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New Blues 

Music enthusiasts challenge a class of fourth-graders with an experimental way to learn.

Those behind the project hope to see a similar program launched in schools across the city.

"This really is a test run to pilot it," says Diana Covington-Greer, a music resource specialist at the Richmond Public School's Arts and Humanities Center and one of the program instigators. "We hope to expand it next year to other schools. With SOLs [Standards of Learning] … unfortunately, there's not a lot of room anymore for cultural influences."

Through live performance and hands-on classroom activities, the program presented these cultural influences while incorporating content in many learning areas including music, geography and English. Injecting such a program into Richmond schools had been a notion in the minds of John Morgan, chairman of River City Blues Society, and Covington-Greer and Gregg Kimball, blues enthusiasts and society members. But the pieces didn't fall together until Kimball and Covington-Greer — the forces behind the recent Virginia Roots Music exhibit at the Library of Virginia — met Munford teachers Diane Bacon and John Vassar at a teacher's workshop for the exhibition. The four share a love of the blues and got to talking. The Munford teachers suspected their principal Greg Muzik would approve a proposal, so the foursome developed an outline. Four months later, Bacon's and Vassar's students found themselves immersed in rural blues of the 1920s and '30s — music light years removed from the daily pop fare on radio stations. Every two weeks from Feb. 28 through April 11, 23 youngsters from Vassar's fourth-grade classroom met in Bacon's music room for the special project.

Teachers stressed a variety of areas during the different units. The kids learned to connect blues music to the South and specifically Virginia. They learned geography as they traced the migration of the blues from Mississippi to Chicago on a giant map. With Bacon leading, the kids counted musical beats and identified instruments and during the electric blues unit the children learned the connection between the blues and modern rock and rap. Kimball also finger-picked plenty of upbeat country blues, boogies and rags for the kids on his 1930s Gibson acoustic guitar.

In a social-science vein, Kimball and the teachers stressed the hard times of the 1930s and the conditions that spawned the blues in America's rural South. Dorothy Rice, Humanities Center poet, used blues poetry to teach metaphor and poetic devices. Best of all, the children made their own wash-tub bass, one-string "diddley-bows" and cigar-box percussion instruments. They also wrote and performed their own songs. Of course, fourth-graders get the blues about different things than world-weary adults. Their topics included early rising for school, testing jitters and teachers piling on too much homework. But whatever the woes, the new music genre caught their attention. The kids may not have known who Muddy Waters was, but perhaps something about his sound struck a nerve.

"I'm amazed at what we do in a short period of time," Kimball said at the end of one class.

Poet Rice agrees that the youngsters took to the pilot program: "Response was phenomenal … downright sophisticated. I was surprised."

But despite the apparent success of the experiment, all agree there are questions and much to plan if the program is to grow and become a part of a citywide curriculum. A standardized outline for "Blues in the Schools" needs to be developed so any classroom teacher could handle the basic program. SOLs also need clearer definition. Questions in other areas arise: Would seventh-graders benefit more than fourth-graders? Would the School Board approve? Kimball played the primary role of the classroom blues man so who would take his place if the program expanded?

For program supporters, finding answers to these questions could be difficult and a source of the blues in themselves. But a group of Mary Munford fourth-graders might tell you that finding the answers would be well worth the time. S

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