“Gifted kids, second language learners, children with special needs, and average kids can make great advances in academics, self-esteem, and confidence with a steady diet of music and the arts, because it involves so many different learning modalities.” – Jon Schwartz, USA

One lesson that has been evident this past year is that the rules for “what works” and “what doesn’t work” in the classroom are not hard and fast. In fact, one constant theme that has run through our interviews here at Daily Edventures is that innovation comes through trial and error and that taking risks and trying something different can lead to astounding outcomes.

Such is the case with Jon Schwartz. An elementary teacher, Schwartz is by nature curious and multi-talented. He is a blogger, a fisherman, a professional outdoors photographer and is one of the top underwater photographers of large pelagic fish. Before becoming a teacher, Schwartz was an extreme kayak angler (he was once featured on National Geographic television when he would catch and release marlins from kayaks). His diverse interests and innate need to explore has made a world of difference in the lives of his students – many of whom come from low-income families and do not speak English. How could Schwartz help these kids to not only learn, but to excel? He turned to music.  Schwartz created The Kids Like Blues Band Program, which according to Schwartz, “is about using blues music in a thematic teaching method. We use the lyrics and music as
a springboard for teaching academic content standards in reading, writing, listening, speech, social studies, and the visual and performing arts.” His students then take their completed work, perform it onstage together and record it with digital multi-track audio and video editing programs, like iMovie, Photoshop, and Garage Band.

“Kids learn better when they are given instruction in integrated, meaningful contexts, in a variety of modalities, and they are quite capable of doing incredible things in programs
like Photoshop, blogging, video editing, and multi-track audio recording,” says Schwartz. “They are inheriting a new world where they will need to be fluent in technology and they need to have tech-savvy, interesting teachers who think outside the box and make learning fun.”

It’s quite clear Schwartz is doing just that. Take a look at some of their fun videos, as well as news features on local TV news and KPBS TV.  “We’re a real band,” Schwartz says. “And we’re learning and rocking!”

Of course, it wouldn’t be in Schwartz’s nature to rest on his – or his students’ – laurels. Two years ago, he began a new program: Kid Like Blogs, where he pioneered a new blogging program with his fourth and fifth grade students.

It’s my pleasure to share today’s Daily Edventure, Jon Schwartz (but first, don’t miss these great videos of The Kids Like The Blues Band).

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I recently was awarded “Tech Hero of 2011” by the California State Senate and The Technology Training Foundation of America, and our work integrating music, the arts, and technology into our curriculum has been featured by the U.S. Dept of Education, KPBS TV, and many more. I would say it’s advanced innovation in that hopefully people can see that kids should be given more access to technology and be allowed more access to the visual and performing arts in education.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

People are realizing that 21st century educators can’t teach by rote from pacing manuals. They are seeing that parents and kids like it when you teach them skill sets and disciplines that are interesting and cutting edge. They are seeing that kids learn well in cooperative learning centers, instead of only getting direct and explicit top-down teaching. They are learning how to use technology like teacher websites, blogs, smart phones, and videos to communicate with parents, students, staff, and also use the Internet as a teaching tool in elementary education. They are seeing that the visual and performing arts can help all students.

Gifted kids, second language learners, children with special needs, and average kids can make great advances in academics, self-esteem, and confidence with a steady diet of music
and the arts, because it involves so many different learning modalities. They are also seeing how to collaborate with organizations in the community. For example, I’ve secured small grants in the past for equipment by cold-calling small businesses, and some of the parents of my students are busy trying to schedule new gigs for our band at senior centers, state fairs, and children’s hospitals.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Immerse themselves in technology as soon as possible, involve the kids, their parents, and their peers in assembling a team of tech-savvy tutors who can teach others in the class that are not well versed. My six- and seven-year-old students are teaching assistants in my tech classes where I teach others how to blog and use Photoshop! Don’t wait for the perfect moment to use tech, start now. Chances are, there are plenty of kids who can teach your students, even if you can’t. There is no excuse to not know how to teach technology if you are an educator. How can you help kids navigate through their tech-rich future if you’re not able to use it yourself?

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

My six- and seven-year-old students are proficient in Photoshop, know how to use the Internet as a research tool, most have blogs, and many write posts on vacations and weekends. They are digital citizens. We have made over six class movies that show parents, staff, and other educators how we work in cooperative learning centers, and how we use the visual and performing arts to teach core academic subjects. I teach my kids media awareness and search engine optimization (SEO), and the next step will be teaching them how to do video editing… if I can get some computers and video cameras donated.

I started a student blogging program several years ago in a 4/5 classroom, where I had 39 kids. I had a high percentage of English language learners and my wife, who is Mexican,
prepared some homemade Mexican food. We invited all the parents to come on a Saturday to my classroom, and I made a big push for technology, making the case to the parents (and with the help of my wife, in Spanish as well!). I explained how important it was that their children embrace technology, and I taught them about my own work with blogs and Photoshop and writing. I then told them that their children could begin acquiring marketable skills by learning how to blog and use Photoshop in our classroom, and within two weeks, I had most of the kids with their own blogs. I have pictures documenting that awesome day, too.

The kids were using blogspot and they loved being able to check their blog stats, see who had read their posts, and even learned how to post “grow and glow” comments on each other’s blogs. I was the moderator and had to approve all posts and comments.  All blogs of all of my students have always been anonymous and contain no identifying information and I train the kids on Internet safety. When parents had no idea how to use the computer themselves, I’d have a conference with them and teach them all about how the Internet works and set them up with their own emails. I know for a fact that there are many parents at my school that use the Internet today because of this.

In fact, next week I will be resuming my free parent night classes twice monthly and I will be delivering instruction in English and Spanish. My bilingual wife and daughters will be
assisting me (because my Spanish good but is not 100 percent fluent). I choose to work in low-income neighborhoods with diverse student populations because it is there that I know I can make the most difference, by doing things like this, offering high tech to kids and parents who ordinarily don’t get it. You should see some of the requests that I got (in Spanish!) from parents asking me to set up their children with blogs! I still have them, in fact you can see them here: http://kidslikeblogs.org/parent_involvement_blogs.html

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Draconian budget cuts. I choose to work in less affluent areas where I feel I can make the most difference. These areas have more people living paycheck to paycheck, and when the recession hit, our tax base couldn’t absorb the decline in revenue and we’ve been forced to cut everything. Teachers are paying for a lot of things out of pocket and many younger teachers lost their jobs. I’m 43 and I’m one of the youngest general education teachers that I know in my district. So it’s unfortunate that in tough economic times, the disparity between educational services in poor and rich areas increases. My friends who are teachers in more affluent districts have colleagues that are much younger than I am teaching, but all the younger teachers get cut when the budget has to be cut by millions each year.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

Recognizing quality educators and supporting innovation.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

The economy must improve. Once revenue increases, less affluent districts like mine can afford to rehire the teachers that were laid off, buy decent, modern tech equipment, and restore arts, sports, and afterschool programs.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Requiring teachers to become technologically proficient and teaching and encouraging them to integrate technology and the visual and performing arts into their curriculum.
You do this by hiring tech-savvy support people at the district level whose jobs it will be to train staff and support tech and arts integration.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Someone recently told me, “Be the teacher you want to look back on in 30 years and say, I did it the right way for the right reason.”

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

The adoption of the common core standards will make a huge difference. Accountability is vital but test scores are overemphasized and create so much pressure that administrators and teachers have no choice but to focus on test scores. Creativity, spontaneity, innovation, and making learning fun are put on the back burner when your job performance is judged through test scores. There’s no incentive to be creative.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

A highly trained, exciting, and motivated teacher who has laptops at each desk. Kids need to learn how to use the computer as a learning and living tool. Kids in affluent districts are already on this path. Kids without high quality teachers and equipment are at a great disadvantage. Great teachers are key, but if we stay old school and only use heavy, outdated textbooks, only teach manual cut and paste arts and crafts like generic wind socks and bunny hats made out of cutouts from 1981, sing nursery rhymes, and follow boring pacing guides word for word, we’re not equipping the next generation with the skills and habits that will allow them to compete in the workplace and enjoy successful careers. College students work and study with computers as well as books and paper and they communicate with their teachers online. Why not start in elementary school?

About Jon Schwartz 

  • Birthplace: Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Current residence: Carlsbad, California
  • Education: BA in Psychology, UCSC 1992; San Francisco State University General Ed Teaching Credential, 1998; Cal State San Marcos Special Education Credential, 2011
  • Website I check every day: Too many to count!
  • Person who inspires me most: My students!
  • Favorite childhood memory: Touring NYC with my Grandma
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I have a second career which I do when I’m not teaching: photography and writing for fishing and outdoors magazines (see http://wwwbluewaterjon.com) I do a lot of traveling to places like Hawaii, Fiji, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, The Amazon, Mexico, Panama, etc. I need to get more pictures of marlin being released at boat side while I swim with the fish so I will probably just go wherever they are biting in February! One time I even arranged for one of my students to get a free all expenses paid trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with his parents and sister. Read about it in article #7 “War Vet Catches Marlin in Cabo” at the “Articles” page on my website here: http://www.bluewaterjon.com/articles.htm
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? All day I am laughing and chuckling with my own three daughters, wife, and then my students at school.  Life is hilarious if you don’t take yourself too seriously, and I like to work hard but have TONS of fun in the process.
  • Favorite book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • Favorite music: The Blues
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”- Thoreau
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