Jon Schwartz

Throughout my career as a teacher, I’ve been faced with many situations that required some creative ingenuity to help insure my students received the best chance at education in my classroom and beyond.

In my first grade classroom at Garrison Elementary in San Diego this year, I’ve been faced with helping non-native English speaking students learn English while assimilating in the classroom and culture at large.

In the past, I’ve successfully adopted out-of-the-box approaches to connect with my students (such as the student blogging program I started with my fourth and fifth graders last year) and this situation seemed ripe with the possibility of doing something similar.

As I watched my students tire of the old classics like “Old MacDonald” and “B-I-N-G-O” I decided to try a different tactic. I loaded my iPhone with some good, old-fashioned Blues standards and got those kids rocking! I could never have predicted what came next.

As you can see from our YouTube video below, there was something about the Blues that really seemed to reach the kids on a foundational, universal level. Reluctant readers were excitedly sounding out the words to “Deep Elem Blues” as the class read through the lyrics on our LCD screen. Others would retrieve their sheets of printed lyrics to review throughout the day. And still others just enjoyed gettin’ down with the blues and would happily perform their own routines in front of the class.

It’s been a privilege to work alongside these kids and to see the first-hand effects of our Blues in the classroom program. There are two specific instances that still floor me to this day.

Early on in the year, a non-English speaking student who had moved to San Diego from Mexico in August struggled with communication and classroom involvement. For months, she had been too shy to speak with me or to participate in class.I struggled to find ways to reach her while working with her parents and the school’s support staff, doing everything I could think of to make her take that leap and start speaking.

Then one day, a fellow student convinced her to join the classroom’s recently formed “First Grade Blues Band” and the result was shocking.

Here she was singing “Sweet Home Chicago” in front of the whole class with a HUGE smile on her face. Her peers and the music had emboldened her and she took the leap, speaking English aloud for the first time in class.

A few months later, I faced a similar situation when an Asian girl moved to San Diego and entered our first grade classroom. Unlike the Spanish-speaking students who have the advantage of interacting with many bilingual teachers and peers, this girl had no one and faced severe cultural shock and language barriers.

Working with the school staff and the girl’s parents again, I began to recognize the same amazing phenomenon. This girl was getting into the Blues and the music enabled her to overcome her shyness as she sang with enthusiasm and joy.

Today, both girls are integral parts of our “First Grade Blues Band.” We performed our first official gig at the school talent show a few weeks ago. Since then, we’ve performed at a local street fair and have been invited to perform for the staff and teaching credential candidates at California State University San Marcos.

In addition to putting on a great show, our band demonstrates irrefutable evidence of the positive role that music plays in education.

To find out more about the pedagogy behind music and I am using music in our classroom, please visit KidsLikeBlues.org.

And you don’t want to miss watching these incredible kids get their Blues on with a rousing rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” at their recent talent show. Get ready to rock with this video of the “First Grade Blues Band”…

3 Responses to “They’ve Got the Blues…The First Grade Blues”

  1. This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing such a creative way to use music with kids. Too often people get stuck in what’s “traditional” or “appropriate” (by whose standards?) for children. This shows the value of thinking outside the music box.

  2. Hey Jon – you’re awesome! You’re a model for other teachers on how to get down and be real (who you are), creative and alive with your students, modeling the joy of an authentic human being. Please check out our website (address above) because this is what our work is all about. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  3. Richard says:

    You rock, dude! This is an encouraging story that needs to be read by all educators… and the politicians who can’t seem to take their feet off the spending pedal, cutting education instead.

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