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BENTON-STEPHENS: Benton Elementary's music teacher gets kids singing

Wednesday, January 4, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:48 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Robert Battle quiets elementary students at their first choir concert in December as they prepare to launch into another song at Benton Elementary. Battle is the new music teacher at Benton and Cedar Ridge elementary schools. At the concert, his students got the chance to show off what they’ve learned so far with some of them singing holiday carols in Hebrew and Nigerian.

COLUMBIA — Inside Benton Elementary School’s Trailer D, a poster of Beethoven hangs beside one of Beyonce. 

Robert Battle, the music teacher at Benton and Cedar Ridge elementary schools, sees value in both the new and the old.

Battle joined Benton and Cedar Ridge elementary schools this year as their music teacher.

Rather than get into a predictable “comfort zone” as a teacher, he sees teaching music at two different schools as a way to keep him on his toes.

“Working here provides the opportunity that I’m always thinking about something new,” he said.

“I’m always trying new ways of doing things, and I like that. I like the creativity, and I like the freedom.”

By teaching the classics to modern pop, Battle gives students a traditional foundation but also dips into the popular music students love. He plans age-appropriate lessons that let them practice the songs they know, as well as challenge them with a harder repertoire.

One recent school day, he stood casually behind a piano as he played the chords to Benton Elementary’s school song, which he wrote at the beginning of the year. 

“Benton Bees, hard at work, sharing love for all its worth," two of his students sang.

"Leading, caring and learning through discovery. Benton is the place to be.”

Battle said Columbia schools focus on singing as the core of its music education program. He hopes to not only teach good singing techniques to his students but also keep them entertained and interested in the songs.

“A lot of the time music education is put on the back burner to whatever big singing TV show is happening, be that ‘American Idol’ or ‘Glee’ or ‘The Sing Off,’ ” he said.

“Kids think (those shows) are really cool, and then they come to school and think, ‘Well, this isn’t as cool as that.’”

Battle said his comfort lies in teaching good diction, tone quality and vocal projection. So far, he has seen great results, especially in his second-graders, who are “singing like maniacs.”

At the Benton Elementary school concert in December, his students got the chance to show off what they’ve learned so far, with some of them singing holiday carols in Hebrew and Nigerian.

Teaching culture through music has also been a major part of Battle’s classroom approach. In February, Benton Elementary will have a concert inspired by African, Caribbean and Mexican cultures.

“We have a huge diverse student population, and I want to touch on all of that, which means I throw a lot of myself into it,” he said.

Other plans for next semester include an African drumming circle in January, guitar unit and “Music Studio,” where students will learn to write music and incorporate iPad recording software into their work.

“The students will be able to write their own music and share that and show that, which I think will be the foundations of them being able to write as they get older,” he said.

Battle began to write music at a young age, while studying at Ames Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School, a magnet program in St. Louis.

“We were writing musicals in second grade and third grade. We wrote operas in fourth and fifth grade, and when you got to sixth grade, they told us to go away and write,” he said.

He also sang in “hundreds of choirs,” learned art in a variety of media and explored drama and dance.

The decision to go into teaching music as a profession came early for Battle. His music teacher, Beverly Whittington, took his first-grade class to Powell Symphony Hall to see the Boys Choir of Harlem perform.

“That’s when I knew I wanted to do it,” Battle said. “I thought it was so cool, and I always applaud her for all the efforts she made and all the things she did for us.”

Whittington, who is still teaching at Ames Visual and Performing Arts Elementary, said Battle always displayed great talent and drive. 

"He was such a star to begin with," she said. "He’d put himself into it. He’d become the character, become the music. That you don’t see all the time. Sometimes it's falsified, but with Robert? Never.”

Whittington continues to inspire Battle, and he said he tries to recreate the kinds of experiences she gave him for his own kids to prove that elementary music education doesn’t have to be boring or overly-aggressive. 

“Why does it have to be cute? Why can’t it be beautiful?” he said. “Kids can sing beautifully, we just have to make them believe they can.”

Battle said he looks forward to many more years teaching at Benton and Cedar Ridge.

“I love my job, I love my kids,” he said. “I am under the impression that I teach the smartest kids in Columbia, and I will say that a million times over.”


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Comments

Delcia Crockett January 7, 2012 | 11:15 a.m.

@"Battle...He hopes to not only teach good singing techniques to his students but also keep them entertained and interested in the songs."

Excellent. This teacher has the skills in his tool box of knowledge/experience/intuitive-approach in education to formulate the great success of these students for a lifetime.

This is the way we are moving into the 21st century in education. This country needs an over-haul in education in this direction.

A news report this past week was informing us all about how most of our students are sedentary. That needs to be addressed, both by region and by national directives.

When visual learning is implemented, the students become active and their imagination is engaged, and that active memory remains for a lifetime of what was learned.

This has it all over memorized, rote learning that has bogged down our educational system for decades. Students begin preschool-kindergarten excited and with bright eyes. We dull them somewhere along the way, and we lose too many of them. We should not lose one child. Every child should be inspired in the excitement of learning. Every child should wake up in the morning and be eager to particpate in school.

This teacher is a motivator and a person who could be the ultimate example of where our schools need to go with visual learning.

Let's move into the 21st century. "How it is always done" is no longer good enough for Columbia. We cannot afford to lose the children to the streets and to a life of aimless frustration.

The key to helping them link into life success stories is in what this teacher is doing - and this visual-learning approach can be impelemented in every subject taught, not just music.

Let's get on it, CPS.

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