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Notes from a musical nonprofit

Retired Los Angeles Unified School District teacher turns his musical talents toward helping others learn from song.

By Sara Cardine

4:12 PM PDT, July 24, 2013

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Can harmonies help kids learn history? Can rhymes reinforce reading skills? Local educator and La Cañada resident Tim Griffin seems to think so.

A longtime Los Angeles Unified School District teacher with a proclivity for music, Griffin regularly wove music and performing arts into his lessons to grab students' attention and reinforce core content standards. He penned clever songs covering everything from the American Revolution to zoology.

Now he wants to share his talents, and the benefits of using the arts to aid learning, with others. Griffin recently retired from teaching to create a nonprofit that offers free song downloads, live performances and writing workshops to the public. Griffin Education Solutions aims to show that music helps kids learn and reaches students who may otherwise struggle with the curriculum.

"This is not just some kind of party trick. This really works," he explains. "It accesses parts of our brains that are actually older than our speech centers."

The songs are similar to those "Schoolhouse Rock" standards that dominated Saturday morning TV lineups in the '70s and '80s and tackled subjects like grammar, social studies and math. Griffin's tune "Natural Selection," for example, contrasts the fates of two cheetahs, one fast and one slow:

Now everybody knows that every creature that's alive

Has one paramount priority and that is to survive

A cheetah that cannot run fast will never catch his lunch

While the faster cheetah gets gazelles and eats them by the bunch.

Anyone can listen to and download songs at Griffin's website, www.griffined.org. But now, through the nonprofit, teachers can request free, live classroom or school performances and songwriting workshops.

Anne Donnellan, a fourth-grade teacher at L.A. Unified's Kingsley Elementary School who also serves on the board of directors for Griffin Education Solutions, has seen firsthand the impact of this fresh approach. She was part of a study Griffin conducted to prove the program's efficacy and has piloted it with other teachers. They introduced a song with a discussion and played it for a week, adding background information as children listened, sang and clapped their way through the verses.

"The energy lit up the students' eagerness to learn, participate, and create," Donnellan said in an email interview. "Having something as simple as a copy of well-aligned lyrics and a song auto-piloted something amazing to witness — the importance of allowing students to experience learning through the arts."

Griffin's passion for using music to motivate students comes from personal experience. Self-diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), school was a challenge.

"I wasn't the kind of kid who could sit and be told and read the lesson and take the quiz," he recalls.

It wasn't until his junior year of high school, when a voice test led to a role in a production of "The Fantasticks," that Griffin's musical talents awakened. His natural hypersensitivity to sound, a symptom of undiagnosed ADHD, was accompanied by perfect pitch.

Singing clever and well-crafted lines also gave him the confidence and social currency he needed to survive. Now, he tries to engage students on their own level.

Kids really respond to that, says Anna Maschek, a second-grade teacher at Kingsley and former colleague of Griffin's.

"He's got a very organic teaching style, so he tends to go where the kids want," Maschek says. "What motivates them is really important to him."

Maschek has also used Griffin's songs in the classroom. In one workshop, students listened to "Acorns," a song about the impact one person can make on history, and came up with their own song about American inventors.

"It really pushes your thinking," Maschek says. "There were so many skills involved — there was research, we were using beats, rhythm and rhyme and spelling. They had an awesome time."

Griffin hopes his nonprofit can bring those connective experiences to a wider audience.

"I want to create a powerful, easy to use tool that's highly motivating and proven to work — and I want to do it for free," he says.

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