Jon Schwartz

Jon Schwartz

When I tell people I use the performing arts to teach my second grade students, they often ask, “You’re responsible for teaching kids academics. How do you find the time for that?”

Guess what? For the first 13 years of teaching, I too viewed the performing arts as an unaffordable luxury, if not a waste of precious instructional time. My job was to teach academics by filling my students with information. If the school wanted my students to sing, they’d give them more than 30 minutes a week with the district’s music teacher. We had real work to do!

Only last year, when I started bringing music into my classroom, did I realize that rather than being a diversion, the performing arts can be a tool to unify the different strands of academic learning into a cohesive theme that students can easily digest and eagerly embrace while enhancing learning. Direct and explicit instruction and standard/basal texts are still cornerstones of our class, but we’ve made time for content-rich music and other visual and performing arts. By using them as thematic teaching tools, we’re not squandering learning opportunities, we’re enhancing, enriching and creating them.

Excerpt from California State Standards

Excerpt from  English-Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools, page iv.

It’s ironic that many of us adults have come to view the performing arts as an inefficient use of class time. The California State Standards actually call for their implementation, and point to their importance in providing a balanced curriculum.

When the right material is used – academically and culturally rich songs, music, plays, theater – standards-rich content can be presented to students in a meaningful way that boosts engagement and retention. In my experience, kids will dive into the curriculum, and even double down on more challenging material, if it’s participatory and delivered in ways they can process and enjoy.

For example, in my second grade class, we use songs to learn the full range of language arts skills: When I first brought in Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and “Let it Rock,” we used the songs to teach reading skills, slowly pointing and tracking to each word. Once we gained a level of fluency and familiarity with the text, we discussed the meaning of Berry’s phrases and imagery. Small passages took on great significance and propelled us into impassioned research – so much so that, at times, the students didn’t want to go to recess. I started getting goosebumps!

For example, Berry’s phrase “straddled that Greyhound” in “Promised Land” helped us learn about the use of literal versus figurative language. With some questioning, I found that the kids had no idea what the song meant. Part of this was cultural (most of my students are English learners), and part of it was due to the fact that the period the song refers to – all that rich Americana – is all but lost to many in our younger generations. Many of these kids have grown up on SpongeBob and video games, and have been handed a history-poor curriculum geared to tests that don’t assess history knowledge in primary grades.

We put our songbooks down, raced back to our seats, flicked off the lights and fired up the projector and Googled each word in Berry’s phrase. When they saw the connections between greyhounds as a species of dog, the company’s strategic use of that term as a brand, how and why the company’s logo and design/construction of their buses have changed over the decades, the literal definition of straddling, and studied the artful way Berry used “straddling” in the song, the lesson took on tremendous significance.

I’d been listening to the song for 30 years, but the power of the words never registered with me until my students and I delved into them together. The kids were on the edge of their seats, and I’ve never felt more alive as a teacher.

Using the song as historical context, we addressed the concepts of westward expansion and the history of the Transcontinental Railroad. Berry’s words in “Let It Rock”: “Working on the railroad with a steel driving hammer,” naturally led to researching folktales and heroes that led us to historical photos  of entire hillsides covered with hundreds of mud-caked workers holding mostly hand tools.

The cultural composition of the workers depicted in the historic photo aroused a great deal of curiosity, and even disbelief. Many of the students had envisioned that everyone in the “Old Days” would look like the Lone Ranger or Pecos Bill and were astonished to see Chinese workers. Using language the kids could understand, we used the class’s reactions to the photos as a launching point for talking about stereotypes, reality and preconceptions.

This far-reaching academic discussion, from phonics to folktales, all emanated from portions of classic American songs. Who would have thought?

As you can see in the video, once we researched the early and modern trains and buses, students created hand-drawn art related to our songs, scanned it into the computer, edited it in Photoshop, and uploaded it to their personal anonymous blogs. The students were tasked with recreating, through their own drawings, a detailed photograph of a 1950s era Greyhound bus. This challenging assignment enabled us to address the state’s Grade 2 Visual Arts Standard 2.3 (Depict the illusion of depth (space) in a work of art, using overlapping shapes, relative size, and placement within the picture).

Recently, I’ve started to compose original songs for our class. I can tailor the songs to the student’s academic and social needs, and I’ve found a whole new side of me that I never knew existed.

We constantly practice and refine our vocal delivery of the song’s text, and the imposed phrasings, opportunities to learn through peer modeling, movement, and visual and musical content meet the needs of second language learners. More advanced students are challenged to assume leadership roles and tap their creativity in choreographing dance moves and shaping our performing unit.

We don’t have much time to spend teaching students how to play instruments, but I wanted the kids to be able to do more than sing and dance to my guitar playing, so decided to try plastic kazoos. What a miracle! They’re like junior saxophones without the complex fingerings, and together, they make up our band’s horn section. Kazoos are inexpensive, washable, and easy to learn.

For teachers who want to take it to the next level, a performance (for parents, other students or even the public) provides students with a summative, culminating event where they can apply what they’ve learned, take ownership of the content and work, and build confidence and self esteem. Our class band, “Kids Like Blues Band,” has played for thousands of people at street fairs, talent shows, amusement parks and on live TV, and as a teacher I’ve seen the student collaboration, teamwork and cooperation that goes into the performance’s success.

Another big “aha!” moment occurred for me last year when we first started using music as a teaching tool. I found one of my reluctant readers, Jorge, poring over one of the pieces in our songbook during recess. Of my 30 students, he was the one I’d least expect to be working when it wasn’t required. I was doubly floored when I noticed he’d picked one of the more difficult songs to read – something well beyond his assessed reading level – and he was plowing through the words with a doggedness and determination I’d not seen before.

This English learner wasn’t attracted by the texts we’d used in class, but by a song rich in historical content – one that brought to life subjects such as the Industrial Revolution, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the evolution of transportation, westward migration, and immigration. He was learning about our country – his country – and he couldn’t get enough of it.

Our work with the songs was making the history of the United States come alive for him. More than ever before, I felt I was realizing one of the goals outlined in the introduction to the CA State Standards, which call for us to “enable the human spirit to be enriched, foster responsible citizenship, and preserve the collective memory of a nation.”

•••

Jon Schwartz has taught grades 1-6 in California public schools since 1997 and has credentials in general and special education. He has two educational websites that show his work integrating the performing arts (http://kidslikeblues.org) and technology (http://kidslikeblogs.org) into the classroom. His work has been featured by the US Dept. of Education and the California Association for the Gifted, and he received a “Tech Hero of 2011 Award” from the California State Senate.


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  1. Steve Clark 1 year ago1 year ago

    Jon,

    It was great to meet you at the STEAM meeting yesterday morning. I like your article and think you will have much to offer the planning group going forward. See you at the next meeting! Steve

  2. Gabrielle Whitfield 2 years ago2 years ago

    This article contains some really excellent points. I agree that music is one of the most effective vehicles for teaching almost any subject matter. Presenting material in a musical way can be such a time saver in the classroom. Plus, incorporating music is one of the best ways to vary your classroom pacing and reach many different types of learners. Young minds are wired for music and movement, no matter what … Read More

    This article contains some really excellent points. I agree that music is one of the most effective vehicles for teaching almost any subject matter. Presenting material in a musical way can be such a time saver in the classroom. Plus, incorporating music is one of the best ways to vary your classroom pacing and reach many different types of learners. Young minds are wired for music and movement, no matter what culture students are from or what language they speak. Music is a uniting factor amongst humans. Children’s interest level for music is so high, why not capitalize on it as much as possible in the regular classroom? Or in the music classroom, for that matter! When teaching music theory to my classes, I frequently find that the most efficient way to reach everyone is by creating raps or rhyming songs to help them memorize the material. Huge time saver! Using music as a teaching tool is a common tactic used by instructors of many different subject matters all over the country (math, social studies). In this article, I found it so interesting that California state standards required the regular classroom teachers to incorporate music in their curriculum. Over the past decade, California has seen more cuts to public school music than almost anywhere in the country. Fascinating that their state standards require the regular classroom teacher to pick up the slack. It’s a different world down there!

  3. el 3 years ago3 years ago

    Music is basically poetry with embellishment. You are so right to draw that parallel, navigio. I think it's from the hairshirt theory of education that infects too much of our culture: that if it is fun or enjoyable, it's not rigorous; that for students who aren't doing well especially, we should focus on the least enjoyable and least accessible parts of academic schooling. That'll show 'em! The reality is that there are a lot of teachers … Read More

    Music is basically poetry with embellishment. You are so right to draw that parallel, navigio.

    I think it’s from the hairshirt theory of education that infects too much of our culture: that if it is fun or enjoyable, it’s not rigorous; that for students who aren’t doing well especially, we should focus on the least enjoyable and least accessible parts of academic schooling. That’ll show ’em!

    The reality is that there are a lot of teachers who would like to teach this way who do not believe that they are permitted to do so. Certainly if your school is in Program Improvement and obligated to follow a curriculum to the minute, there’s no room in the school day for this approach. That’s one of the reasons teachers leave those schools when they can.

  4. navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

    It feels almost cliche to comment on this piece as it seems like we should know it. Sadly, I guess, we don’t. It is surprising though as so much of our literary history is based in poetry, which is, or course inspired by our natural language rhythms (or perhaps vice versa). Music has always felt like a particularly powerful medium for providing a window into a language and a culture. I am surprised it is not used more.

  5. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 3 years ago3 years ago

    So wonderful — and working in San Diego County! It makes my heart sing.
    (Too many kids in that class, though, and too few teachers like Jon Schwartz!)

  6. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Art, schmart. Clean off your paintbrush and recite your times tables! Just kidding! I too appreciate this perspective. It's funny, I saw it in action even when I visited American Indian Public Middle School a few years ago. Though AIM is often cited as proof that back-to-basics instruction works, I noticed beautiful and thorough posters that students had made about math, with explanations and examples enclosed in big fish. Clearly, that teacher had a flair for … Read More

    Art, schmart. Clean off your paintbrush and recite your times tables!

    Just kidding! I too appreciate this perspective. It’s funny, I saw it in action even when I visited American Indian Public Middle School a few years ago. Though AIM is often cited as proof that back-to-basics instruction works, I noticed beautiful and thorough posters that students had made about math, with explanations and examples enclosed in big fish. Clearly, that teacher had a flair for visuals.

    The use of self-contained instruction all the way through Grade 8, as opposed to the more typical pattern of departmentalized instruction from Grade 6 onward, probably did make it easier to integrate the arts. Even if my schools/districts had provided materials and curriculum, I would have found it next to impossible to incorporate art projects into 1-hour Grade 10 Geometry period. Credentialing is another factor. Those of us with Multiple Subjects credentials demonstrated some competence in the arts, whereas teachers who only hold a Single Subject credential did not have to (unless of course the credential field was art!).

    That said, it is important to recognize that some of the work students do (or should be made to do) in math courses is artistic. With appropriate standards of performance, drawing statistical graphs, drawing and labeling 2-D figures, and assembling 3-D solids from nets are activities that will engage artistically-inclined students.

  7. el 3 years ago3 years ago

    Thank you for writing this. It breaks my heart to see well-meaning people react to low math or reading test scores by doubling down with extra doses of material that is obviously not working, and to have them pull arts and music out as 'frippery.' You've done a great job here creating a clear argument for how lessons that are at first glance less direct are so important, and in some cases may even be a … Read More

    Thank you for writing this.

    It breaks my heart to see well-meaning people react to low math or reading test scores by doubling down with extra doses of material that is obviously not working, and to have them pull arts and music out as ‘frippery.’ You’ve done a great job here creating a clear argument for how lessons that are at first glance less direct are so important, and in some cases may even be a more direct path to the fluency we seek for every student.

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