"Kids Like Blues" Are Getting Schooled

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Kids Like Blues Band

You’ve probably never asked a 6 year old, “What did you learn at school today?” And had the answer be, “A song called ‘Deep Elem Blues.’ Then we drew pictures of a bus, scanned them, ran them through Photoshop, blogged about the experience, and learned how to make better decisions.”

“What?”

That’s what parents of more than two dozen students at Garrison Elementary School heard one day last March, where Jon Schwartz started  a phenomenal and engaging experience in teaching. His kids learn everything from reading to math through the blues. They meet state standards and have even performed several gigs as a band.

Why the blues? Back in 1988, Jon saw his first blues show in Atlanta. It opened with John Mayall, who was followed by Johnny Winter, and then B.B. King — a Holy Blues Trinity. Who wouldn’t come away from that show a blues believer? While earning his degrees in general and special education, Jon later saw Buddy Guy, whose phrasing, modulations, and syllabication informed the way Jon picks the songs he uses to teach his students. “I was aware of his vocal delivery,” Jon says, and that later came into play when he realized after playing Deep Elem that other blues songs would work as well.

Welcome to the Promised Land (Chuck Berry style anyway). Granted, that isn’t a blues song, but it’s perfect for teaching Jon’s kids. No fewer than 18 geographical name places make it ideal for a geography lesson. The video on Jon’s website shows him at a screen with an old Greyhound bus from that era, teaching not only history from the time, but a little math. “What are these lines called? PAR-AL-LEL.”

Is Jon a rebel? No. His own school’s principal suggested that he bring his guitar to see if he could do better than teach phonetics using “Old McDonald’s Farm.” Jon chose “Deep Elem Blues,” and things took off from there. A conscientious teacher, Jon is frequently in contact with parents about song choices, the progress kids are making in recording and blogging about songs, and what songs are coming up. He takes any objections parents might have seriously and has great community support as a result. Jon has been recognized by the California Senate for his skills, has presented and played for the Cal State San Marcos School of Education, and recently submitted an article to Education Weekly.  He and his kids have also appeared on radio and TV.

Jon is in fact somewhat of an organic teaching pioneer. He had no program design when he brought his guitar to school that day. “When I started playing, one of the girls got up and started a little dance,” he explained. “I almost told her to sit down. But that little voice said ‘Don’t,’ so I didn’t. Then another girl got up.” Jon saw the potential for problem, and success. “You know who the other girl who got up was?” he asked. “Our girl from Japan.”  Hence was born an organic teaching method and, a blues gig. It features Jon on guitar, and sometimes a friend or colleague, pitch in. For the recordings he has hired a session drummer. The newest addition to the band: the kazoo section. Check them out in the video below.

The first gig that students took part in was the talent show at their school. The second was at a local outdoor festival attended by 800 people. One of the girls who sang with Jon was from near the Fukushima reactor in Japan and couldn’t speak English when she arrived. Displaced, and no doubt traumatized by the dual disasters of a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, she was quiet and shy. But in less than a year, this classroom experience had her performing in front of 800 strangers with a smile, and a little choreography that the kids often put together themselves.

If you’re a blues player and are in Jon’s neighborhood, you can contribute in a number of ways. Jon’s looking for musicians to stop in, talk with students, share some songs, or lay down a guest track via the internet or their in-class studio. He’d also like artists to be e-mail and pen pals with students. This gives kids exposure to talented artists and helps them realize that there’s a future in many facets of the music industry, from writing and playing to production and marketing. And artists benefit by gaining exposure in a new community, making memories for kids that will last a lifetime, and a generating a new fan base among kids and parents.

As a parent, wouldn’t you be impressed if your child came home with a solid sense of geography, history, music, vocabulary, spelling, speech, and the technological knowledge to scan it, Photoshop it, and blog about it, all to state educational standards? We’d all want to enroll! Yet with these kids, from all walks of life, this is what Jon Schwartz is achieving. The kids are learning to state standards, learning the basics of education as well as the arts, and having fun in all this learning. One can’t help but wonder what sort of effect this will have on their lives moving forward, maybe not so much in terms of what they learn, but in terms of their self-confidence, their courage to do things they’ve never done before.

How exciting is this experience? How would you feel if you got a call from Jon, in his classroom, and were greeted with a resounding “Hello?” Then you got to listen to the kids do their live version of the kazoo section of their newest cut of Sweet Home Chicago. Would kids, with contagious enthusiasm,  excited about learning from listening to the blues bring tears to your eyes? This author would certainly be honored….

Now it’s your turn to enjoy their music. Go to Jon’s website, watch his videos, and see how much fun learning can be for kids who have the blues.

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