Creating The Lesson Marsha Blog (1)

Marsha P. Johnson: A behind the scenes look at Flocabulary lesson creation

Flocabulary helps students grow empathy and understanding with content that reflects students’ identities and cultures and introduces them to new perspectives. Our content team thoughtfully creates each lesson and in this post, we’re highlighting the creation of a social studies lesson for the historical figure and activist, Marsha P. Johnson.

We asked a few of our lesson creators about the lesson creation process which takes them through a in-depth process of researching standards, history, writing lyrics with Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary terms, a finally into the creation of video, animation, and the music.

How were the lyrics written for this lesson?

We understand that it is a great responsibility to tell someone’s story and so we wanted to be very intentional in writing about Marsha P. Johnson and her experiences. We enlisted our Creative Director at the time, Tierney Oberhammer, to take on the task of telling Johnson’s story. Written to an instrumental produced by DJ Corbett, Tierney’s lyrics really paint a vibrant picture of Johnson’s life. Marsha P. Johnson was an icon and a pioneer who dedicated herself to serving and protecting the lives of those in the LGBTQ+ community. Marsha also suffered and faced violent adversity for striving to be her true self. While creating this song, we hoped to showcase both the triumph and tragedy of her life.

Chris Payne, Audio Production Manager

What was it like research the life of Marsha P. Johnson in-depth?

What struck me most about Marsha P. Johnson throughout the research process was her steadfast commitment to liberation for all people. At a time when the gay rights movement focused on cisgender White men and their ability to assimilate into a conservative American society, Johnson pushed back with calls for total inclusion of trans people, people of color, and women. This made her unpopular in some circles, but her commitment never wavered. As a pioneering drag performer, advocate for trans youth, and AIDS activist, Johnson was clear-eyed and unapologetic when it came to working toward rights for all LGBTQ+ people.

When we turn research into a song, we have to prioritize some details and cut others. In addition to covering Johnson’s early life and accomplishments, I wanted to make sure we included context about life for gay and trans people in 1960s New York City as well as an overview of the Stonewall riots. With that in mind, we set out to include as much about Johnson’s life as possible without sacrificing necessary context. There were some difficult cuts, but luckily we could include additional details in the lesson’s Read & Respond reading passages.

Mike Judd, Curriculum Manager

What was it like to record the song?

Unfortunately, we were not able to record this song in person because of  Covid-19. Sammus, an outstanding rapper and professor at Brown University, agreed to perform the lyrics written by Tierney. We knew Sammus’s energy and delivery would really bring this song to life.  Sammus is able to convey raw emotions but also provide a sense of calmness and care in her raps. Also, Sumeet Bharati’s performance in the hook is sensational. Her sweet vocals and harmonies in the chorus pair perfectly with Sammus’s voice.  These two artists were able to track themselves and send the vocals to me for mixing and mastering. The song is result of great team collaboration and a desire to tell the stories of those historical figures that are largely left out of the history books.

Chris Payne, Audio Production Manager

The animation and video editing is different from other Flocabulary lessons. What inspired this?

Flocabulary’s biography videos often feature illustrations mixed with primary source images, but I really leaned into the digital collage approach for this video – blending modern design and traditionally feminine color palettes with gritty archival media from ’60s-’70s NY. This contrast felt apropos for what we know of Marsha P. Johnson’s experiences. In the face of incredible hardships, she had this joy within her and a determination to live as her authentic self.

Lorena Gesuale, Senior Video Producer

What’s your favorite part of creating this lesson?

My favorite part of creating this lesson was finding this quote by Susan Stryker about Marsha P. Johnson in her belated New York Times obituary. “Marsha P. Johnson could be perceived as the most marginalized of people — black, queer, gender-nonconforming, poor,” said Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona. “You might expect a person in such a position to be fragile, brutalized, beaten down. Instead, Marsha had this joie de vivre, a capacity to find joy in a world of suffering. She channeled it into political action, and did it with a kind of fierceness, grace and whimsy, with a loopy, absurdist reaction to it all.” It perfectly encapsulates the way Johnson lived and really helped inform our approach to creating the song and lesson.

Mike Judd, Curriculum Manager