How do kids benefit academically from the blues band project?
High achieving students and struggling students have made tremendous gains in our blues band related work. Students who are learning English, have speech difficulties or other learning disabilities, and just plain shy kids seem to develop more confidence as they learn the songs because the material presented to them is predictable, and much of it is being modeled and presented by their peers in practice, rather than them needing to talk by themselves in front of the whole class.

High achieving and GATE students tend to latch onto creative opportunities, teaching roles, and technology we use in the program. We also devise dance moves the band will use, coaching others in reading and performing, and even blogging about our work on their personal blogs where they scan their own artwork and then make multilayered compositions in Photoshop. Yes, 6 year olds can become proficient in Photoshop and blogging!

What are some shining examples of students who have made tremendous gains with the blues band work?
I had a student arrive in January last year from Japan. She had lived 90 minutes from the nuclear disaster at Fukishima and even closer to a town that was destroyed by the tsunami. In addition to these significant stressors, she had the added challenges of not understanding any English, not having anyone on campus who spoke Japanese, and not even being able to make sense out of anything in the English alphabet.

When she arrived I talked with her via Google translate on my iPhone; speaking simple sentences into the iPhone and having it translate and then speak it out in Japanese was the best thing I could arrange. I was looking for a way of bridging the communication gap, and also reach her personally, as she was very withdrawn. Weeks went by with her seeming lost, until I brought in my guitar and started playing blues songs.

One of the GATE kids in my class who is a great dancer spontaneously made up a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers style dance to it. I almost stopped her from doing it, but I noticed the other kids enjoyed it, so I let her develop an entire routine. Soon other students started joining her and memorizing the lyrics and movements- and one of them was the girl from Japan!!

The Japanese girl was smiling and engaged for the first time. Soon she’d memorized the words to long multi-verse Chuck Berry songs memorized. She didn’t understand what she was saying (this came later with time and explicit instruction on song’s content and vocabulary) but her mouth was learning the movements necessary to pronounce English words, which was light years beyond what we’d been able to coax from her working with the standard curriculum, no matter the level.

She was so shy that even in small groups, she didn’t feel comfortable enough take any risks and try speaking English phrases, but in the context of a song, she was soon belting the lyrics out in class and became one of the most demonstrative performers onstage in our talent shows and performances in street fairs and live TV! Watch the video in which her father talks about how her child grew through being a member of our blues project.

Another way students benefit from our work with blues music is that ELL students are able to read and pronounce text at a level of complexity that exceeds what they can read when given text in isolation. For example, last year in first grade I had students who had trouble with basic C-V-C words like cup and map. When I introduced songs like “Deep Elem Blues” to them, and they were repeatedly exposed to the words in an engaging way within the context of a song that they were dancing to and working on with their peers, they were able to point and track to the words to these songs with much more complex words on their own, sound them out independently, and build vocabulary as well.

One great example occurred when a struggling and reluctant reader, who is also an English Language Learner, took out one of the songs during his own free time; I spied him pointing and tracking at the words and sounding them out with a high level of accuracy. This surprised me so much that I snatched my video camera and ran over to videotape him in the act of reading the song, which was something well above his assessed reading level. Here is the video from that “Aha!” moment.

How are we covering history and social studies with our blues band work?
One of our favorite tunes is Chuck Berry’s “Let it Rock”. His lyrics read “In the heat of the day, down in mobile Alabama, working on a railroad with a steel driving hammer. Trying to find some money for some brand new shoes, trying to find a way to take away these blues.” A video of us learning and performing the song will be posted soon.

The CA State Social Studies Standards for Grade 2 which you can see here, states in section 2.1 that “Students differentiate between things that happened long ago and things that happened yesterday.”

One of the first things we did was go into a discussion, aided by quick internet searches that I do for the whole class on the LCD projector, on how in the “old days” people used to have few pairs of shoes, if not only one, and they were often custom made for their size by cobblers using lasts that were tailored to measurements taken from the customer’s foot. I then mentioned that when I was a child, I’d walk into Stride Rite and a man actually sat me down, sized my foot, and by doing so was able to feed his family..that was his actual job! We contrasted that with how they simply go into Wal-Mart and pick boxes off of shelves, putting back what they don’t like, and a person rearranges them later who has no special training in footwear construction or even sizing or sales.

In addition, we noticed the reference to working on railroads and using steel driving hammers linked up with the folktale of John Henry, and with the historical period of Westward Expansion. We were able to bring in several different examples of authors’ interpretations of the John Henry folktale, and used the folktale in general to talk about genres, recognizing the author’s purpose, elements of fiction and nonfiction, and how folktales are used to convey truths about human nature and historical events. I’m constantly using the LCD projector and internet research, particularly images, which can be summoned almost instantaneously, to teach mini lessons on history.

Within a minute of us taking about the song the entire class and I are looking at images of railroad workers and railroad construction on a 5’x7’ screen. The immediacy of the internet as a research tool is invaluable. In fact, one HUGE aha moment occurred when I typed in railroad workers and a photograph showed Asian men working on the railroad. One of the students barked out, “That’s not real, he’s Chinese!” which of course led us into a quick mini-lesson on immigration and a history lesson on who actually built the railroads, and how this compares with what they had imagined the workers to look like. Right after that I brought out a book I had by Allen Say who is an Asian author that writes award winning books for elementary schoolchildren that are rich in history and lessons on immigration.

How are we covering writing standards with our blues band work?
CA Writing Strategies 1.0 states, “Students write clear and coherent sentences and paragraphs that develop a central idea. Their writing shows they consider the audience and purpose and Writing Strategies 2.0 states that, “Students write compositions that describe and explain familiar objects, events, and experiences.” In class and at home, the students are required to respond to a variety of writing prompts that I make up related to our blues band work. Some of them are factual and require students to describe in rich detail sequential recollections of their performances, practices, and embedded history lessons, while others encourage students to create fictional narratives.

Both types of writing can be done by hand or on their blogs, and almost 100% of my students have their own personal blogs that I have set up with their parent’s permission on Kidblog. The blogs allow the students to learn typing and word processing skills, and enable them to share their work immediately with their parents and myself. As soon as they make a post to their blog, their parents and I can receive an email letting us know a new post has been created, and we can read their writing immediately on a mobile device. In fact, we can even respond with comments that contain encouragement, “grow and glow” comments, and constructive criticism. This near-instant ability to get feedback from parents and teachers is an immensely powerful tool to help motivate students to write, and it creates a writing team between the student, parent, and teacher. Learn more about student blogs at my site Kids Like Blogs, where my work with student blogs was recognized for innovation by the CA Senate and the Technology Training Foundation of America.

Another example of how we cover writing standards with our blues band work occurred when the students were required to respond to the writing prompt I made up, “Blues Band Stranded on A Desert Island”. In this prompt I told the students they had to imagine that en route to a gig at Carnegie Hall, our band’s plan was forced to land on a deserted tropical island. After I front loaded them with some information on what these islands look like, I modeled a response, and the students used their own creativity and writing skills to problem solve and come up with a fictional first person narrative of how they’d make do with what the island offered, and how they signaled for help.

During the writing process for the “Blues Band Stranded on a Desert Island”, I allowed my students to pair up and work together. Two of my GATE (gifted and talented) students paired up and had an incredibly detailed, complex discussion where they demonstrated their ability to create, evaluate, analyze, summarize, question, clarify, predict, collaborate, and visualize, and the result was, well, INCREDIBLE!

They were naturally showing their use of the elements of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Higher Order Thinking Skills. Their discussion also demonstrated their ability to perform reciprocal reading, which is something that our district had been focusing on for some time, as well as learning styles that I learned in my graduate studies at CSU San Marcos.

Do the CA State Standards Recommend Using Material like Blues Music to Teach Academics?
Actually, yes! In “A Message from the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction” found in the preface to the CA Board of Education Content Standards “, it states “Educators should take every opportunity to link reading and writing to other core curricula, including history, social science, mathematics, science, and the visual and performing arts, to help students achieve success in all areas.” That’s our goal: to teach the standards in a meaningful context that encourages high student engagement and multiple opportunities for learners of all kinds. Here’s the link to the above-mentioned passage: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/index.asp

It also says in the Board of Ed CA Content Standards Preface: 
”The ability to communicate well-to read, write, listen, and speak-runs to the core of human experience. Language skills are essential tools not only because they serve as the necessary basis for further learning and career development but also because they enable the human spirit to be enriched, foster responsible citizenship, and preserve the collective memory of a nation”.

In the video “Thematic Teaching Using Blues Music, we use Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” as a launching pad for learning. First we focus on reading standards, learning how to decode the text, focusing on syllabication, diphthongs, digraphs, spelling patterns and irregular words. We also focus on multiple meaning words. Next we focus on grammar and punctuation by identifying proper instances of proper nouns and capitalization.

We then cover speaking and listening standards by learning to apply the correct pitch, phrasing, and modulation. This helps English Language learners because they are regularly engaging in predictable patterns of speech. Because the material that’s introduced is engaging, students are able to work with text, vocabulary, and speech that above what one would expect for their age.

Next we examine the historical significance of the song. It deals with Westward Expansion, the USA’s shift from rural to urban environments, the evolution of transportation, and how technology has changed our country. We find text and images on the internet using an LCD projector that help us learn about the period in which the song was written, and then we used a photograph of a blues band on tour in the 1950’s as a subject for a directed drawing exercise.

Now we’re into the territory of the visual arts! The students are challenged to convey a sense of depth in their work, which is a CA State Visual Arts Standard. Following this, two students scan their artwork onto the computer and use Photoshop to digitally enhance their work. They then add the image to their student blogs. Their parents and I receive an instant email notification alerting us to their new blog post, and we can post encouraging comments and suggest ideas for improvement.

The beauty of all of this work is that it all falls under the large umbrella of blues music, and we covered much meaningful academic ground by using one song for the theme. Ultimately, we add the song to our repertoire. Within weeks of introducing the song in class, we go from pointing and tracking at the words to performing the song onstage, sometimes in from of large audiences! When we’re learning about the journey that the subject took in Chuck Berry’s song “Promised Land”, we are doing just that. We see how the subject grew up in a low-tech rural environment, joined a band, and took a bus on tour with the goal of getting to California.

His journey westward typifies the migratory routes that many took in the 20th century, onto “bigger and better” things. The band bus broke down, and he took a famous train to Houston called the “Midnite Flyer”, passed through many famous Southern cities in the South (Geography mini-lesson time, CA Social Standard 2.2!) and finally finds salvation in Houston where his friends hook him up with a new wardrobe and buy him a plane ticket. 

He wakes up on the plane surprised at how far he’s come in terms of wealth and technology, and when he gets to California, makes sure the first thing he does is call back home through the help of a live switch board operator and tell his family that he’s doing well. Along the journey he encounters many things that my students know nothing about: fabled train routes, cities and roads, first class service on airplanes, which were at that timer a relatively new wave of travel, and he finally ends up being patched through to home manually by a switchboard operator that he actually talks with. This comparison between the past and present really blew my students minds!

Through examining the song, we’ve not only worked on reading, speaking, grammar, visual and performing art, and technology, we’re teaching kids about the way things used to be in the USA- which in itself is a CA Social Studies Standard, (2.1 Students differentiate between things that happened long ago and things that happened yesterday. In doing so, we’re fulfilling the goals of the CA State Board of Education by “preserving the collective history of a nation.”


Video: Sweet Home Chicago

Kids Like Blues Plays Sweet Home Chicago
Click video still to watch the Kids Like Blues Band music video, "Sweet Home Chicago."

Blues & Thematic Teaching

Click video still to view how our program works and details how we cover specific academic content standards.

In the News

We have been featured by US Dept. of Education, KPBS, and more. Click here to view what all the buzz is about.