Interview: Matt Baron of Future Hits

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In general, I think people consider learning through music as a fun way to learn, and often frivolous. I don’t want to look at what I’m doing with my students always as fun exercises. I think it’s inherently fun because it’s getting the kids to think by using songs as a springboard for a lesson, but the meatiness of the corresponding lessons really challenge and ignite the kids’ thinking.

Matthew Baron (the one in the middle of the bottom row) is a Chicago Public School ESL Resource teacher and the founder of Future Hits, a Chicago-based Kindie band and educational project that enhances learning through meaningful songs for children and their families, as well as elementary aged students.

At a time where education has come under much scrutiny due to the complexity of the new Common Core standards, Baron has combined his talent as a musician and an educator to produce over 50 songs to date, all of which have served as crucial aids in the classroom.

Future Hits’ most recent album, Today is Forever, contains a collection of songs – in English and Spanish – whose educational nature will go unnoticed at first. When I initially played the CD, I was taken by Baron’s voice, which is very similar to Stephen Malkmus’. The lyrics are relatable and I felt an instant connection to the indie sounds of the music. There was no indication that the songs were crafted to encourage proper pronunciation, literacy, phonics and many other divisions of Language Arts and Reading.

I have always wanted to be an educator and love hearing about creative ways to use music as a teaching resource. So when Today is Forever crossed my path, I was moved to learn more. I had a great conversation with Baron who goes deeper into Future Hits, as a project and a band while also explaining the many fascinating ways he integrates his songs in the classroom. He also touches upon how Dave Matthews Band encouraged singing, the new album and new curriculum he is working on that will be available online as a .PDF and mp3.

Whether you are an educator or parent, or if English or Spanish (or both) is spoken in your home, I highly recommend giving Future Hits a spin.

Today is Forever is available through Bandcamp, iTunes, and CDBaby.


KCG: Tell us about Future Hits?

Matthew Baron: Sure! I am an ESL Resource teacher, and Future Hits is a project I started as a way for me to come up with lessons that meet the needs of all types of learners.

In March 2011, I was in an alternative Masters Program for Education, and one of my key assessments was based on an in-classroom assessment. A first grade teacher who had a group of ESL students in her classroom gave me her class’s spelling words for the upcoming week, which contained long “o” words featuring “oa” and “ow” spelling patterns. With 10-12 feature words in front of me, I decided to write a song called “Yellow Boat,” which ended up being on our first album, Songs for Learning. During my assessment, I brought the song and a lyric sheet to the classroom, and gave the kids a spelling quiz. It was a smash! My assessor loved it, the teacher loved it, my administration loved it, and they all encouraged me to continue to do similar songs and exercises.

As time went on, I developed the lessons more fully. I don’t always work with spelling words; sometimes it’s vocabulary, or writing strategies like persuasive writing, “if/then” statements, or compound words. I also come up with different exercises like finding adjectives or underlining nouns, and other anchor activities like word sorts and charades. Each song’s content can shift into higher order of thinking questions, which I label as “Brain Teasers.”

At times I let kids illustrate their comprehension. So if a kid is young or has writing challenges or doesn’t know English yet, they can draw what they hear from the song first as opposed to writing it. This is an effective and joyful modification for diverse learners and English-language learners.

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KCG: How did you decide on the name Today is Forever for your second album?

Today is Forever comes from something one of my student’s said. One day after school, I overheard a seven year-old boy say to his mom when he got picked that “today is forever.” I just thought that was such a great phrase. It’s very profound, simple, and open to interpretation

KCG: Your previous career was in Sales. Going from Sales to Teaching, how would you describe your experience as an educator? 

A friend and mentor of mine told me while I was still in my education masters program: “Being a teacher isn’t just about having interesting conversations with students, you have to actually teach to the standards.” I look at my role as an educator as not necessarily doing interesting things with kids as a first priority. My first priority is to teach them what the state and the country standardizes. I think about how I can teach kids in an interesting and impactful way. In general, I think people consider learning through music as a fun way to learn, and often frivolous. I don’t want to look at what I’m doing with my students always as fun exercises. I think it’s inherently fun because it’s getting the kids to think by using songs as a springboard for a lesson, but the meatiness of the corresponding lessons really challenge and ignite the kids’ thinking.

KCG: How do you cover making music for families versus writing for your students? Is it hard to separate the educator part of yourself versus artist/musician?

When I write music for kids, I take a look the focus words (word families and vowel sounds mostly) I get from the general classroom teachers, sometimes there are 10, sometimes 20, I look at them on a page and think “what could this song be about?” For example, a new song on our yet to be released 2017 album is called “Mood Change,” and It teaches about long u (“ue” and “oo”) words. Solely based on the focus words I got prior to writing the song, it occurred to me that this could be a song about a kid who’s feeling depressed after school and what he can do to feel better. So it has a general appeal. It’s one of my favorite Future Hits songs because it’s based my experience as a kid and an adult; it explains how I think negative thoughts, and how I must act to get myself out of that thinking.

KCG: Does that process shift when you write specifically for students, and with the Common Core Standards in mind?

I start as a means of simplicity to help students understand sounds and then work with the focus words. Once I have the first iteration of a song, which incorporates the focus words, I think about how I can write lessons that go along with it, and that can help me teach to Common Core standards. In “Mood Change” I thought through how I could talk about settings that affect a child’s mood, like being at the library,  pool, or zoo, and that wasn’t intentional. My only intention was to talk about double o words, and the short double o sound, which is pronounced “ouhh” as in “look” and “cook.” Then I added in a lot of double o, long o sounds like “oo,” as in “zoo” and “pool”, which allows me to use the song in an expanded way in terms of kids differentiating the sounds that “oo” can make. I always tell them that the English language is very strange, and unlike Spanish, has very few rules, so we must remember why letters sound the way they do in every particular word.

KCG: In addition to encouraging pronunciation, what other Common Core standards do your songs address?

The songs have also worked to support key Common Core areas such as inferences and figurative language. Our song, “On Stormy Mornings,” for example, has literal lyrics (“On stormy mornings /  I get a late start”) and figurative ones (“My room is so dark / I sleep like a rock”). That line is also an idiom, something that is essential for ESL students to learn. Altogether those three things are where I align to different Common Core standards and different writing levels. This is what’s so great about being a resource teacher; I never considered literal or figurative language for “On Stormy Morning” until a teacher said we’re doing literal and figurative language and asked if I had any songs that would work to teach this. 

One day, I did an exercise with my students that I didn’t intend. In “On Stormy Mornings,” the word “parched” appears. The lyric goes, “My mouth is so parched / before it gets wet.” The kids didn’t know what the word “parched” meant, so we broke down the exercise. I only had them read that one line, “My mouth is so parched,” and then we sang it once. I explained to them that if they aren’t familiar with what a word means, a great reading strategy is to read around the word they are not sure about. I told them that to read a little before the word or a little bit after to gain better understanding. Together we then looked at the next line “But before it gets wet, and a girl’s hand shot up and she said “Parched means dry!” I asked how she knew that, and she said “Well, before my mouth gets wet, it’s dry.” So that’s Common Core-aligned strategy, letting kids gain strategies to read text closely to gain richer understanding. This turned out to be a great unexpected lesson.

KCG: SEL (Social Emotional Learning) is also a hot topic. In my daughter’s school they have specialists come in to teach various aspects and scenarios to the kids to encourage better interpersonal (and personal) experiences within the classroom and outside of it, like on the playground for example. Does you also write songs that align to SEL standards?

Each song has an SEL standard affixed to it, and can be used to teach SEL in a real way that aligns to standards. How the SEL standards arise is from working backwards. For example, I don’t say I’m going to write a song about honesty. Instead, I look and see that there is a standard about trust or honesty, and I think about how a particular song I’ve already written can express the meaning of trust. This makes the process more simple, instead of having all of these parameters around how a song must be in order to meet educational goals. I can look at each song and notice at least one SEL theme, and from there I find actual standards and use the songs to teach them.

KCG: Do you consider Future Hits to be an educational band? 

I was very intentional about having Today is Forever straddle both elements of the band’s goals, which is to be an educational band, and also to be a band that people can enjoy whether or not they are tapped into the educational component.

The title of our first album, Songs for Learning, is sort of a wink and homage to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports because I was listening to that album a lot around the time I was working on that album. With Today is Forever, we’re a little less overt with the educational nature of this album. For example, on the back cover of Songs for Learning, there are asterisks that denote how songs are aligned to Common Core and social emotional learning, whereas with Today is Forever, we put the educational charts in the liner notes.  Aligning our songs to educational standards is essential for us, but I wanted to convey that the record can stand alone as an album that people can listen to and not necessarily use just for educational purposes.

KCG: Why do you describe Future Hits as “the heartfelt (yet secretly educational) music project for kids, families and teachers”? It seems like “secretly educational” is a disclaimer to avoid any stigma or disapproval from the general public about what your music might sound like. 

We got a tagline (“fun (yet secretly educational)” from a review in Time Out Chicago a few years ago. We can be fun at times, but fun isn’t how I would describe us.  I do think every thing we do is heartfelt, and so that’s why I substituted that word in there.  I don’t think we need to hide the “secretly educational” piece, it really does just describe what we do. When I explain Future Hits’s music to people, I tell them it’s educational, but it’s not directly instructional like “hey kids we’re gonna learn bout the long “o” sound! Here we go: “oh, oh, oh, oh!”

KCG: You’re not directly teaching in your songs.

The songs serve as springboards for educational discourse. When you first listen to the album, you wouldn’t even know it’s educational, at least from a nitty-gritty standards/phonics approach. “Bypass Winter,” for example teaches about long e (“ee” and “ea”) words,  and you’re going hear them in the lyrics “In less than a week / The dirty dry leaves / In the dark street / Will start to freeze/ By now I can tell that this gray, frigid breeze / Will begin to frost my sore hands and knees.” You wouldn’t know that this song is going to teach you about those sounds at first, but now that I’ve told you,  you will hear the long e words when you listen to the song.

KCG: Today is Forever features songs in both Spanish and English wheres your first album, Songs for Learning was just English. What was the inspiration for having both?

The idea wasn’t there for the first one. We recorded that one in 2011 – 2012. I went to Ecuador and played a show in the Galapagos Islands in summer of 2013, and once I saw the response Spanish-speaking people had to my music, I knew we had to pursue it more fully. I sang in English, and introduced the songs in Spanish, and the native Spanish-speakers reacted so positively to the songs and to the fact that, as a native English-speaker, I was trying to engage with them on a real level.

KCG: When you are using your songs to teach ESL kids how do you translate grammar from Spanish to English as the rules of Spanish grammar are different? For example, in Spanish language, adjectives follow nouns. I’m thinking about when you were explaining the meaning of parched, as we discussed earlier.

Using the bilingual elements of the song are not to teach the vowel sounds or the sentence structures, but more of a way to teach/transpose comprehension. If a child understands a word/words in their native Spanish, and is learning English, they can hear the Spanish versions first to get the gist of the song’s theme and for comprehension’s sake. The native Spanish-speaker will subsequently learn the vowel sounds, spelling patterns, etc. in English much more easily because they won’t need to focus so much on comprehending in English; they already understand what the song is about in their native language. This leads to quicker vocabulary acquisition as well.

Research shows that if one can master something in their native language they’re going to acquire it that much sooner in their second language, so I took that into account with the new songs.

KCG: How did you get started with playing music and were there any teachers that inspired you along the way?

My Dad is a jazz musician, and the only music that would be playing in the house was jazz and occasionally Beatles for my mom. I strongly disliked jazz growing up, it annoyed me a great deal. Now I love it, and think that it grew on me from the 15+ years of hearing it around the house non-stop. Anyway, I loved rock as a kid, and  I came home one day from first grade and remember seeing an electric guitar case sitting against the dining room table. It was like someone left a million dollars there. My dad said it was a loaner guitar from his friend Frank Portolese, who was a very influential and accomplished guitarist in the Midwest. Shortly thereafter, while still in first grade, I started taking guitar lessons with Frank. I got a hot pink, American-made Peavey Tracer guitar after a year of lessons. I never really strived or wanted to be a technical player. Writing songs appealed most to me. Thankfully, Frank was very patient and methodical and made me learn the guitar string by string to have technique, despite my wanting to focus on Silverchair and Nirvana songs.

In seventh and eighth grades, I found that my love of writing songs was cultivated by a teacher at my school who ran an after school jam session, Mr. Bauer. Another influential teacher was Mrs. Josephson, who was a native English-speaker, but taught Spanish. She loved Spanish culture and language so much and imparted her passion onto all of us. Mrs. Josephson made learning really fun. Spanish language was always my favorite class, and I took it from 5th grade all the way through college. So Mr. Bauer and Mrs. Josephson were two very influential teachers who shaped my direction and were greatly influential to how I got started playing , and songwriting during my formative years.

KCG: When did you start singing?

I was terrified to sing. I wrote lyrics, but when I rehearsed with my band I wouldn’t plug in a microphone. We recorded a demo with the bassist’s dad, and it was just instrumental because I was too nervous to sing. In high school, the Dave Matthews Band bug bit me, and I learned all of his songs and practiced singing and playing along them. That was the most useful exercise because his songs are really challenging and unconventional, and learning his songs helped me with unconventional chord structures for basic chords, and how to sing all the while.

Singing in public was scary. I really resisted it, but when I started performing in high school at variety shows and battle of the bands, this is when I came out of my shell in terms of becoming more willing to be front and center in front of a bigger group of people. My voice is a little off-kilter, and I like it. It’s rough around the edges, but I am no longer shy when singing in public.

KCG: Do you have a curriculum that you can offer with your CD or for homeschoolers and kids that are not in public schools? Also, what’s next for Future Hits?

I do. I have a very robust curriculum in PDF form and mp3s, and am working towards putting it all online for people to obtain it. That’s my next big project, to get all of this stuff online and available for download. I will probably give samples away and sell some of the materials, i.e. for one song I will give away the song and a spelling sheet, but to get the rest of the materials, people will have to purchase. We will see how it goes. This is the one of the most exciting parts of Future Hits for me, when people use my songs and materials when I’m not even in the room!

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