In front of the class of roughly 25 students, a small girl with long brown hair takes the microphone. She stands up straight, and puts the mic to her mouth.
On cue to the melody of an acoustic guitar, she busts into a solo, singing loudly and confidently a song about the city of Westerville, noting it is in the state of Ohio.
The rest of the class supports her solo by chiming in loudly and singing the chorus, without missing a beat.
Jim Ledford, a first-grade teacher at Alcott Elementary, plays the guitar. He switches from his acoustic guitar to ukulele, and the girl passes the microphone to another student for his turn at a solo.
Just like all first-grade students in the district, Ledford’s students learn compound words, introductory science and math, and continents and oceans.
But in Ledford’s class, students sing about it.
“We sing a lot,” Ledford said. “We sing from the time we get here in the morning. After we say the pledge, we sing You’re a Grand Old Flag, and then pretty much throughout the day.”
Ledford has played guitar most of his life, but found a way to incorporate his passion for music with his passion for education. He customizes and writes his own songs for his lessons and teaches the songs to his students. The songs make learning fun and interactive.
“When I started my student teaching in college, I realized how powerful music was so I incorporated it,” he said. “I realized how much kids love it and how much they learn through doing that.”
Many of his songs stick to the curriculum and help students easily memorize facts, such as where continents are on a map or where their city is and in what state. These songs stick to his students after first grade, too.
“The cool thing about it is I have kids who were in this class that are in third, fourth or fifth grade and the teachers will come back and say, ‘Well they knew this or that because they remembered it from first grade in a song that you taught,’ ” Ledford said.
“It’s a fun way to teach, but there is also something about the brain and you keep that in your brain longer,” he added.
This isn’t necessarily an uncommon theory either. In a brief Google search, more than 11 million pages contain sources, sites or articles about the impact of music and how it helps the brain learn. Many of these sites encourage educators to find ways to incorporate music in teaching by offering songs, how-to articles or testimonials to its impact.
According to an article from Music and Learning by musician, author and art therapist Chris Brewer, music activates students mentally, physically and emotionally and engages students in learning by creating a focused atmosphere.
“Music can also create a highly focused learning state in which vocabulary and reading material is absorbed at a great rate,” Brewer wrote. “When information is put to rhythm and rhyme, these musical elements will provide a hook for recall.”
Ledford realizes there are more things for young students to recall than some vocabulary and reading materials, so he doesn’t limit his songs to solely curriculum-inspired tunes. He also uses music to influence strong character development.
To keep students engaged and eager to learn more, he incorporates some fun songs into the daily set list and songs that teach students how to be a good friend.
“There is a song I sing about including others,” Ledford said. “During that song, I’ll say, OK, give me an example of a time when you included someone else. They will say, ‘I saw someone on the playground that wasn’t being included and invited them to play.’
“That’s really important to me, too – is the character building,” Ledford added. “They are only in first grade and they still have a lot of that to go. They still need to learn how to interact with each other.”
In March, Ledford’s class released a CD with the songs they sing almost daily. He said he has produced the CDs for 13 years and each year, the students pick the album title, the artwork, and everyone has a solo on the record.
Through the experiences, Ledford has seen his students learn the academic lessons to be successful in second grade and beyond. Perhaps more importantly, he has seen students leave very self-confident in learning, a trait that is valuable and can be difficult to instill.
“Music hits every different learning style, so you hit every kid with it. Even kids who are struggling can pick up the music,” he said.