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How One School is Using Blues Music to Teach Science and English

Chevonne Dixon, a fourth grade teacher at Tunica Elementary School in Tunica, Miss., speaks to the students about the elements of their blues song in class.

By Emily Wagster Pettus

TUNICA, Miss. — In cotton country a couple miles east of the Mississippi River, just off a road known as the blues highway, fourth graders at Tunica Elementary School are exploring the Delta’s homegrown music to learn about rhythm, rhyme and chord progression.

Their teacher is also using the new Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum to help the children absorb information in unexpected ways.

Chevonne Dixon is one of the first teachers in the state to incorporate the blues into science, math, social studies and English lessons. So far this school year, the 9- and 10-year-olds in her class have written blues songs about the weather. They’ve composed short ditties about the travails of being a kid. And they’ve read classic blues lyrics to learn the challenges of growing cotton.

“It makes them recall information, especially with that slow, melodic sound,” said Dixon, who leads her classroom with a calm demeanor that brings out a quiet, respectful manner in the children.

In 2006, scholars and tourism promoters started working together on the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of highway markers that provide information about people, places and events significant in developing the hardscrabble music that influenced rock ‘n’ roll.

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

The Mississippi Arts Commission made the Blues Trail Curriculum available this school year. It’s aimed at fourth graders who are learning state history, but it can be altered for younger and older students. Its lessons focus on six main areas: music, meaning, cotton, transportation, civil rights and media. And while some traditional blues music has distinctly adult-themed lyrics about drinking, carousing or working for the man, the curriculum presents age-appropriate themes.

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