PHOTOS: San Bruno elementary school instructor teaches math through music

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A classroom full of third-graders stare at instructor Endre Balogh, drumsticks in hand, ready for the lesson to begin. Within minutes, 60 small sticks lightly tap in rhythmic unison, imitating his every instruction. Math class has begun.

Academic Music uses music notation to teach students math concepts, a program that was implemented into the third-grade curriculum at Allen Elementary School in San Bruno, Calif., in 2007. Since then, students in this program have boosted their math skills considerably according to principal Kit Cosgriff, and a recently published study gives that claim backbone.

Balogh, a music instructor, co-founder of the Academic Music program and SF State alumnus, teaches third-grade students fractions through drumming, clapping and music notation every Tuesday and Friday at Allen Elementary. He draws a direct connection between musical notes and numbers; all the while, the students don’t realize they are actually learning math.

“The moment we brought music into the classroom, the students were really engaged,” said Balogh. “We gave them two-minute tests before and after drumming, and they did better after.”

Students volunteer to come up in front of the class one or two at a time to step and clap rhythms in 4/4 time. They step four times per beat, and follow Balogh’s instructions to clap once for a whole note, twice for two half notes, and so forth.

Throughout each 30-minute lesson, the students tap drumsticks on pads and play recorders. About halfway through the class, Balogh writes fraction problems directly below music notations on the board to show that each fraction of a whole number is directly applicable to the beats within a whole music note.

“The kids are continually – physically and mentally – involved in the music,” said Sue Courey, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at SF State and co-founder of the Academic Music program.

Courey and Balogh tested out the program on 67 students at Hoover Elementary School in Redwood City in 2006. Half of the students received regular math instruction, while the other half was introduced to Academic Music twice a week for 45 minutes. This was done for six weeks in addition to the regular curriculum.

The students who participated in the Academic Music program performed significantly better in math than the other group.

These results, according to the study which took place at Hoover, were published in the Education Studies in Mathematics Journal March 23 of this year.

Allen Elementary has seen similar results since the program’s introduction. Third-graders’ California Standards Test scores in math increased from 70 to 79 percent proficiency, and fourth graders’ scores increased from 55 to 90 percent proficiency between 2007 and 2011, according Cosgriff.

Although the study focused mainly on third-graders, Cosgriff has been weaving the program at Allen Elementary into kindergarten through fourth-grade classes.

“My students are definitely more engaged in math during Academic Music because it’s fun and an alternative way of seeing how math is all around you, and not just numbers in a math book to solve,” said Gina Grites, a third-grade teacher at Allen Elementary.

Balogh brings musical instruction to the math class for 30 minutes, after which Grites takes over with a regular lesson plan.

“I’ve noticed they are better prepared mentally and their minds are ready and stimulated for learning that day’s concepts in math,” Grites said.

Due to lack of funding, it is up in the air whether Academic Music will remain a part of the math curriculum at Allen Elementary, which is the only school that currently uses the program, Cosgriff said.

She is applying for grants and raising money from donations and fundraising events to keep the program running.

“We would love to see this program at other schools,” said Balogh. “We’ve done extensive research, but it’s hard to tell the overall impact of the program when only one school offers it.”

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