Tunica Elementary School fourth-graders, from left, Alysia Ware, Kendrenesha Pollard, Brian Franklin and Elajah Davis sing their blues song while keeping time with their Boom Whackers, a form of rhythm sticks. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

Just off a road known as the Blues Highway, fourth-graders at Tunica Elementary in Mississippi are exploring the Delta’s homegrown music to learn about rhyme and rhythm.

Their teacher is also using the new Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum to help them learn in unexpected ways.

Chevonne Dixon incorporates the blues into science, math, social studies and English lessons. So far this school year, kids in her class have written blues songs about the weather and the problems of being a kid. They have also read classic blues lyrics to learn about growing cotton.

“It makes them recall information, especially with that slow, melodic sound,” Dixon said.

Tunica Elementary is just off U.S. Highway 61, the Blues Highway, which meanders south out of Memphis, Tennessee, through the Mississippi Delta.

Tunica Elementary School fourth grade teacher Chevonne Dixon. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

In 2006, scholars and tourism promoters started creating the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of highway markers that provide information about people, places and events significant in developing the local music.

The Blues Trail Curriculum draws on research that was done for the markers. Mark Malone, a music professor, designed the curriculum with help from blues scholar Scott Barretta.

The lessons, aimed at fourth-graders, focus on topics including music, cotton, transportation and media.

On a recent morning, Dixon plays a recording of Malone singing “Homework Blues,” accompanied by simple piano notes. He sings a phrase; the children echo it: “I have lots of homework now/Social studies, science and math, oh wow.”

When the song is over, Dixon tells the students to work in groups: “We’re going to see if you can come up with your own blues song.”

The groups write about reading, art and math. After five minutes, they sing what they’ve written: “Comparing fractions is so hard/It’s easier to put it on a math chart.”

The children also read lyrics of “Cotton Crop Blues,” recorded by harmonica player James Cotton in 1954. Student Jimmarious Frazier said he liked learning about boll weevils, the bugs that can ruin cotton crops.

The lessons will soon move from cotton to another thread found in many blues compositions: civil rights.

Associated Press