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Little Kids Rock Expanding Music Program To 320 CPS Schools With $2M Boost

By Ted Cox | February 28, 2017 5:26am | Updated on February 28, 2017 12:53pm
 Franklin Fine Arts Principal Kurt Jones joins the school band Definition Chaos for
Franklin Fine Arts Principal Kurt Jones joins the school band Definition Chaos for "Footloose" at Tuesday's announcement.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

OLD TOWN — Franklin Fine Arts Center was not going to miss its shot Tuesday as Chicago Public Schools announced the expansion of a program using popular songs to teach music education.

Modern Band, an instruction program created by the national Little Kids Rock nonprofit, has been a partner with Chicago Public Schools since 2008 and is now in almost 150 Chicago schools. But Little Kids Rock and CPS announced Tuesday at Franklin, 225 W. Evergreen Ave., that $2 million in locally generated grants and corporate and individual donations will allow them to expand their partnership to about 320 schools by 2020.

Franklin is CPS' only citywide magnet school devoted to arts instruction, and its in-house band, Definition Chaos, performed "My Shot" from the musical "Hamilton" as part of the announcement.

According to David Wish, founder and chief executive officer of Little Kids Rock, it's intended to reach kids who are tuning out rote lessons on "The Erie Canal Song" and playing plastic recorders.

"There are a number of institutional obstacles that prevent children from coming into music education, and we're all about tearing those barriers down," Wish said Monday from the organization's New Jersey headquarters. "That's the core mission, and it's really transformational. It really focuses on creating safe spaces for children to be creative."

Wish said Modern Band isn't for every student, just as marching band isn't for every student, but Modern Band sets out to expand the reach of music education to those who might otherwise turn a deaf ear.

"I remember when I was a kid my mother exposed me to chicken pox so I would never get it again," he added. "That's not the kind of exposure we want for a music program.

"You want to capture the kids who are sneaking a listen to their iPods in the back of the room," Wish said. "What are you listening to? Bruno Mars? We can do that here."

LaTanya McDade, chief officer in CPS' Office of Teaching and Learning, cheered the program at Tuesday's announcement at Franklin as "education that represents who [students] are," adding that it's "culturally relevant."

"It can make music education as diverse as the students it serves," added Wish, who came into town for the event.

Earlier, Wish said he developed the program 16 years ago while a teacher in East Palo Alto, Calif., predating the Jack Black "School of Rock" movie about a ne'er-do-well musician masquerading as a substitute teacher who molds his students into a band.

But the aims are largely the same, with a "heavy emphasis on composition and improvisation, kids learning to write their own songs," Wish said. "They call it 'playing music' for a reason. If it feels like work, you're probably doing it wrong.

"Our aim is to draw the music out, not drum it in," he said.

Little Kids Rock now boasts teaching more than 275,000 U.S. students a week through 1,800 trained teachers in 127 school districts.

Wish said it provides existing school music programs with guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, microphones and other technical tools to make modern music, ranging from rock to hip-hop and beyond, with curriculum lessons provided to music teachers as well.

"If you don't know how to do rap, it makes it difficult to teach children how to rap. That's where our materials and our lesson plans and our training come in," Wish said. "If you're a classically trained oboist, but your children are listing to Beyonce and Taylor Swift, you don't have to take a pass on them."

"As music teachers, we don't always have access to curriculum resources," said Anne Gray, who's taught music at Franklin for 12 years. The school band, Definition Chaos, has been active for the last nine years, but as an after-school activity. Adding Modern Band to the school last year, she added, allowed her to take it into the classroom, so that Definition Chaos is "now part of my curriculum during the day."

Definition Chaos closed the event with a performance of "Footloose," joined onstage by Principal Kurt Jones. Christian rapper Sir the Baptist also performed as part of the announcement.

 Little Kids Rock founder David Wish and rapper Sir the Baptist (left) join the Franklin school band Definition Chaos onstage.
Little Kids Rock founder David Wish and rapper Sir the Baptist (left) join the Franklin school band Definition Chaos onstage.
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"We focus on teaching children to play the music they know and love," Wish said."By teaching children to play that music, kids see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and that's a very powerful thing for a child, especially for children who sometimes feel they're not seen."

Taking a big-picture approach, Evan Plummer, director of arts education at CPS, drew parallels with the gradual acceptance granted jazz over the decades.

"We should look at the place that jazz music now has in our society, our schools and our curricula,” Plummer said. “Jazz, once a marginalized musical genre, is now part of the canon, and student engagement in jazz is sustained. We now have the chance to bring popular music into our schools. It brings a sense of cultural relevance to our diverse sets of students within the district."

"The other thing I enjoy seeing is the fellowship it builds between children that goes beyond the classroom — kids forming bands on their own," Wish said. "Like the saying goes, 'Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.'"