A couple years ago, Portland's Reiche School and the Portland Symphony Orchestra decided to team up on a project to improve literacy in Kindergarten students by bringing musicians into their classrooms.
Thanks to a 600-thousand dollar grant, that program, called "PSO Musical Explorers" has now expanded to Reiche's first grade, as well as to Longfellow Elementary School.
We visited when Reiche's first graders were getting a literacy lesson from PSO violinist JD Hunter. Hunter showed them how words have rhythm, just like music, and the kids made percussion instruments to beat the syllables in words, using sentences like, "I can play the sha-ker" or "I can play the drum."
"When they're that age, that's the most fundamental thing they need to learn. How do I communicate with other people? How do I write to communicate? How do I speak to communicate? How do I learn about numbers to communicate? And music fills in all the gaps," Hunter said.
Teachers can then follow up on that lesson in their classroom, with those handmade instruments. The idea of the program is to help the community better get to know the PSO, and for the teachers to have another tool to teach reading.
First grade teacher Sarah Barnes said, "When we add those different elements of our brain, of our learning, it layers our learning in a much deeper way. So I like to use music and rhythm and rhyme and all those pieces to make it stick more."
The teachers are expected to use music in their classroom, too. That can be a challenge for many of them, who don't play instruments. So PSO french horn player Nina Miller comes to school once a week, too, to give teachers group ukulele lessons. Those lessons have become so popular among some teachers, they've started doing some performances as a group.
Kindergarten teacher Andrea Martelle said, "We're talking about starting our own band. We love it. We hang out after school sometimes and just jam. "
It's too early to tell whether all these music lessons are having an impact on reading scores. But the PSO plans to use its grant to expand into all of Portland's elementary schools for grades K-3.