Grammy Award winner Dennis Walker is producing blues songs with elementary students and their teacher to help kids learn academics! How did the 70-year-old blues veteran, who produced BB King and Robert Cray and penned classics like “Phone Booth” and “Right Next Door” get involved in such a project?


About a year ago I sent a “Hail Mary” email to the three-time Grammy winner asking for assistance in recording a blues CD with my students. Why would this blues legend want to work with me – Jon Schwartz – a public school second grade teacher and mothballed-musician from Oceanside, California?


It began with the simple desire to help my students learn English and meet academic standards. I started introducing classic blues songs to help bring the material to life and the kids loved it! Even better, by performing the songs together, they were absorbing the subjects on a deep level, their confidence was skyrocketing, and they were gaining marketable skills like collaboration and public speaking.


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

The song provides a great launching point for a far-ranging academic discussion.


Soon my entire class of twenty-nine students and I formed a real gigging blues band called the Kids Like Blues Band. The band performed on live TV and played at the College of Education at CSU, Legoland, The Quantum Learning Group, The Carlsbad Blues Festival, the California State Fair in Del Mar and performed in front of an international audience at the FRED Global Leadership Forum. The Sage Leadership Conference even bussed the entire class over to perform at The Del Mar Hilton and gave the class two brand new laptops!


Who would have thought that using these songs as launching points for academically rich work involving language arts, history, math, science, and the visual and performing arts would be such a hit?


The kids were learning new material and their excitement (and mine!) was incredible. Each field trip provided our entire class with rich, authentic learning experiences in geography, transportation, technology, mathematics, economics, entrepreneurship, collaboration, networking, goal setting, and career research. In addition to academics, the kids were learning marketable skills and gaining self-confidence.


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

The Kids Like Blues Band performing live.


One particularly moving example of student growth involved a girl who entered my class after her family fled the tsunami in Japan. She arrived somewhat traumatized, and she spoke no English. When we started using music she came out of her shell and transformed into a blues-belting singer who loved performing on stage. She learned English by memorizing entire Chuck Berry songs like “Promised Land”. Watch a video called Fostering Community with Music that documents her story here:


My thematic teaching methodology that uses blues music and technology to boost student achievement was even featured by the US Department of Education and the California State Senate. Watch us do “Sweet Home Chicago” here at


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

Teaching kids about the history of transportation using a classic blues song.


At the urging of many parents, my principal, and some professors of education, I produced videos detailing our classroom work. But the kids wanted a video and music tracks showing off their own music and stage chops. They wanted to show the world what they were doing.


I wanted to put together a CD of these songs with the kids that would match their incredible performances, but I’d lost contact with the music world when I quit playing in clubs and became a parent and teacher. I kept my guitar chops up to speed, but I hadn’t played a gig with other adults in ages. Who could I call on to help me make a CD for the kids?


I was amazed when Walker replied and expressed interest in the project. He even offered his assistance! I spent hours dissecting his records in my late teens and now I was talking to him about our blues band. It was totally surreal.


Walker offered to put together a band of skilled industry professionals to record a bunch of songs with the kids. “I told Jon, ‘if you’re going to cut these tracks, you ought to get the best guys in the world to do this, and I just happen to know them.’” That is someone really committed to kids and arts in education!


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

Teacher Jon Schwartz with the blues dream team – Jim Pugh, Dennis Walker, and Alan Mirikitani.


But what songs would we record? In class, we’d been using classics that we were able to mine for rich academic content and studies in Americana, like Johnny Cash’s “Big River” (geography, US History, and figurative language) and Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” (history of transportation, immigration, communication, and technology). I tried to get permission to license the songs but got no response. Instead, Dennis suggested that I write some of my own.


I got out the academic standards in language arts, history, science, listening and speaking, along with my rhyming dictionary, and set to work. Finally, I busted out my guitar and after many long hours came up with my first song for the program, called “Transportation History Blues.” The song traces the history of transportation, from horse drawn carriages to the steam engine.


It starts off like this:

“Sit back folks, and I’ll tell you the tale

About the History of the Transcontinental Rail.

About the spike-driving men, inventors and machines

that changed methods of travel in our country.

I’m talking Transportation Blues. Have you heard the news?

James Watt and John Henry’s skills were complementary,

Talking Transportation Blues”


Listen to a clip from Transportation History Blues:
[zoomsounds id=”Transportation History Blues”]

Walker was really impressed with the song (!) and encouraged me to continue to write more.
Around this time, the work that we were doing with music and academics was beginning to get a lot of attention in the education and mainstream press. I started writing about it in educational publications including Edsource, Education Week, and Edutopia. Soon we were being featured by the US Dept. of Education, KPBS, The San Diego Union Tribune, and a host of other organizations. We even did a gig on live TV!


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

Music offers a variety of opportunities to learn about the arts, science, history and more.


Buoyed by all of this interest, I decided to take a break from teaching and develop the program on my own. I’d learned a lot in my 15 years of classroom teaching and I wanted to share it with others. I formed a non-profit called “Kids Like Music” and I’m now busy creating a comprehensive turnkey program called Rockademix that will enable any teacher to use music, the visual and performing arts, and technology to teach kids academics – even if the teachers have no training in how to use arts and technology as a teaching tool.


I’m creating prototypes of the program and will be looking to partner with larger non-profits or publishers who are interested in getting the program back into schools. The goal is to put back arts into education, because as I wrote in an article for EdSource, you reach more kids when you use the arts to teach.


At the Rockademix facility, I document the kids’ participation in the developing program, and in exchange, the kids and parents participate for free. We do music-related academic activities, blogging, band practice, art, multi-track recording, guitar and vocal instruction, and gigs. We were even contacted out of the blue by a producer from America’s Got Talent TV show, who suggested we audition for the show!


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

Jamming with the kids at the Rockademix facility.


As the Rockademix program evolves, I’m writing new blues songs, rock songs, and even some hip hop and soul numbers that have been recorded by some real rappers and soul vocalists. It’s more than just music though – there’s engaging academics, tech, art, and dance. The tech component features student blogs, internet research, and teaching digital citizenship. The academic activities involve history, science, language arts, and listening and speaking for the whole class, small groups, and independent student work. The visual art activities and dance moves that come with each song incorporate and foster student collaboration and teamwork, which are some of the most in-demand skills in today’s workplace.


In creating the curriculum, I’m collaborating with and drawing on the expertise of professors of education, PhD’s in history, curriculum specialists, technology experts, and artists. I’m also consulting with some private sector CEOs to identify the real-world, marketable skills that Rockademix will teach.


This fall, I called back Walker and told him I’d taken the year off from teaching to develop a new program on my own. True to his word, Walker assembled a top crew of world-class musicians, including Jim Pugh on piano and organ, Alan Mirikitani on guitar, Johnny Griparic on bass, and Lee Spath on drums. We met at a recording studio in Burbank to record five of my original songs for the Rockademix program.


Rockademix - Academics Through Music

Laying down basic tracks for the new Rockademix songs.


I got to play some lead guitar and could barely hold my telecaster because I was shaking so much. Having guys like Dennis and Al feet away at the recording console, knowing that I had to nail the parts fairly quickly, was wild! What a dream come true. I realized that I was going to have to get over being starstruck so we could get some work done! Next, the kids will lay down their vocals and some kazoo parts!


What’s next? I’m excited to continue our work with Dennis, develop and record new songs with the kids, and to work with our fantastic team of educators, designers, and tech folks to make the Rockademix program available to teachers everywhere.


Please visit the Rockademix website and Facebook page.


Jon Schwartz is an award-winning public school teacher whose work using music, the arts, and technology to boost student achievement has been featured by the US Department of Education. He’s a published education author and his articles and videos have appeared in EdSource, Education Week, and Edutopia. He’s taught grades 1-6 in California public schools since 1997, and holds credentials in general and special education. The California State Senate named him “Tech Hero of 2011″.