Tommie Barfield kids get reading, vocabulary from singing karaoke

Fifth graders Veronica Zelner, right, and Emma Bailey sing 'Tears on My Guitar' by Taylor Swift. Tommie Barfield Elementary School students show up early on Friday mornings to sing karaoke, and maybe get in some backdoor reading practice. 
  
 Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Photo by LANCE SHEARER // Buy this photo

Fifth graders Veronica Zelner, right, and Emma Bailey sing "Tears on My Guitar" by Taylor Swift. Tommie Barfield Elementary School students show up early on Friday mornings to sing karaoke, and maybe get in some backdoor reading practice. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Second-grade student Ave Dussias gets into the spirit of the song. 
  
 Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Photo by LANCE SHEARER // Buy this photo

Second-grade student Ave Dussias gets into the spirit of the song. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Teacher Kathy O'Brien doesn't need the words on the screen for Britney Spears' 'Drive Me Crazy.' 
  
 Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Photo by LANCE SHEARER // Buy this photo

Teacher Kathy O'Brien doesn't need the words on the screen for Britney Spears' "Drive Me Crazy." Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Friday morning, the kids at Tommie Barfield Elementary are just a little more eager than usual to get to school. Children at the school on Marco Island always seem to have great attitudes, but on Friday, instead of just breakfast, they get to have "Breakfast with the Stars" – and they're the stars.

The children, from kindergarten to fifth grade, wait impatiently for their chance to hold the cordless microphone, and then, with varying degrees of tunefulness and shyness, launch into their chosen song. They're singing karaoke, they're having fun, and just maybe, they're learning some vital academic skills.

Who knew? Karaoke, seemingly of no value other than to annoy bar patrons who haven't consumed enough drinks to make it sound tolerable, can actually serve as a valuable learning resource for schoolchildren.

"They're all reading along, because they want to sing along," said Tommie Barfield Elementary (TBE) Principal Jory Westberry, watching as the roomful of children follow the words projected on the big screen onstage in the school's cafeteria/multi-purpose room. "It's a wonderful way to incorporate reading and vocabulary, and teach reading through music. It's almost as if karaoke was designed for it."

"Dr. Westberry and I have been talking about this for a couple of years," said Tommie Barfield music teacher and 2010 Golden Apple recipient Lisa Braren. "We were looking for new ways to get the kids excited about reading. Look at them – they're reading, and they don't even realize it. We laugh and say, 'Shhh, they don't know they're learning.' " Showing up early, the children are actually extending their school day, getting in some practice at reading, team-building, and having a great time doing it.

Braren said she's not aware of any other schools using karaoke as a learning tool, although it seems like a natural fit. She applied for and got a grant from the Education Foundation of Collier County, ordered equipment and discs, and had the program up and running all spring. Now, the kids can't wait.

"Since the kids arrived back on campus, I've been barraged with questions. When does breakfast with the stars start?" said Braren. Some children, she said, look her up between classes or after school to practice.

Breakfast is provided to all TBE students, regardless of need. This morning, it's French toast sticks, cereal and white or chocolate milk. The children finish their breakfast, and migrate over to the karaoke stage, although some can't wait, and head straight for the music.

Fifth graders Veronica Zelner and Emma Bailey share the mic as they perform a duet of Taylor Swift's "Tears on My Guitar." Megan Brown makes a big hit with Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."

The activity mixes children from all grades together, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Braren and Westberry hover at the edges of the audience, holding an additional microphone out to amplify some of the students who are singing along. Even parents and teachers get in on the singing action. Teacher Kathy O'Brien takes the mic and warms things up with Britney Spears' "Drive Me Crazy."

Pop song lyrics tend to use simple vocabulary, and repeat the words again and again, perfect for the educational component of the program, and the elementary readers. And the songs provide context for more challenging words. Braren did point out that she screens all the songs that go on the screen, making sure all the lyrics are appropriate. And this morning, she makes a special announcement.

"Boys and girls, I've ordered a whole bunch of new CDGs, with brand new songs," Braren tells the kids, getting on the mic herself. CDGs have the visual component, with the words that appear in time to the song, and change color at the moment they are to be sung.

The children, some with parents in tow, arrive early to get their chance to sing. At 7:45, the cafeteria is ringing to the sound of pop tunes, and by 8:15, the room is empty, as the children disperse to their classrooms for the official beginning of the school day. Before they leave, children are already putting in requests for solos at next Friday's session.

As they filed politely out, Lisa Braren made one final announcement to the students. "If you didn't get to sing today, not to worry, that just gives you more time to practice. Everybody will get a chance."

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