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Episode 10: Griffin Education with Tim Griffin

After mostly paying his way through college and graduate school as a performing musician, Tim Griffin brought music to work with him as an elementary teacher at Title I schools in Los Angeles. Following the model of educational music programs such as Schoolhouse Rock, Tim wrote songs to help his students remember key ideas and vocabulary from lessons in science, math, and other subjects. Test scores showed the kids really were learning more when those songs were included in regular lessons. Over the next two decades, Tim’s music grew into a second full-time job with live shows, albums, and several awards along the way. In 2012, Tim gave up his tenure to start a nonprofit called Griffin Education or GriffinEd for the creation and sharing of educational music as a tool for learning STEM and other academic topics.    

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

[playing The Best Part of Science]

Nati Rodriguez [04:45] 
Wow, what a treat. That was fantastic, Tim.  

Tim Griffin [04:51] 
What we do is, we write songs, mostly me so far, but I’m gathering more and more songs into the library by other people. The idea here is to have songs that teach specific grade-level standards. You remember watching Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday morning TV, and you may have seen it on YouTube. More recently, we’ve seen on the Animaniacs, they have those wonderful geography songs. And of course, all of the old stories that we have – the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Iliad, Odyssey – these were all songs for a long time before they were ever written down. The reason is because even back then we knew that if you learned something through a song, if it’s got a rhyme and it’s got a beat, it will stick in here better.  

By the way, we have solid data at GriffinEd. We did a study with 170 kids in kindergarten through 5th grade, we were able to show that kids who hear one of our songs 5x or more are going to test higher when you give them a test on the topic of the song. It just sticks in the head better.  

Nati Rodriguez [05:57] 
What age group or grade level is it for, and then how is it presented in the classroom?  

Tim Griffin [06:04] 
This one is really aimed at the primary grades, kindergarten – 2nd, but it’s one that I’ve found is pretty popular with the upper elementary and middle school and even with grownups. One of the privileges of my job is I get to talk with a lot of professional academics – real-life scientists and real-life historians and archeologists – to find out more about what they do and how they do it. In fact, I’m doing a songwriting residency for NASA in May. They’re going to fly me to Atlanta for their international conference on astrobiology. I’ll be doing a couple of shows while I’m there to entertain them. Mostly I’m going to be sitting down with people and asking lots of dumb questions and trying to put it into plain English. Every song that we share has one big idea that we want to stick in here and then a few supporting ideas and some vocabulary that we try to use in context. The one big idea for this song is that science is based on observation. What you can see out in the real world. You try to figure out what’s going on. You start making predictions based on what you think is going on. If your predictions work, then you’re onto something. If your predictions don’t work, then you need to rethink your idea.  

Nati Rodriguez [07:24] 
That just reminds me of the importance of science and math in school, particularly in the elementary grades. I know that elementary school teachers often don’t have a background in those fields and it’s not until middle school when they really get into the discipline. I’m curious is most of your experience with music, with elementary or middle school or even upper-level grades, what does that look like?  

Tim Griffin [07:48] 
Yeah, mostly elementary. That’s where my professional training and experience was. I taught for 18 years with LAUSD as a multi-subject teacher, eventually specializing in STEM and inclusion teaching, which is where you work with the kids who have mild special needs. They don’t need a special day program, but they may need some accommodations for different learning styles. That’s where I got into bringing more and more of the arts into the classroom. We did drama for math. On Friday afternoons we would do Matherpiece Theater where the kids would write and perform short plays about whatever we had been working on for math that week. We would write songs, sometimes by myself, about a lesson, or sometimes with the kids where they would have to figure out what are the main ideas of the lesson, and then look up some rhyming words online, and then start drafting lyrics. I would help them with the meter and we would fit it to a tune that they already know.   

If we can integrate movement and visual arts and music, we can bring the whole brain to the task of learning, which means not only do we learn it faster, but we remember it longer, we understand it better. We’ve even seen elderly people, who are starting to suffer degeneration of the brain, may not remember their grandchildren’s names. They may not know what day of the week it is, but they can remember the pop songs they learned when they were teenagers. I go to a nearby senior home with my piano teacher and I’ll put on a suit, with a little flower in it, and I’ll sing jazz standards for them. These people who have been sitting there, staring off at nothing, all of a sudden, they’re sitting up in their wheelchairs making eye contact. Some of them are starting to sing along, Fly Me to the Moon, because it’s wired into their brains so hard that even when the day of the week is gone, the music is still there. It seems to me crazy that we don’t use this all the time in the classroom, which brings me to what makes my nonprofit different than just one more teacher with a ukulele or a guitar. There is no one place where a teacher, or a parent, or a kid, can go to find a song. I need something for 7th grade math or I’m in 5th grade, we’re studying American History, what can we find out about that? The main purpose of my nonprofit, which is Griffin Education, is we make all my music and music by other people with permission. We make it available. We organize it by grade level and subject, in alignment with the standards of the state of California, and some other states, along with the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, which means that if we can find or write a good song for 4th grade earth science, for the kids in Los Angeles, it’s also going to work for the kids in Boston or Miami or Seattle, or, any state that’s using the same standards.  

Nati Rodriguez [10:54] 
Do you find that there are school sites or districts that are more open to this kind of supplement to their curriculum? Why isn’t this everywhere? If we know and the data and the research show that music and even writing lyrics can really help with retention.  

Tim Griffin [11:10] 
What I find is when I’m at a school doing staff training, or a live show for the kids, or a residency in one of the classrooms, people are always excited about it. They’re like, we got to do this every day. The big dilemma for teachers is every day they come into that classroom and they’ve got about 10 pounds of potatoes to fit into a 5 pound bag, as far as their scheduling goes. They’re starting off the day knowing full well that there is no way they can fit everything in. There’s so much content out there and the teachers are so over-scheduled. I’m in a program with the Children’s Media Association where we’re looking to find a collaborator who can take our music and get it on TV, either as animated videos in between episodes of shows, or as a recurring feature on someone else’s show, like the Animaniacs. They would have their cartoons and then they would have the song about geography, because we’ve got data that shows that this really works. We’ve had lots of good feedback from teachers and parents and kids, but we know that they need to hear a song at least a few times before it’s going to really make a difference in their head. For the people who don’t know about what we do, it’s not doing any good at all for them.  

The good news for us is, because we can deliver it all online, there is no scaling problem, which is why I don’t do drama, for example with my nonprofit, because that kind of requires that somebody be there to help the kids put together a play. With over a thousand schools, just in LAUSD, I can’t get to all of them. But if I can make a good recording and a good video and, and make sure that the professional academics, the college level, people say, yes, this is correct, you’re using the vocabulary the right way. The teachers say, yes, this is exactly what my kids are going to be tested on this year. If we can make that available for free online and make it easy to find, by grade level and subject, then we can help millions of kids. And that’s the goal.  

Nati Rodriguez [13:29] 
Did you see any changes in your audience, either the demographic or growth during the pandemic? From what I understand, districts were looking for things online that were educational.  

Tim Griffin [13:41]
We got a grant from the Lewis and Harold Price Foundation to reinvent the songwriting residency program as an online activity. The way it works now is instead of me going to a school and going into a classroom, now I meet with small groups of kids from a classroom and help each group write a song about a topic chosen by the teacher. It’s directly related to what they’re studying right now. I guide the kids through a process of researching the topic, drafting lyrics about it, and then I help them set their lyrics to a tune that they can sing. That way, when I’m not there to play for them, they can still use it as a practice tool. What the teachers find is that, not only do the kids become stone-cold experts on the topic, I mean like 100% experts on the topic, because they’re having to study it, not just to satisfy some writing requirement for the teacher, they know they’re going to be performing this for their peers and they really want it to be correct. They want it to be funny. Not only do they become experts on the topic, but their writing skills improve, according to the teachers.  

Now it’s hard to objectively measure their writing skills, but what the teachers say is the structure of songwriting – where you’ve got verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus – that art, that structure that’s imposed on you requires you to think about, okay, where is this idea in my head going to go in here? If it’s the big idea, it goes in the chorus. If it’s a supporting idea, it goes in one of the verses, and this is true for pretty much any pop song. What’s the big idea? Maybe it’s, “wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care”, right? Everything else in the song needs to feed into that idea. The kids become better at expressing themselves in writing generally. May I give you an example of a song that was written by kids in one of the residencies?  

Here’s a song written by a group of middle school kids and all the content and vocabulary came from them. The only thing I did was I helped them edit it to fit a tune. They’re studying ancient Egypt, because this is seventh grade, right? Ancient civilization. I was asking them what are you going to write about ancient Egypt? How about their irrigation and advances in engineering? No, no. What about the politics or you know how the Pharaoh’s work? No, no. We want to know how mommies are made. So that’s what we researched. And here’s what they wrote.  

[playing Organs in a Jar]

Nati Rodiguez [19:13] 
Something that you said about the students performing for each other – I’m a big believer in those stakes, right? When someone has to get up and do something and show what they’ve done, they just really show up, especially kids.  

Tim Griffin [19:27] 
Oh yeah. They really bring it. If I asked seventh graders, they got to do something to meet my expectations, they’ll figure out, okay, if they need to go do this much, if I’m asking for this much, they’ll see how, maybe they’ll come close. But if it’s for each other, they are going to bring it a 100% every time.  

Nati Rodriguez [19:47] 
Can you share another story of what has been surprising for you or the teachers or the school, in the environment that they’re in?  

Tim Griffin [19:55] 
Well, I think the big surprise is when they find the kids singing the songs to each other at recess. That’s one of the pleasant surprises for me is that it’s one of those things that sticks with the kids after the lesson is over. They actually create their own follow through for it. I actually had a grownup come up to me. I was at the supermarket about 2 years ago and a guy looks at me over this rack of bananas. He leans over and puts a big finger right on my chest. He starts singing a song at me about the water cycle, where it’s got the names of all the different types of clouds and the altitude and the precipitation. And I said, “who are you?” 

He says, “I’m Ihram! I was in your class 20 years ago.” 

He had written that song with me, and with some other students, when he was in 3rd grade in my class, and it was still stuck in his head, the whole thing, he sang it. No problem.  

Nati Rodriguez [21:00] 
That’s great. That reminds me of when I worked with schools, I remember talking to an administrator who said the best sign of engagement, whether this platform was working, is if students were talking about it outside of the classroom. How can they not be? These songs are fantastic.  

Tim Griffin [21:15] 
Well, thank you so much. I’ve had a lot of help. In the early stages, it was basically the Tim Griffin Show where it was just the songs from my albums. My goal is that at least half the songs should be by other people because the point of, cause if it was just about me, I could make a CD. I could have a website and a YouTube channel and, fine, that’s easy. Lots of people do that. The real work is going through the standards for kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade, for every subject, and hunting through the internet and through the folk song groups. There’s a Dr. Demento fan club; it was a program that was quite popular in the 1980s for goofy songs about all kinds of things, and finding the songs, tracking down the creators of them, paying them some royalties, for which we raise money from donations and grant funding, and collecting it into the library so that we can have all that stuff readily available with a couple of clicks of a mouse.  

This is critical because most of the teachers that I’ve worked with over the years, when I was a teacher and at the schools I visit now as a visiting artist, they agree that the music helps the kids, but most of them will tell me, well, I don’t have time to learn to play ukulele. I don’t have the talent to write a song or whatever, and I would argue it’s not as hard as you think, but it’s also true that nobody’s going to be an expert at everything. One of the most important things we can do as professional educators is find a way to identify our strengths and look for ways to share those with other teachers so that their students can benefit too. The one thing I found that I did better than pretty much anyone at my school was I could take a complicated concept or lesson and make silly lyrics about it and then revise them and turn it into something that would be fun and informative. If I can do that and if we can prove that it works and we got the data, we know this works, and if we can do that and if it costs nothing to share it online, then it would be crazy not to.  

Nati Rodriguez [23:27] 
I just think in this environment – where we’re talking a lot about social-emotional learning and finding creative ways to help them with unfinished learning and to really get them up to speed and accelerate learning – this seems like a great delivery and a great way for students to showcase all of themselves in song, and writing, and lyrics. I love what you said about the main idea and supporting argument, never thought about a song that way. There’s just so much to take away from this process.  

Tim Griffin [24:02] 
That’s one reason why you talk about poetry. There are a lot of loosely organized poems that I love. I wish I could remember the name of the young lady that recited at the inauguration of President Biden. I mean, boy, that was really her show and also a guy became president. That’s how good she was, but as far as using memory and organizing ideas, I do believe that the rigor of taking your ideas and revising it, so that it fits into the boundaries of a sonnet, or a limerick, or a haiku, or any other organized structure, it forces you to really think hard about what you want to say and what you can leave out. Which is of course, a vital skill for writing or speaking in any situation. 

Nati Rodriguez [25:26] 
Were you a musician before you were a teacher, or how did you get into music and songwriting?  

Tim Griffin [25:31] 
When I was a teenager, I was a physics geek and my only real hobbies besides math and science were, I played Dungeons and Dragons and played video games. I had a very lucky break. I went to a boarding school that was quite small, and there was a very high-energy music teacher there who insisted on doing a voice test for everybody. He checked my voice and found that I had a good pitch. I had a good baritone range, which is rare for people in early high school, I had a nice deep voice. He dragged me into this new chorus that he was putting together. Furthermore, told the drama teacher, “you need to audition Tim!”  

To my horror, I was given one of the lead roles in a show called The Fantasticks, and there I was singing lead.  

I was literally vomiting with fear before each performance because this was so completely outside my comfort zone. Yet I found that I was getting approval of a completely different kind than I’d ever had before. I’d always gotten approval for my grades, but I never had that kind of approval where people are actually watching me and applauding. I found that not only was I getting approval, I was getting approval from girls, which for a teenage boy who just starts to sweat, even at the thought of speaking to girls, that was a huge incentive to keep up with it.  

By the time I was in college, I was singing in a couple of different acapella groups and a couple of jazz bands and made pretty good money, enough to pay for most of my college and graduate school. What I really wanted to do was teach elementary school. When I got into the classroom, it just felt natural to bring my guitar in with me and start doing those old Schoolhouse Rock songs with my kids. When we’re studying a map of the United States, we did Route 66 for the highway, and Proud Mary for the Mississippi River, just to help the kids get some context for all this stuff. I figured, well, I wrote some songs for these bands in college, I can write lyrics about the weather. It slowly grew over a period of 18 years to a point where I had two full-time jobs.  

Nati Rodriguez [28:01] 
That’s beautiful. What happened to this teacher? Does he or she know what you’re up to now? 

Tim Griffin [28:09] 
I followed up with him a bunch of years later. I sent him a letter and a couple of albums that I’d made and he just sent back a postcard with a huge happy face on it.  

Nati Rodriguez [28:20] 
Yeah. Those stories, there gold, right? It reminds us why teachers teach and the transformation that can happen with one adult.  

Tim Griffin [28:30] 
Yeah. If you’re lucky you get a few teachers in your life who just completely change your world. And he was one of those.  

Nati Rodriguez [28:40] 
I’m sure you are one of them.  

Tim Griffin [28:43] 
For some of the kids, I sure hope so. What I tell the kids when they worry about, oh, well, I don’t know if I’m good enough to be doing music and stuff. When I was teaching first grade, I would take them every two weeks on Friday for lunch, we would go to a nearby retirement community and do a lunchtime show for these elderly people. The kids would be like, well, I don’t know if I’m any good at singing.  Look at these people in the audience, they are literally weeping with joy to see you here. Do they care if you mess up on the lyrics? Do they care if you cannot carry a tune in a bucket? It does not matter. There’s this crazy idea, particularly in Los Angeles, where if you’re not doing the arts at a professional level, then you have no business doing them, you should not be painting unless people are paying money for it. You shouldn’t be making music unless you’re getting paid to do it. We’ve become consumers of the arts, which is a fine thing to be, but I think we also should be artists, and if you don’t get paid for it, that’s okay. You do it for fun. You do it for your friends.  

Nati Rodriguez [29:44] 
I hadn’t thought about the fact of living in LA puts this pressure on kids.  

Tim Griffin [29:52]  
Well, 
yeah, because we’re surrounded by professionals in the arts. There are actors and there are musicians and it’s intimidating.  

Nati Rodriguez [29:58] 
That’s a good takeaway for me. I guess I’m not from LA, so I hadn’t considered that, but yeah, it’s a blessing and can also be pretty harsh for kids that just want to have fun.  

Tim Griffin [30:10] 
Oh yeah and by the time they get to middle school, now you’re starting to really think about how your peers see you? Which is one reason I found for the songwriting residency, doing it online actually works better than going in person. It’s a lot less intimidating. They’re a lot less filtered in their ideas. I get more participation; I get more energy out of the kids. I get more writing out of the kids, this way, than if I walk into the classroom and tell them, “okay, everybody we’re going to write.”  

Nati Rodriguez [30:55] 
How do they write in a session that’s online? Are they submitting like in the chat or they’re emailing what they write? How does that work?  

Tim Griffin [31:02] 
What we do is, each of them will have a window like we do now, but I will have two windows. One is on me. The other is I have a little camera on my desk pointing at a blank piece of paper. That’s where I’m taking notes on the conversation. The idea is we do what some people call a circle map or a word web. There are a lot of different names for it, but the idea is – a blank piece of paper, the main idea goes in the middle, and around that we have three or four supporting ideas. For each of those, we have some key details or vocabulary words we want to use. Once we’ve got all that down, we look up some rhyming words. For each detail, we’ll write two lines of text about that. I tell them, don’t worry if it rhymes, don’t worry if it’s got a steady beat; just say what you want to say and whatever vocabulary you’re using, make sure you’re using it in context, correctly. We’ll write for a couple of minutes and then we’ll pause and I’ll say, okay, who wants to share? And I never make the kids share. I always invite them to share, but I don’t insist because, if you insist on making them share, then they’re going to clam up, right? They’re going to freeze because that can be scary. Once they see that the other kids are reading out loud and that I’m being super positive about it and finding something positive to say about everything they share, then they open up. I try to steer them towards older songs that are not under copyright, but if they really want a Katy Perry tune, then that’s what we’ll do.  

Nati Rodriguez [32:55] 
That’s so great. I mean, just your description of this process – it’s a really great way for kids to learn how to write, to think about context, vocabulary, and then the actual content of it, whatever it is, their learning could be science or math. 

Tim Griffin [33:06] 
Exactly. The standards we’re addressing, that’s totally up to the teacher. I’ve been in classrooms where they wanted songs about conserving water. I was in Phoenix, Arizona, and they wanted a song to help the kids remember the 5 C’s for Arizona – I have to sing the song to remember what they are – copper, cattle, cotton, climate, and citrus. Those are the 5 C’s, the 5 pillars of Arizona’s economy. The 4th graders, they do Arizona, just like California kids do California in 4th grade. So I worked with those kids; we wrote a very silly song about the 5 C’s and the kids were just, they can’t sing it without giggling and they all remember it now. By the way, for any educators or parents who wind up watching this, it’s free, all you have to do is contact me, let me know. I’ve never had any teacher or parent who was not glad that we did it.  

Nati Rodriguez [34:13] 
Okay, Tim. I know we’re coming up on time. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our Learner audience?  

Tim Griffin [34:20] 
I would urge everyone to have a look at the GriffinEd website. It is GriffinEd.org. We have a library of fun, rigorously researched songs, mostly educational, not a hundred percent of them. Some of them are there just for fun, but mostly it is a growing library of songs organized by grade level and subject. You can find something for 2nd grade math or 5th grade earth science, kindergarten through middle school. We do have a few songs suitable for high school and even college, but really, it’s a lot of fun.  

Nati Rodriguez [34:52] 
Thank you, Tim. Do you want to close us out with another song?  

Tim Griffin [34:55] 
Sure. One thing you asked about me was – what is your most popular song. May I finish with that one? This is one that’s for California history. It’s a true story about something that happened in 1928, a little ways north of Los Angeles. Now a lot of people know where Mulholland Drive is, but most people don’t really know anything about William Mulholland and why he was such a huge deal. This is a song about something that happened at the end of his career.  

[playing Lucy on the Line]

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