Reading: the new pop sound for kids in the Springs

The commitment and drive of public school educators is celebrated each November during American Education Week (this year, Nov. 12 – 16).  For the Colorado Education Association, it’s a time to appreciate the inspiring efforts our members make on behalf of Colorado students, such as Rita Merrigan’s summer book bus in Gunnison and Anne Djokic’s morning student meeting in Clifton.  Now for your consideration, the unlikely turn of a 4th grade teacher into a hip-hop producer in Colorado Springs.

Jeremy Spartz will be the first to tell you he has no business being in the music business.

Jeremy Spartz oversees a student’s progress on Lyrics2Learn

“I don’t have a really extensive background in music,” admits Spartz, a Colorado Springs Education Association member who teaches fourth grade at Martinez Elementary School.  “But my entire family has always been very musical.  I’m the black sheep that way, but somehow it’s caught up to me.”

Music caught up to Spartz to the tune of 150 compositions, in which he sets the text of original poems and stories in motion to synthesized beats in an online literacy program called Lyrics2Learn.  Nearly all the teachers at Martinez are now having their students read along to the text that flashes up on their computer screens as they hear the lyrics and music through their headphones.

“They don’t even realize that they’re reading.  They think they’re singing,” said Teresa Wastler, a second grade teacher and Colorado Springs EA members who helped Spartz write many of the songs in Lyrics2Learn. 

A student reads along with a Lyrics2Learn lesson

Research has documented the solid learning connections young kids make when lessons are tied to music – that’s why we sing our ABC’s.  Spartz, however, said he couldn’t find a computer program that used a student’s natural interest in music to improve reading fluency.

“Kids didn’t have a really engaging, fun way to try and become more fluent” on the computer said Spartz.  “To get kids engaged and get them interested in reading is half the battle.  Once they become interested, they basically take off on their own.”

Sydney is one of Spartz’s fourth graders who’s taking off on a new appreciation of reading.  Her mother, Michele Wolfe, said Sydney was not reading at grade level in third grade.

“I was told if your child doesn’t know how to read by the third grade, the rest of their education is going to be a challenge,” said Wolfe.  “It was scary as a parent thinking she was not up to par.  What do you do?  What resources are available and where do you go?”

Sydney is greeted by the program’s animated notebook

Sydney was placed into Spartz’s Lyrics2Learn pilot at the end of last school year because “she can learn the words to a song in a heartbeat and tell you what the song means,” according to Wolfe.  She says Sydney’s love of music has now transcended into a love of reading through Lyrics2Learn.

“Sydney has improved in her reading, we’ve seen her numbers improve,” said Wolfe.  “She actually likes picking up a book now and trying to read, where before, she didn’t.  So I have seen a lot of improvement in just her interest and excitement in reading.”

Spartz feeds into that excitement by creating Lyrics2Learn lessons that resonate with his students.  On this visit to Martinez, the lesson of the day was entitled ‘The Coliseum’. 

“So they get to learn about gladiators and a lot of action.  Usually the kids are really into anything that’s exciting, so I try to write about things that they’re naturally into anyway,” Spartz said.  He blends the adventures with musical beats the kids enjoy, including heavy doses of rap and hip-hop.

“There’s a lot of hip-hop,” Spartz said with a laugh.  It’s not a style hit with all of his fellow teachers, but he finds, “Hip-hop really lends itself to fluency and speaking along with the flow, which is really what we’re trying to get them to do, find the rhythm of their voice.”

The Lyrics2Learn rhythm follows the students home.  The ease of online access makes the dread mention of ‘homework’ a little easier on the ears for Martinez students.

“When I say, ‘We have homework tonight – it’s Lyrics2Learn,’ they say ‘Yes!’  They absolutely love it,” said Wastler.  “Parents like the fact that their kids like doing the homework.  It’s not a fight with them, it’s not a struggle.”

“They’re very excited to do it,” said Andrew Norkoli, Colorado Spring EA member and third grade teacher.  “The fact that they’re wanting to do it is a huge help, because if they’re wanting to do it then they tend to work harder, and during that time we’re going to see more growth.”

Spartz, Wastler and Norkoli say they are seeing strides in fluency and comprehension growth made by students who previously struggled with reading.

“That is really exciting to see,” said Wastler of improved attitudes and rising test scores in reading.  “When they think they can do it, when they have that success of being able to do it, then it’s just going to keep building.”

Sparts reviews student papers at the end of class

Lyrics2Learn is beginning to build for Spartz outside of Colorado Springs.  He’s seeing interest back in his home state of Minnesota as he shows the program to teachers there, and even has exported the program to a school in Dublin, Ireland.  Not bad for someone who doesn’t know how to play a musical instrument. 

“It’s fabulous, because he’s actually given hope and some encouraging advise to us, and encouraging progress with our child by doing this,” said Wolfe of Spartz and his creation, Lyrics2Learn.  “It’s been a real encouragement to my husband and I as parents to see how Sydney can progress by just one person taking an interest and doing things just a little bit different.”

“We’re just going to see where it goes.  It’s a lot of fun and a big project,” said Spartz.  “Hopefully it makes a difference and gets a lot of kids into literacy who weren’t before.”

Hear Jeremy Spartz, Michele Wolfe and others talk about the magic of music in literacy, and watch Lyrics2Learn at work in Martinez Elementary, at this link to the CEA YouTube channel.

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3 Responses

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