The Coast News Group
From left to right: Students Isla Lozano, Anthony Moreno, teacher Jonathan Schwartz, and students Alena Mingmuang and Julian Roberts. Photo by Lillian Cox

Students learn to sing the blues

OCEANSIDE — When Jonathan Schwartz started teaching first grade at Garrison Elementary three years ago, Principal Margie Oliver suggested he use music to engage his class in the curriculum. 

Oliver is a professional pianist and organist in addition to being principal of the visual and performing arts magnet school.

Schwartz, who currently teaches second grade, began by playing standard elementary school songs on his guitar. One day he decided to have his students sing “Deep Elem Blues.” Then a funny thing happened.

“A student got up and started dancing,” he recalled. “Soon others followed, and they started memorizing the songs. Two of these were English language learners who had just come from Mexico and Japan and were not speaking any English, no matter how hard I tried to encourage them. It was the music that attracted them to the English language.”

Schwartz started using music as a whole class resource in phonics and decoding lessons, then realized the nature of blues provided an historical content to learn additional subjects.

He introduced his class to other blues standards such as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Promised Land” and “Get Rhythm.” By projecting vintage photos of trains, Greyhound buses and telephone operators depicted in the lyrics of these songs, he facilitated a discussion where students compared and contrasted their daily lives with their ancestors.

Each blues song presented a wealth of thematic teaching opportunities to learn history, sociology, math and English as Schwartz walked students through lyrics such as the late Jesse Fuller’s “The Monkey and the Engineer.”

“‘Drove a locomotive both far and near,’” he read to his class. “Far and near — what’s that?”

“An antonym,” a student answered.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Opposite,” the student replied.

“‘Accompanied by a monkey sitting on the driver’s seat.’ Is that fiction or nonfiction?” he asked.

“A monkey couldn’t drive a train so it’s make believe,” another student answered.

“Fiction, right?” he said.

Afterward, students scan their work, edit it with Photoshop and upload it on their personal student blog where Schwartz and parents can review it.

A year ago, Schwartz’s class formed a musical group, The Kids Like Blues Band! where they learned to hone their phrasing, choreograph their dance moves, review tapes and fine-tune their act for their next performance.

To date, the band has been featured by the U.S. Department of Education, Education Week, California Association for the Gifted Conference in Anaheim, Quantum Learning Center Campus in Oceanside, Cal State San Marcos College of Education, MainStreet Oceanside’s Sunset Market and KPBS.

Schwartz said the class and their parents were treated like royalty when they visited the studios of San Diego 6 TV to do a live performance.

“I tell my family that we keep getting more gigs,” said student Meliza Martinez. “We have one on March 13 at the Del Mar Hilton. When I’m up there in front of the audience I feel better, more special than I normally think I am. I feel like a superstar.”

Canyon Benner said he always dreamed of being famous, but lacked the expertise to make it happen.

“I didn’t know teachers knew how to make kids famous by doing little things, step-by-step,” he said. “Mr. Schwartz teaches us things other teachers don’t. We do tracks and learn technology which makes me feel really smart and skilled.”

Oliver is pleased with the ingenuity Schwartz has demonstrated and the results that have been achieved.

“Whenever Jon gets an idea he keeps going with it and it’s amazing what he does,” she said. “Most teachers try to teach in a typical way. Jon is so creative and takes the same curriculum and builds on it using the arts. It takes a special person to even figure that out.

“When he started three years ago as a fourth- and fifth-grade combination teacher he threw out textbooks and lesson plans most teachers were using and did it so creatively that the end result was that the students did extremely well on standardized testing.”

Next year when his current students move on to third grade Schwartz hopes to be able to offer an after-school program so that they can continue to pursue their love of the blues.

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