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Sounds like learning
Innovative educator wins chance to teach language and math skills through music
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Donald Norris, 13, left, listens as Austin Ibe, 11, records his own lyrics to music created by Norris during a meeting of the Youth Music Exchange program in the Queens borough of New York. - photo by Tina Fineberg

 WASHINGTON — The challenge was to come up with an idea that can transform public education, particularly in poor communities. The winner: an educator with a passion for making school fun.

Michael Bitz won a national competition with his idea for helping students learn academic subjects while creating their own record labels.

Now, he’ll try to bring that idea to schools across the country as the first recipient of a fellowship awarded last week through the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit. The group’s stated goal is to encourage entrepreneurial solutions to problems in U.S. schools.

An adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University, the 36-year-old Bitz previously founded the Comic Book Project, a popular program in which kids work on reading and writing by creating comic books.

He already is testing his new idea in New York City after-school programs. The kids write songs, create digital tracks, design cover art and market their CDs.

Elementary schoolers have recorded tracks about civil rights heroes and favorite holidays, while middle schoolers have rapped about edgier subjects like weapons, crime and love.

Through the fellowship, worth about $250,000, Bitz hopes to put the program in place during the school day in Indianapolis schools.

That can be a challenge in many districts, where an intense focus is often placed on core academic subjects tested under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Such a focus can come at the expense of other school activities.

Bitz said his program might boost reading and math scores. For example, he said the children who work on the CDs build math skills by coming up with marketing and business plans.

"I don’t think it’s so explicit as to be like ‘Oh by the way, you just learned something about the quadratic equation.’ But it’s built into the process of what the children are supposed to be doing," he said.

Madelyne Giron, 13, said she was surprised one day to realize that the fun she was having in the music program had a lot in common with the traditional work she was doing in her English class.

"We were writing the songs, and we did similes, metaphors and personification," she said.

The program also seems to have social benefits.

Madelyne’s friend Katherine Saldana said making CDs got kids in the after-school program to get along. "In the beginning we used to have a lot of conflicts," she said. "Since the program began, we came more together."

Andre Joyles, who coordinates the program at a Queens high school, said it also can help with the tough task of building teen confidence.

He noted one sophomore was painfully shy at the start of the year but secretly loved writing poetry.

Through the program, she began putting her words to music and sharing the effort with her peers. "She never really used to express herself," Joyles said. "She’s open with us now."

A goal of the Mind Trust fellowship is to create programs that are inexpensive, so that they can easily be replicated.

Bitz said his program costs about $2,500 to put in place in a school, a relatively low cost for a high-tech initiative.

Bitz, who played bass guitar and the upright bass as a kid, said bringing music-making to schools is a sure way to draw kids in.

"There’s just something about music that helps kids connect to themselves and the world at large," he said. "I’m trying to capitalize on that in some way."

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