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Reading And Writing Are A Snap When You’ve Got The Blues

Evening Edition

— The first graders in Jon Schwartz's class at Garrison Elementary in Oceanside are working on developing the same language skills as their peers in any other class. On this Tuesday they’re rotating between stations where they’re working on spelling, reading and writing exercises.

Aired 5/21/12 on KPBS News.

First grade teacher Jon Schwartz uses the blues to get his Oceanside students excited about the "Three R's."

Jon Schwartz and his students play their hearts out for friends, family members and future teachers at Cal State San Marcos, May 9, 2012.
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Above: Jon Schwartz and his students play their hearts out for friends, family members and future teachers at Cal State San Marcos, May 9, 2012.

What makes their class different is the theme that runs through all of the work.

Students at the spelling station are working on works like singing, saxophone and practice.

Another group practicing reading out loud is working with song lyrics.

“I’m writing a story about the blues band," says Arely Sarabia, who is sitting at a table where students are starting with the writing prompt "One thing I like about the blues band is ..."

The first thing that Sarabia thinks to write? “That I was liking their shakes.”

Sitting nest to Sarabia, Tierra Nobel says she's writing "that we can have fun.”

At another station, Edwin Ronzon says he's writing "about the blues band going to a trip on the moon.” How will they be ginning there? “On a rocket,” he says.

Schwartz’s students may not really be taking a trip to the moon – but they are really in a blues band.

They practice the four songs in their repertoire, along with choreographed dance moves, as part of their class time.

Schwartz says the band developed after he started mixing blues songs into his lessons plans along with the usual suspects of elementary school music like "I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” At first a few students started dancing along with the songs. Now all of the kids are part of the group and the blues band has become part of the work they do everyday.

“For example, we did a project today which was the blues band in space," Schwartz says. "So they had to do a personal narrative, which is one of the first grade standards and they have to do visual representations by hand and then they share their work – so there’s a lot of standards embedded in what we’re doing.”

Students who came into class speaking no English started making dramatic improvements after the blues band became part of class time, according to Schwartz.

“One of the things with english-language learners is that they’re afraid to make mistakes," Schwartz says. "And when you bring songs in, and because first we do it in a whole group format – they’re doing something that’s predictable so they get into it. And then after awhile they notice that for weeks they’ve been using their vocal chords a lot – sometimes it’s just getting them to speak.”

A lot of the success of the lessons comes from the fact that the kids are having fun. But Yarytza Ruiz is one of the students who says she likes the blue band exercises for another reason.

“Because you can learn more words and read better,” she says.

On this afternoon Schwartz and his students are practicing for a big performance playing for future teacher credential students at Cal State San Marcos.

Adjunct professor Leslie Mauerman says it’s important for her students to see Schwartz’s approach in action, especially at a time when standardized testing has been shown to push subjects like art and music out of many classrooms.

“The challenge for these teachers is clearly how to get all the content in, find a way to creatively deliver it and then make sure that their students achieve well on these particular assessments," she says. "And so to infuse this with music and/or arts or performance or any variety of pedgogy, what you’ll find is that it enhances their learning, it raises achievement and it also supports social development, which for kids at this age, that’s key for their achievement later in school.”

Mauerman says a teaching method like Schwartz’s gives students lots of different ways to engage with the lessons. That means students at different levels and with different needs can all benefit from the lessons.

On the day of their big performance, the blues band is unphased by the auditorium filled with their families and Mauerman’s future teachers. After a short video about how Schwartz incorporates the music into his reading and math lessons, all 25 students are ready to go.

They perform four songs, "Don't Ease Me In," "Deep Elem Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," and, as an encore, "I've Been Working On The Railroad."

After the performance, it's clear the band was a hit. Michael Rael, one of the future teachers in the audience, says he doesn’t play the guitar but thinks the blues band illustrates a more general idea that he plans to use in his own teaching.

“In the classrooms I’ve been observing in, students need to be exposed to more vocabulary in a nontraditional way whereas you give them a list of words, but more along the line of having them be able to connect it to their daily lives and also make it fun and interactive for them,” he says.

Schwartz’s students are definitely having fun – and learning lessons they’ll use for years to come.

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