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Kids Like Blues: Using Music and Video to Rock Your Classroom

Jon Schwartz

Second Grade Teacher from Oceanside, CA
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Teacher Jon Schwartz and his first-graders rockin it out on stage.

When I started playing blues songs for my first grade students, I never imagined I was introducing a fantastic launching point for thematic, standards-based teaching. We soon formed The Kids Like Blues Band, and since last March we've used blues songs as a springboard for teaching academic content standards in reading, writing, listening, speech, social studies, technology, and the visual and performing arts. So far we've played at a street fair, for staff and students at the Cal State San Marcos College of Education, and even live on local TV news and KPBS TV. We're a real band, and the students are fully engaged, learning and rocking!

Happy to Sing the Blues

How does this method work? First, I introduce a song and apply the rhythm and cadence of these lyrics to an understanding of the historical background. Songs are carefully selected to have appropriate levels of syllabication, vocabulary, imagery and subject matter that lead into history, myths or folktales. Students learn phonics through pointing and tracking to lyrics on score sheets kept in individual student binders.

Lyrics are practiced daily in large and small groups to get the correct pitch, modulation, tone, syllabication, meter and phrasing. Children even sneak practices during free time. After learning the lyrics, students with creative dance skills choreograph the piece (without my help!) and we rehearse more. Then, it is a "gig" at a talent show, street fair or community event.

Last spring, Professor of Education Dr. Leslie Mauerman thought so much of our work that she had us play for an audience of staff and graduate students at Cal State San Marcos College of Education.

Our blues band work meets the needs of a wide variety of students with different learning styles and preferences, including kinesthetic, auditory and visual learners. Oftentimes, a student is paired with another learner to work on skill deficiencies. Collaboration nurtures natural talent and leadership. Shy students gain confidence, high performing and GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) students achieve new levels of mastery, non-native English speakers improve language, and slower readers learn reading at a higher level of complexity.

Our blues band has provided my students with a creative outlet to apply, question, evaluate and utilize their knowledge. For many English-Language Learners, thematic teaching allows them to maximize learning in a comfortable, fun, student-centered environment. A noteworthy student testimonial is a Japanese student who recently moved to the United States.

On top of leaving her home and everything familiar to her following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima and the tsunami, she was now starting a new school mid-year and unable to make sense of anything we were doing. Soon after her arrival I started playing blues songs for the class. A GATE student began dancing and acting out the song we were singing. Other students began to jump in and participate – including our new Japanese student! Instantly, she became animated, engaged and wanted to be an active participant in our class. Over the course of the following weeks, she began to take more risks, quickly memorized the lyrics and began learning how to form English sounds. While she remained reserved and timid in small groups, when the music began she came to life, able to participate and communicate with her peers.

The Blues as a Springboard

This instruction has fostered a heightened ability to access and apply technology. My first and second grade students blog about their music and learning, while using Photoshop, scanners and Google image searches to design multilayered compositions to accompany their blogs. Here's a video that showcases how we use technology like Photoshop and blogging to engage students in reading, writing and arts.

The students and I have also delved into digital video editing and audio production. We record our work and edit it as a whole class on the LCD projector in iMovie and Garage Band. Watch our "official" music video below.

We also use technology in our blues band work by performing teacher-led historical Internet work. For example, Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and "Let it Rock" explore the concepts of westward expansion, the history of the railroad and immigration. With the use of an LCD projector, we delve into history, geography, culture and outside literature to parallel this historical time period. One line from "Let It Rock" -- "working on the railroad with a steel driving hammer" -- led right into a mini-lesson on folktales and heroes like John Henry, and we compared working and living conditions from the past with today, which is California State Social Studies Standards 2.1

Nearly a year later, I have looped with my class, and I am in awe as all students have made significant progress across subject areas and learned to work together as a classroom community. The Kids Like Blues project has not only taken my students' learning to new and unprecedented levels, it has also inspired me to be a better teacher and given me the confidence to bring my own passions to the classroom. In today's world of high-stake testing and concern for students' lack of skills for college and careers, I feel my class of "blues-singing" students is more than prepared.

For more information about this project, please visit

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Apocalyptically hyperactive Dexter was squirming in a desk I pulled next to my desk in the back of the classroom. He had come in for some after-school guidance on how to do a bit better job in his Georgia history studies.

I was listening to the soulful tune, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, by the Allman Brothers Band when it hit me. I told Dexter I knew what he should do when he grows up because of all his sensational energy and sense of fun and adventure. The heck with Georgia history.

Dexter smiled and his braces sparkled and he chirped ... What! ... like only Dexter can chirp ... as if he'd been waiting a long time for someone to finally reveal his professional future to him.

I said you really ought to think about being a rock and roll star. You'd be a great one. You'd get to jump around on stage and people would cheer for you and you could play a guitar as fast and as insanely as you wanted.

Dexter's mood darkened. He said he didn't know how to play a guitar.

I said you could learn. People learn how to play guitars all the time. And you know a lot of these guys, after they end a concert, jump into the crowd.

Dexter said what if they don't catch me?

I said it would hurt a whole lot because you'd be so amped up anyway, like a spider monkey ... but when you play well and sing well and jump around on the stage real good then your fans will catch you. I promise. And then they'll carry you around way up in the air and then chuck you back up on the stage so you can play some more songs.

I watched him for a moment or two. Dexter was really chewing on it. Then he said he believed they also get to smash their guitars on the stage, too ... right?

Yep. Some of them smash their guitars.

Dexter chewed on that, too. I watched him again and then I said listen to that music, man ... listen to that guitar playing on this song. It's so good ... making and playing classic music has got to be the most incredible experience, I said. I turned it up a little bit.

Dexter listened to that long Allman Brothers' jazz song for a long time--ears perked, like a cat on caffeine--as if the answer about what he should do when he grew up was hidden between the notes.

The Ruhm's picture

Really amazing talent of these kids.

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I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

First off; "Yay for what you're up to!" I so relate.

Both my boys went to alternative school (We called it poor man's Montessouri). All parents were required to pitch in. As I'm a songwriter/music teacher it was a no brainer I come in and teach music. I taught the kids a variety of colorful material that included my own.

Years later, when I returned to visit a teacher at the school, much to my surprise--I was treated by her new batch of kids like visiting royalty! I didn't even know these new kids! Wow. The teacher informed me "To them you are a rock star. They go crazy for you songs!"

It blew my mind.

I guessed that what the kids found so appealing about my tunes was the lyrical content-- which has always been "life skills" centered and empowering. You're so right that songs can stick in a kid's head like glue and inspire them to learn. That day in back in that classroom is what inspired me to focus in on the song/learning direction myself; when I witnessed, first hand, the enthusiasm of all those kids.

Here's hoping more and more teachers begin using music to teach varied subjects in the classroom. It's such a potent, magical way to inspire kids.

and btw? the blues? You couldn't have picked a better genre.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Thankfully a teacher in America is taking the initiative to teach younger students that the totality of the black American musical experience is not limited to just rap. I used to teach high school kids in emotional support classes everything reaching back to delta blues, Chicago blues, then on through to the Chess, Atlantic, Stax/Volt, and Motown R&B years. We ended up with more easily identifiable blues/rock from the 60s/70s that many kids still dig. I didn't even get into jazz yet.

Now THAT was music!

Shawn McBean's picture
Shawn McBean
College Lecturer from Guyana

This is meaningful engagement in teaching. Engagement is important primarily because of its relationship with the academic achievement of learners. As is exemplified above the teacher's intervention is contributing a lot to students' all round development since it encompasses the three dimensions to engagement: behavioural, emotional/affective and cognitive. I heard about music in classrooms but this is an excellent way to integrate it in your lessons.

Danielle's picture
Seventh grade math teacher, New Jersey

I think incorpoating music into the classroom to promote student engagemnet is an excellent idea. My high school math teacher created a song anout the quadratic equation which made us remember this formula. Students can recite the words to many songs and music they are very intetestd in. So if we tie music into our lessons I am sure the students would be more eager to learn the information being presented. I would love to come up with songs that dealt with algebra to help students remember information, fprmulas, or procedures. Anyone have any examples???

Laura A. Craig's picture
Laura A. Craig
Inclusion Strategist from Grand Prairie, Texas

BRAVO on keeping students engaged on an entire unit that is address in multiple subjects! You are going above and beyond creating 21st student! Your students are publishing public work with technology that will help them when they reach upper grades and adulthood. I know that they parents are also proud to read their child's blog and I am sure they brag to everyone about it!

I know that a lot of time and effort has gone into your lessons. The smiles on your students, parents, and your face make it well worth it. Project Base Learning is wonderful because students take ownership of their work. They also learn far more about the unit than reading a text book.

I have a couple questions if you could answer please.
What program do you use to have the students to post their blogs?

Also, I noticed that you looped with your students; What are the pros and cons with looping?

Juan's picture
Pre-service teacher in Houston, TX. Music education EC-12

Hello! I am a pre-service teacher majoring in music education. I think that what you are doing is absolutely phenomenal! You are touching on so many subjects and skills that are going to go a long way with these students. I definitely hope to do something similar to this once I get my own program. Thank you so much!

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