You reach more kids when you use the arts to teach

May 12, 2013

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  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 ( and technology ( 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.

Exit mobile version