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In This Class, Math Comes With Music

No matter the subject, Mountain View Elementary School teacher Eric Chandler has a tune or two to engage and entertain his class.
No matter the subject, Mountain View Elementary School teacher Eric Chandler has a tune or two to engage and entertain his class. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The red plastic ON AIR sign is always lit in Eric Chandler's second-grade class, where a simple question about subtraction could elicit a rock performance styled after the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

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You say the bigger number and count backwards/Or say the smaller number, then count forwards/Just say one, count the other on your finger/Where you stop's the answer, now let's sing . . . Take it away, take it away, take it away now.

The Loudoun County teacher writes his own songs and also adapts the lyrics of popular tunes. Some musicians find inspiration in love or nature, but Chandler finds it in the Virginia Standards of Learning. The right combination of chords and rhythm, he says, makes the state's curriculum more fun and more memorable.

"A song, if it's catchy enough, gets stuck in your head," Chandler said. So he embeds lessons in verses that kids might hum one day when sitting for a test.

For years, researchers have studied whether music education raises IQ points, test scores, spatial sense or math and verbal skills. Definitive results are scarce, but experts agree that music sparks the memory.

"Just think of the alphabet song," said Ellen Winner, a Boston College psychology professor who studies how music education affects learning.

As formal music instruction is getting squeezed in many schools to make room for math, reading and testing, more teachers are looking for new ways to add melody or syncopation to the daily classroom diet of worksheets and more worksheets.

In the past three years, nearly 200 artists have contributed to a Michigan-based Web site, http://SongsforTeaching.com, that offers music for core subjects, foreign languages, special education and classroom management. Other Web sites specialize in math or science songs. A national Science Songwriters' Association sells independently produced albums, including some with Washington-area connections.

Most educational songwriters sell online or at teaching conferences, having found it hard to get their songs on shelves in music stores. The Chromatics, an a cappella group of mostly research scientists based in Greenbelt, has sold nearly 15,000 copies of its educational astronomy albums in those ways.

"We wanted to be the 'Schoolhouse Rock!' of astronomy," said singer Padi Boyd, saying she remembers many of the grammar- and history-based jingles from the educational films that aired between cartoons in the 1970s and '80s. Boyd's group used national science curriculum standards to write songs about the sun, planets and sound waves.

Chandler recently finished an album of songs about spelling, including "Short Vowel Rock." His greatest math hits include "Fact Family," set to the tune of "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge, and his own "Addend Plus Addend."

After a decade teaching first grade, Chandler moved to second grade this year at Mountain View Elementary School in Purcellville, providing another set of grade-level state standards to dive into. Eventually he wants to cut an album for each elementary grade and sell them statewide.


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