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In rock music workshop, the kids are all right

Oak Hills teacher uses history of rock to inspire creativity, cultural learning


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Rockin' Blues Academy was showcased by the musical talents of its seven-piece academy band comprised of former Oak Hills Elementary School fifth-graders Sumiran Sanock, Davis Efird, Madeline Jensen, Shaelie Messervier, Rachel Maclay, Taylor Efird and Grace Miller. Charles Geier admits his formative years weren’t his best showing as a dedicated student.

That he grew up to become an accomplished musician and a teacher in the Beaverton School District makes him wonder why it took so long to light his creative fire.

“There was a whole other creative side of me that wasn’t tapped into in school,” the 49-year-old guitarist and pianist says. “It took until my 20s before I could really get that part of me out.”

With his Rockin’ Blues Academy” project at Oak Hills Elementary School, Geier hopes to spark students’ imaginations in a way he felt denied. The third-grade teacher and eight-year district veteran designed the free, after-school program to give older elementary students an opportunity to learn an instrument in a band-oriented setting while taking in the history of rock ’n’ roll music since its emergence in the mid-1950s.

“I wanted to give the students what I wished I would’ve had at the elementary school level,” he says. “Part of it is a gift from my little child inside to the kids.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Charles Geier was recently chosen as one of 15 teachers across the country to participate in a seven-day, all-expenses paid trip to Rock and Roll Forever Foundation's National Curriculum Summer Institute in New York City.

Now in its third year, the 2012-13 academy peaked with a May 23 concert at Oak Hills featuring the seven-piece academy band comprised of Oak Hills fifth-graders Sumiran Sanock, Davis Efird, Madeline Jensen, Shaelie Messervier, Rachel Maclay, Taylor Efird and Grace Miller. The band performed a bevy of mostly 1960s through ’80s songs, including Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”

Stephanie Jensen, mother of Madeline, who plays bass guitar in the band, said it was inspiring to see her daughter rocking out to classics she and her husband easily recognized in front of a crowd of 50 or so.

“They did a really good job,” she says. “Mr. Geier was trying to get them to loosen up a bit more. But we recognized the songs, and they got the audience involved.”

Generation bridging

The after-school workshop meets twice a week. Geier provides a history lesson one day, practicing a lesson-appropriate song the next.

“If we’re studying Elvis, we learn the Elvis song,” he says, noting he updated some of the song selections to reflect the students’ interests.

The students who show the most diligence and passion in the instrumental lessons go on to join the band.

“We teach them how to be a performer, what a photo shoot is, how the business works — all the different aspects of putting a performance together.”

Madeline Jensen, 11, who just completed fifth grade at Oak Hills, says her favorite part of the workshop was playing in the band.

“I wanted to play an instrument,” she says. “Mr. Geier said it was easiest to try the bass (guitar). It felt pretty good to actually do it.”

While not a voracious music listener at this point, Jensen cites “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” and Chuck Berry’s “School Days” as among her favorites from the class. She credits Geier with sparking her curiosity about rock’s founding figures.

“It inspired me to learn more about how these people became what they were, and how rock ’n’ roll was in the ’50s and ’60s,” she says.

Teaching tool

Beyond the sheer joy of creating and appreciating music, part of Geier’s mission is to bring an element of contemporary history and socio-political culture that he says textbooks sometimes skim over or ignore. Modern rap and hip hop music, for example, tell stories of the city in a tradition going back to 1960s and ‘70s soul music and the jazz and folk music that came before it.

“You can tell the history of America, from the 1950s on, through rock and roll music,” he says. “You see how the cultural changes are affecting music and the music is changing the culture. To me, what’s sad about American history is you learn about Columbus and the Revolutionary War, but nothing that’s happening in current life. Music tells stories and gives us feelings about a lot of things that you can’t get out of a textbook.”

Stephanie Jensen, who learned classical guitar when she was in school, says it was great to see the enthusiasm the class inspired in Madeline.

“I think any kind of music is great,” she notes. “What we wanted was for her to enjoy the music. We didn’t have to argue to get her to practice, and that’s fabulous.”

Teacher to confer with rock royalty in the Big Apple

Based on an essay he wrote about his 13-year-old self being inspired by an Elvis Presley performance, Charles Geier was recently chosen as one of 15 teachers across the country to participate in a seven-day, all-expenses paid trip to Rock and Roll Forever Foundation's National Curriculum Summer Institute beginning July 5 in New York City.

Founded by "Little" Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen's right-hand man in the E Street Band and former "Sopranos" actor, the foundation's board of directors also includes Springsteen himself, veteran singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, and Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese.

A fan of all the above artists, Geier, a third-grade teacher at Oak Hills Elementary School, isn't sure exactly with whom he'll be rubbing elbows, but he's excited to get new ideas about the connections between rock 'n' roll, history and education.

"I can see Bono jumping on a jet," he says of the Ireland-based U2 frontman and humanitarian activist. "As a fan, I hope so, but if not that's OK. It's really about bringing about curriculum for the kids and creating an outlet for musical expression."