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Teaching EffectivelyThe secret to keeping the attention of students studying the Blues is simple. Catch them where they are musically then take them where you want them to go. This is important because in order to teach effectively you have to know the subject matter your are teaching inside and out, and you have to connect with your students. By connecting with them you will demonstrate an interest in what they deem as being important.    


As a child on Saturdays I’d watch cartoons and play the guitar along with the groups on American Bandstand and Soul Train. While reflecting on my youth, I was about to unfairly compare my glory days with those of the students I teach today. My students have VH1, MTV and BET, but a notable difference between our generations is that today’s kids lack exposure to live musicians. Without getting into a one-sided debate, much of the music that the students we will service listen to is generated by computers, MIDI keyboards and drum machines. Today, a song can be written, arranged, produced and performed by one person digitally, whereas in our day that same song would have taken an entire band plus a team of engineers and producers to create. Knowing this, we have to do three things to be successful in our efforts to promote the Blues in our classrooms:  

 1. Assess where our students are musically.  

 2. Incorporate what you want them to learn with what they already know musically.  

 3. Reference similarities between songs they know with the ones you are teaching.


American music has been a soundtrack to the world for over fifty years, and the Blues is at the core of its molecular structure. When most Americans think of this music stereotypical images of Southern African American musicians appearing to have taken an oath of poverty, while playing off-brand guitars in smoke-filled rooms will undoubtedly come to mind. The last thing some might ever think of when discussing education on any level is the use of the Blues to help improve literacy. Today, we live in a global village where we can communicate with friends and family across the world in real time via the Internet. This is why we have to embrace technology and use it purposefully and responsibility. Unfortunately, some school administrators view the arts as senseless, dispensable, extra curricular activities instead of forums where students can express themselves. President Obama said, “Part of what arts education does is it teaches people to see each other through each other’s eyes. It teaches us to respect and understand people who are not like us, and that makes us better citizens, and it makes our democracy work better. That’s something that I believe in” (Campaign Speech).


In my 20 + years as an educator I’ve had the opportunity to train administrators, teachers and students (pre-kindergarten through college) throughout the country on how to use the Blues as a tool to improve literacy through my Blues Learning and Understanding Education Systems (B.L.U.E.S.) via the Blues Kids of America program. Any educator will tell you that the most effective teachers are the ones who teach the subjects they are most passionate about. How passionate are you about teaching the Blues to your students? Let’s face it, learning something new in some cases can be as boring as watching paint dry. Something I started doing at four years old has given me a career.

The Blues Kids of America program was created in 1989, when I was a substitute teacher in Chicago Public Schools. One day, I finished the lesson plans left by the absent instructor ahead of schedule. I had my guitar with me and the rest is history. Neither the students nor I had any idea that a program would be created from this moment. I was just thinking on my feet. By the mid 1990s, principals were recruiting me to implement my program in schools throughout the nation. From those experiences, I learned that if you execute these five basic steps in your Blues class you will be OK:
    Step 1: Share your music experiences and secure student trust.
    Step 2: Listen to what your students have to say about modern music and the Blues.
    Step 3: Choose age appropriate music.
    Step 4: Engage students at-all-times by having them be part of the creative process.
    Step 5: Compliment your students on their progress.


These steps even worked when my program was implemented in juvenile detention centers. We chose songs that were popular (without profanity and violence, of course), and allowed students to express themselves by reciting poetry, rapping and singing R&B songs. You’d be surprised how many of them wanted to sing songs that their grandparents listened to such as “Last Two Dollars” by Johnny Taylor and “Wang Dang Doodle” by KoKo Taylor. At the end of the program cycle their sentiments were always the same “. . . but only if we had an outlet to express ourselves creatively in a structured, safe environment before we got locked up.” One of the keys to getting and keeping your students interested in the Blues is to cross reference it with popular culture through mediums such as MTV, the radio, films, sitcoms, commercials, cartoons, iTunes and YouTube. 


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