When Matt Baron, an ESL instructor at two Chicago public schools, began writing curriculum-based songs for his students, he came upon it somewhat accidentally.
Already heavily involved with the Chicago music scene as a founder of Coach House Sounds and a musician with a couple of bands -- Baron von Something and Tell Your Friends -- Baron has always had a knack for music, so it's really only natural that it would begin to seep into his lesson plans.
And it's also not surprising that the music, hardly resembling "Kidz Bop"-type jams, is actually really good. Not long after showing that he could teach Common Core Standards and Language Arts lessons through music, his colleagues at the two CPS schools where he teaches caught on and encouraged him to record an album allowing him to share his work with other teachers and students alike. The result, he hopes, will be a fantastic 10 song album best suited for first graders but equally enjoyable to others.
Baron has launched a Kickstarter to help get his album off the ground and, with two weeks to go before the campaign's end, The Huffington Post checked in to see how it was coming along.
HP: It looks like it took you a few months before you began to incorporate music into your lessons. Were you hesitant at first?
When I decided to write my first curriculum-based song, it wasn't premeditated. It was spontaneous because I didn't even intentionally sit down to write the first song when I did; my guitar happened to be in the same room where I was working on lesson plans for the week and I picked it up after a futile online search to find a song I could use for teaching a specific subject. So in that sense I wasn't hesitant to try my hand at this, it was just more of an oversight on my part that this is something I can actually do.
What were the kids' immediate reaction? Were you a hit right off the bat?
The kids’ immediate reaction was overwhelmingly positive. They loved hearing, reading and gaining different understandings of their spelling and vocabulary words in a new context. It was, and still is, the kids’ reactions that motivate me to continue doing this.
What were other teachers' reactions to what you were doing? Were you getting any requests to write songs for lessons teachers in other areas had to teach?
The teachers and administrators have reacted very positively to the songs. In fact, the idea to put an album together came from an administrator from one of the schools where I teach.
There have been some specific requests for songs about various subject areas, besides the vocabulary and spelling word songs. Last year, a kindergarten teacher asked me to write a song to teach her students about the short "u" vowel sound, so we put together a word list and then I wrote a song called "Mr. Sun." The same teacher also suggested I write a song to teach about the "Magic E.," i.e. when "e" changes the word "cap" to "cape." So I wrote a song about that subject. This year I wrote a song for kindergarten called "Bats are Nocturnal." I wrote a song to teach my Spanish bilingual students about cognates -- my only song that has both English and Spanish words.
Do the songs come easily for you or is it pretty challenging to work in the educational goodies?
The lyrics and chords come surprisingly easily for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I already know what the song is supposed to be about, or what words need to be in the song. Therefore I have a fairly concrete starting point. I also try to keep things relatively simple in terms of chord progressions and also in terms of developing subject matter for the vocabulary and spelling word songs.
I look at the list of words I'm supposed to use and try and devise a song title or theme for a song based on these words, without thinking too long about it. Same process goes for the music; I pick up my guitar and grab for a chord or two, and if it seems like it's heading in an OK direction, I roll with it rather than second-guess it. Many times the "educational goodies" happen unintentionally. I'll take a step back and look at the lyrics and realize that there's an "if/then statement" in there, or a "small moment," or something character-education based. So I end up creating extension activities that align with other areas of the daily lessons, sometimes intentionally and other times not.
Are there any musicians or educators that have proven particularly influential for you in what you're doing now?
The music teacher at one of the schools where I work, Amanda McClintock, has been a big influence on me. Seeing her passion for music education and how she incorporates music in her teaching has shown me how dynamic and essential music can be when teaching all types of school subjects.
My dad has also been an influence in terms of me becoming a teacher, and also using music while teaching. He went back to school to become certified as a teacher just over 10 years ago, and now he's a music teacher at two schools in Waukegan, Ill. I changed careers also, and just became certified to teach last year. Seeing him go back to school to do something he's passionate about, and also watching him grow the music program at two schools, has had a very positive effect on me.
Finally, the principal at one of the schools where I teach, Pete Zimmerman, plays guitar and is a huge music fan. So knowing that he loves music has helped make me comfortable trying out my songs in the classroom.
When did you realize you wanted to do something more serious with it -- i.e. recording the songs and putting together the materials for others to use?
There were two people who planted a seed in my mind that I must create an album. One was Len Dominguez, a former CPS principal and my graduate school assessor. He told me that he didn't know of anyone else within the CPS system creating original curriculum-based/standards-aligned music, and that I must copyright the songs and make an album. Also, the assistant principal at one of the schools where I work -- her kids go to the other school where I work -- kept prodding me to take this seriously and make an album and relevant curriculum to share with other teachers.
I had to ask one last question not directly related to your project: CPS teachers are talked about in the news quite a bit these days. With all this talk -- turnarounds, closings, "phaseouts," layoffs, raises or longer school days. What's it like in the trenches?
I'm fortunate because I do not feel as if I'm working in the trenches. Both of the schools I work at are exceptional in terms of providing safe and challenging learning environments that support the students and teachers; the administration at both schools are highly supportive and flexible. It's hard to not notice CPS in the news, but mostly I just try and focus on what's in front of my students and me today, and to also remain grateful that I have two excellent teaching positions within CPS.
As of Dec. 2, with two weeks left, Matt Baron has raised almost $5,000 of his $5,550 goal via his Kickstarter campaign. Click here to help his new album happen and here to learn more about the Chicagoan's many other musical ventures.
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