Roots N Blues goes to school

“Blues in the Schools” helps kids learn and has ambitious plans.

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Everyone’s probably heard of the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, but what does the Roots N Blues N BBQ Foundation do when it isn’t festival weekend? Do they just pack up their guitars and wait in coffee shops until next year?

Well, not exactly. They go to school.

The Roots N Blues N BBQ Foundation is more than a festival. Year-round, they run the “Blues in the Schools” program.

“The way that the Blues in the Schools program began was as an offshoot of the people involved with Roots N Blues, specifically Boone County National Bank,” says board member Anne Moore, owner and CEO of Eighth Street’s D&M Sound. What started as an anniversary celebration for the bank has developed into something much bigger.

Students engage in multidisciplinary learning that teaches them about various topics in an innovative manner. Moore says they learn about slavery, civil rights, history and more, all while being drawn in by the blues music.

“Sometimes, students need a spark of enthusiasm, something that touches them to get them really going,” Moore says. “The excitement that you see from the students and the pride they take in creating this music and sharing it is pretty impressive.”

Mary Wilkerson, treasurer of the foundation and Boone County National Bank senior vice president of marketing, says via email, “Most of all, these kids gain a sense of confidence and joy in learning.”

Wilkerson has been involved in Roots N Blues since the beginning and says that the most rewarding thing is watching the children perform.

Pam Sisson, music teacher at Grant Elementary School, where “Blues in the Schools” began, says that kids gain a sense of self-confidence and acceptance of diversity. Blues musician TJ Wheeler teaches the children to “sing the blues to lose the blues.” They learn more than just history. These roots allow them to grow.

The kids get to perform in front of their classmates, and in some cases, in school assemblies, Moore says. Some even get to take the spotlight at the festival itself.

Moore says the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency dealing with grants, is very impressed with the program and wishes to help fund its spread.

Chris Belcher, board member and former Columbia Public Schools superintendent, is also working to expand the program.

“What we want to do is create a fourth grade curriculum that takes the theme of blues and integrates it with language arts, math, science, social studies, art, music and P.E. — so we have a real thematic unit,” Belcher says.

Mississippi has successfully implemented a similar interactive blues and learning program in their state. Belcher says the foundation wishes to see this happen across Missouri but with Missouri standards and history. They are also hoping to incorporate it into the secondary school system.

Of course, bringing blues musicians into schools for long-term programs costs money, and the Roots N Blues N BBQ Foundation is working to make this happen. Moore says they also host fundraising events outside the annual festival such as last March’s “Name That Tune” party, which served as a benefit for the foundation.

Sisson says the kids always look forward to working with Wheeler. From kindergarten to fourth grade, they’ve sung the blues together.

“It’s pretty powerful, and it’s empowering a lot of kids to really stand up and sing and be original and different,” Belcher says.

Their music has affected everyone on the Roots N Blues board positively, Moore says. The foundation members have a passion for music.

“It’s a group of really good people wanting to do the right thing,” Belcher says.

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