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.
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.
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!” Continue reading