An Inspirational Story
My wife gives me purpose
My wife grew up in a large, lower class, not-very-educated family who didn't place much value on education. They were poor, had few opportunities and had largely resigned themselves to the quality of life that comes with inadequate education.
Bologna sandwiches, hand-me-down everything, evictions, pawnshops and a stint as a homeless family were some of the charming childhood memories she recalls today.
Fortunately, along the way to adolescence she met a teacher who, for reasons unknown, took interest in her. For the first time ever, my wife had someone suggest to her that she could rise up and be something more. Encouragement, guidance and patience from this engaged soul all made their powerful marks.
Drawing from the confidence that this "angel" teacher directed toward her, my wife worked hard, endured countless hardships and took on the considerable debt that was required to eventually acquire a college degree (a first in her family).
Any guess what she studied? Education. She became a teacher.
One Bachelor's Degree and two Master's Degrees later, she's still a teacher and is still passionate about it and is still looking for ways to make the special connection with her kids, just like the special connection that she received many years ago.
New problems need new solutions
Making that connection has become more and more difficult as two enormous challenges keep encroaching upon classrooms everywhere.
The first, known as NCLB, has shifted emphasis away from traditional inquiry-based, integrated education and has pushed classroom instruction toward a skills and drills approach, which is inherently not very satisfying or interesting to students.
The second major problem is that this boring educational edict, in the face of much more engaging computers, video games, television, and other entertainment cannot compete for kids' interest.
Because of this, a ton of classroom instructional time, already short in supply, is lost to daydreaming and blank stares. The amount of time lost to inattention and re-teaching the same subject over and over is staggering.
Do something, anything
Recognizing this, my wife set out to find a solution. One of the first things she tried was educational music CDs. Multiplication has never been a big hit with kids and the new crop were even more challenging to get through to. She ordered a CD from a well-known educational music company, and it arrived shortly thereafter. It had facts from 0-12, lyrics and a few activities to go with the songs. Everything looked good.
Not so fast! Everything was set; the kids were all in their seats, everyone was excited about the idea of listening to music in class and it was time to start teaching.
That's when something went terribly wrong.
Within seconds of starting the CD, the kids' eyes started rolling back in their heads. Whispers and outright talking began. Audible complaints and noticeable disinterest were obvious. The kids hated it. They made fun of it, became irritated by it and the time spent on it was a total loss. The CD still sits, un-played, all these years later.
She nagged me into business
That's when she first approached me for help. I've been a musician for more than 30 years and am an experienced songwriter and recording engineer. I also hold an English degree, which she thought would come in handy for writing concise, intelligent lyrics. She didn't see any reason why someone with my skill set couldn't simply write her some songs to use in her classroom.
I wasn't interested.
She asked, asked again, pleaded, prodded and came back again to ask one last time if I'd please write her some songs. And so it went for around 3 years. Then one day she brought home the dreaded multiplication CD and made me listen to it.
I thought I was going to puke. I finally understood the problem.
We knew we could help her
I had been playing around with the idea of starting a business with a fellow musician buddy of mine (Chris) and for kicks, I made him listen to the CD as well. Everything became clear. We suddenly realized that the business opportunity we'd been seeking was staring right at us: write some educational music that kids could actually embrace.
The idea was so simple. All we needed to do was choose relevant elementary school topics, obtain the most accurate and up-to-date information and then craft that information into lyrics that allowed the kids to exercise their problem-solving skills while they listened.
Yes, they were going to have to think.
Then we took it one step further; instead of following old-fashioned industry norms, we instead wrote music that catered to the tastes of the kids who would be listening to it. Electric guitars, real drums, passionate rock vocals and a robot were all part of a formula to get and hold the attention of kids. No more rolling eyeballs or whines of displeasure.
How's your level of engagement?
Talk about a connection! Who would have thought that kids would be more likely to pay attention to something that they were interested in than something they couldn't stand?
Unlike the waste of time that other CDs had proven to be, these new Rockbots CDs saved time. When kids pay attention the first time, less time is spent back-tracking.
When kids stop talking and start listening intently because they want to hear favorite parts of a song, you don't have to repeat what's being said as often.
When kids are following along with the lyrics, they're encoding information more fully and practicing their reading skills and word recognition skills at the same time.
In short, instruction time goes up by simply re-claiming all of that lost "blank stare" and daydream time.
That's a much better solution than the one proposed by NCLB, which is to gain instruction time by simply cutting out everything that isn't on "The Test."
Pay it forward
The songs worked so well for my wife's 3rd and 4th grade classrooms that they became mainstays of several activities and lesson plans. She made custom activity pages that catered to a wide variety of learning styles and keyed them specifically to take advantage of many of the innovative qualities that went into the songs themselves.
Soon, other teachers who had seen and heard what she was doing started asking her for copies of the CDs, lesson plans and activity pages to use in their classrooms. It didn't take long to realize that if we put all of those activity pages online for easy access, other teachers who had the CDs could use them as well. Thanks to her, there are more than 70 worksheets available online as free downloads.
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
It's hard to believe that a young girl from a poor family would not only beat the statistical probability that she wouldn't complete high school, but that she'd go on to achieve multiple advanced degrees and inspire the creation of an educational company as well.
If this isn't proof of the power of education and the importance of the teacher-student connection, I don't know what is.
Thanks for the inspiration,