steele. And often students don't really understand the weight of dialogue or the importance it carries in the text. So in teaching a play, whether it is Jersey Boys or another story, I explain that words matter. How people talk to each other matters. There's great value in analyzing how dialogue can depict character. For example, I might ask students to track what a character says throughout a show and then chart that character's text to see if we learn anything about who they are. Students can then explore what the character actually does—even mannerisms, inflections, and the like. All of these characterizations fuel the way audience members interpret a character.

With a laugh, Steele added, It mirrors real life in that way!

After the show, Ruth Cebreros suggested a super cool way to bring all these ideas together for a Jersey Boys -inspired class activity. She imagined giving students a chance to interpret their background through song, dance, and language—just like Jersey Boys. We could say to them, okay, research your family history and then you're going to write lyrics and rap about it, said Cebreros. And make sure you use language from your culture or your community.

We all loved the idea instantly. As we closed out our incredible night together, we noticed that throughout the evening—we all broke out into bits and pieces of Four Seasons songs. Even though most of us felt these were hits from our parents' time, we realized perhaps there was one final note to hit with students. And that is: the mixture of art and real life experience will always offer a certain timelessness.

As we left the theatre dancing and singing together, Estella Church put it best. The music was way before my time, but I knew every song!

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