Unpack the Origins of the Banjo!

This past August, QuaverEd announced its partnership with the National Museum of African American Music.

In October, we added six new lessons, created for the museum’s “From Nothing to Something” curriculum, to the QuaverMusic Curriculum.

These lessons, found in the 4th and 5th-grade curriculum, focus on the banjo, spoons, and the origins and traditions of these instruments.

You can find these lessons under “Special Projects” in the 4th and 5th grade curriculum or by searching “banjo” and “spoons” in Resource Manager.

As we approach February and Black History Month, we hope that you take the time to explore these engaging projects with your students.

Last week, we took a look at the Spoons project. Today, we’ll dive deeper into the Banjo project!

Though these lessons will be a rich addition to February lesson plans, we hope that you continue to use these projects beyond this month and dig deeper into the origins and traditions of these instruments with your students.


The Banjo Project

The Banjo Project, found in the 5th-grade curriculum under Special Projects, consists of three lessons designed to guide students in learning about the cultural and traditional origins of the banjo in Africa, how it made its way to the Americas, the concept of cultural appropriation, and the essential parts of these instruments.

The project also comes with a printable project book that can be found in the Worksheets section of each lesson.

In this project, students will meet the character, Zara. Zara also appears in the QuaverSEL curriculum.

Zara guides students through each lesson, starting with Lesson 1, “Origins of the Banjo.” 

Lesson 1: Origins of the Banjo

The purpose of this lesson is to explore the concept of culture, learn about the cultural and traditional origins of the instruments related to the banjo that come from Africa, and how these instruments influenced the creation of the banjo in the Americas.

After learning about African and African-American history and cultural traditions, students will also begin to evaluate their own cultural traditions. This lesson encourages students to think of their culture in terms of a tree: the roots, the trunk, and the fruit.

Lesson 2: American Banjo Traditions

In Lesson 2, “American Banjo Traditions,” students will be introduced to the concept of cultural appropriation and apply that knowledge to the history of the banjo in America.

Students will learn about the difference between cultural transmission and appropriation and how that relates to the traditions of the banjo, particularly with minstrelsy.

Students will then begin to write lyrics for a song that honors the banjo.

They’ll also be introduced to Benjamin Hunter, an award-winning musician and Culture Bearer.

Lesson 3: The Modern Banjo

In Lesson 3, “The Modern Banjo,” students will analyze the different parts and functions of the modern banjo as it is played today.

Students will meet several musician including Rhiannon Giddens, Jake Blount, and Tray Wellington.

At the end of the lesson, students will also have the chance to perform the song they wrote in Lesson 2.


And there you have it! We hope this overview of the Banjo Project inspires you to give it a try with your students. Though February is a wonderful time to explore the history of African American music, we hope that the foundations built with this project will encourage you and your students to dive deeper throughout the rest of the year and beyond!


Did you try this project? We’d love to hear how this project is working with your students. And if you’re ever in Tennessee, pay a visit to the National Museum of African American Music — now open in downtown Nashville!