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 in the United States 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 recently 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 New York’s 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 is already 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 favourite 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 says 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, says she was surprised one day to realize 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. Since the program began, we came more together.”