Kids Rock

Learning language through music

When Justin Sullivan's tour van pulled into the Mason Jar, the first thing the New Model Army front man did was smoke a cigarette. But he made sure to step around the corner of the big-hair turned cool rock venue, away from the flock of eager young fans awaiting his arrival.

Emphasis on young.

The aging Brit-punk rocker emerges to find six giggling little mijos and mijas who struggle to understand the road-weary bloke, not because they don't know English, but because they just don't know his English. But after a short lesson on cultural linguistics, ears adjust and eyes turn to a globe Sullivan requested for the geography lesson he's promised to Matt Hoaglund's third-grade class from W.T. Machan Elementary in Phoenix.

The parking lot of a grungy club is not exactly where you'd expect to find kids learning about mountains, oceans and even explorations, especially from someone not too far removed from Sid Vicious.

Hoaglund's students quickly grow accustomed to the unexpected. They've performed mini-concerts and created short videos as part of ASU's ArtInterAct project. An upright bass sits in the corner of Hoaglund's classroom. Mikes and amps are used for speeches.

Hoaglund, himself a musician (he's a veteran in the Phoenix Latin rock scene), teaches language through music. To educate his students about explorers like Christopher Columbus, Hoaglund chose "Ocean Rising," Sullivan's ode to British folk hero Ernest Shackleton's perilous attempt to reach the Antarctic -- an instant hit among the new Sullivanitos.

Sullivan sits on a concrete block behind the Mason Jar as the late afternoon sun begins its descent. Acoustic guitar in hand, he plays "Nowhere Man," another of the many songs the kids sing regularly in class. But it's clear what the kids want. "Ocean Rising,' Ocean Rising,'" they chant in unison.

That interest, some diligence and an offer by Hoagland to help promote New Model Army's first Phoenix show in 10 years (which quickly got the band's attention) all led to the Mason Jar meeting. A tight tour schedule precluded a more standard class visit.

Hoaglund laments the day that Arizona law changed, mandating that all instruction be in English. His English-speakers used to learn Spanish from songs the Latino kids sang.

"It was great, everyone was singing and having fun," Hoagland says, and it took away the kids' inhibitions.

The teacher is confident that his students will learn English, eventually. He worries that in the meantime, they'll fall behind in other subjects. And so he tries to find creative ways to teach everything.

Long live rock, he says.

 
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