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Learning Through the Blues: Interview with Kids Like Blues Creator Jon Schwartz

TeachHUB Interview

 

All teachers can relate to the difficulty that often comes with getting students interested and involved in their school work. Many teachers have their own tricks and tips on how they motivate students. Educator Jon Schwartz is no different.

 

The self proclaimed blues aficionado has turned his passion for blues music into an educational tool to help turn his students into engaged learners. With his educational program entitled Kids Like Blues, John is helping his students thrive in their studies and enjoy the spotlight with their own blues band.

 

Jon shares his passion for music and learning in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.

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When and how did the First Grade Blues Band come to be?


The band grew out of the spirit of spontaneity and artistic expression that we encourage in our class. I’m a professional guitarist and blues aficionado. When “Old McDonald” became tiresome, I started playing blues songs for the class on the guitar. One of the my GATE students jumped up in the middle of “Sweet Home Chicago” and did a hat-in-hand, Ginger Rogers type of dance. Other students joined her, including non-English speaking students who had recently arrived in the United States. They practiced their moves and the songs during recess. We decided to perform at a school talent show and practiced every recess for weeks. Since then we’ve played street fairs with a real backup band and even performed live on TV.

 

How does singing the blues help students learn?

 

It helps them because it provides an interesting context to learn phonics, history, diction, phrasing, history, intonation, collaboration, public speaking, writing…the list goes on. We use blues songs as vehicles to address the state content standards.


What kinds of lessons and activities do you do in class to align curriculum with your musical efforts?


We do a combination of direct and explicit instruction work and creative projects. For example, I put the songs on the LCD projector and highlight the text as we read the words. We’ll make custom spelling and vocabulary lists, consistent with a first grade level and beyond, that are based on the words in the songs. Because the kids are interested and engaged in the material, they’re able to read and write words at a level higher than what you’d expect them to do if the words were taken from mass-produced, generic materials.

 

We do a lot of guided and creative writing about our experiences with the band, and respond to open-ended questions that require critical thinking skills. We just finished a project called, “Blues Band Stranded on a Desert Island.” We imagined that we were on tour and our plane was forced to land on a deserted island. How would we survive and call for help?

 

When I told them I wanted them to write a first person narrative using descriptive language, they balked because most didn’t know what a deserted island was. I decided to do a geography and geology lesson where we did whole class internet research on the LCD projector. I modeled a response to the writing prompt, and showed them images that I talked about in my response, such as various types of shelter, water-gathering device one could make from palm fronds, fishing tridents and casting nets, and tiki torches, and then required the students to work collaboratively in dyads and triads to brainstorm their own solutions, draw their ideas, and then write and share their responses with their peers. This covered a lot of standards and they were so engaged that they worked right through recess without even noticing it!

 

Check out this local news clip all about the First Grade Blues Band:

 

 

Have you ever had any performance mishaps or funny stories to share?


We recently played at a pretty large street fair. The house band didn’t know that we were going to be playing with them on stage; they were under the impression that some first graders were going to be doing a cute dance on the cement in front of the stage during one of their breaks!


We arrived 45 minutes before we were scheduled to join them onstage and I introduced myself. They couldn’t believe that I planned to bring such young kids onstage to play live blues music, and they were worried the kids would ruin their expensive equipment and play carelessly onstage.


When we were climbing onstage, I told the guys in the band, “We’re doing a 12-bar blues shuffle in E, just follow us and we’ll be fine!” The kids had never played on a public stage for a strange audience and never played with anyone but me. Even for professional adult musicians, playing with an unfamiliar backup band in such an impromptu manner usually produces mixed results at best, but the kids never missed a beat and they totally nailed it. It really blew me away!

 

Learning Through the Blues: Interview with Kids Like Blues Creator Jon SchwartzYou just had your first big "outside of school" gig for an audience of 500 at the Oceanside Street Fair. How did the students feel leading up to it? How did they feel afterward? Describe the crowd reaction.


The kids don’t understand pressure, probably because they know we are there to have fun, and we rehearse so frequently and review the material in so many ways that they seem to have lot of confidence. They are more excited and thrilled to be playing than anything else, which is what most adult performers wish they could be.

 

It’s amazing because two of the kids that played at the street fair spoke no English when they joined the class. Working with English in the context of blues music and performing is helping them learn rapidly and helps them overcome their natural fears of making mistakes. One of these students just arrived from Japan in January and music is absolutely the key to her feeling able to participate meaningfully and join the class and school culture.

 

What differences do you see in your students since starting your blues band?


The effects are profound, and all types of students have been positively affected.

 

English Language Learners are immersed in predictable text that enables them to learn word families, and that helps them practice their pronunciation and syllabication.

 

Visually gifted students are exploring their muse with the sketches that we do, and many of my first graders are scanning their work onto personal blogs via Photoshop and digitally manipulating them.

 

Musically gifted students have assumed time keeping roles in the band, much like drummers, and rhythmically oriented children are the choreographers of our live show.

 

The students are gaining a lot of skills and enjoying themselves immensely in the process. They are extremely proud of how they’re able to perform in front of large crowds, and for students who are struggling with speech, this has emboldened them and helped them feel like its okay to take chances. The kids and I love coming to school every day because we have upcoming performances and related projects. They are singing the songs at home and helping them to learn about the history of nation-something recommended in the preface to the CA State Standards-by learning about the culture and images that gave rise to traditional American blues music. They’re caught up in the same mystique that originally attracted me to the blues medium 30 years ago.

 

How can other teachers bring this type of learning to their classroom?


They can find things they love to do, and find ways to incorporate writing, art, music, reading, research, and technology into these areas of interest so they can use their own interests as tools to engage the students.

 

In addition to being a musician, I am also a professional fishing photographer and travel writer,. I use my love of fishing, adventure, writing, Photoshop, photography, and blogging to engage my kids. But teachers don’t need to do these things to engage their students, they simply need to share their own passions- whatever they are- with their students, and spend time to devise ways in which the students can use those interests as mediums for learning the skills required at their grade level. If we rely solely on mass-produced generic materials, we’re taking the easy way out, and boring ourselves and the kids in the process.

 

As a recipient of the 2011 Tech Hero award, how did you earn the title?
In 2010, I instituted a student blogging program in my 4/5 combo class, where 25 of my 39(!) students wrote regularly in personal blogs. Many of these students were reluctant readers and writers but they loved how they could post and then check to see how many “hits” they received, and couldn’t wait to learn about where their audience lived.

 

When a student blogged, their parents and I received instant email updates with links to the blogs. I acted as the moderator and approved the posts and comments. Students even posted “grow and glow” comments with constructive criticism on their peers’ blogs.


When some of my students moved back to Mexico, they continued to blog and their classmates continued to read their blogs and comment on their work. This blogging program was an effective way of getting all students to write, and was instrumental in helping some of my special needs students find their hidden talents and become leaders and teachers.

 

I also met with many parents, including non-English speaking parents, and trained them on internet use, internet safety, and the use of blogs and email. This created a virtual classroom outside of the school hours. I’d be eating dinner on winter break and students would be blogging about their vacations just for the fun of it!

 

How do you use music in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

 

Check out Jon's two non-profit websites all about his music and blogging programs:

• Information on the music program: http://kidslikeblues.org/ 

• Information on the blogging program: http://kidslikeblogs.org/

 

Jon is also an avid fisher and photographer. Visit his fishing journalism and photography website at http://www.bluewaterjon.com/.