Making the grade: Students sing their way through U.S. history

SEND US YOUR STORIESEach week we look at programs, projects and other successful endeavors at area schools — from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H. M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.


Listen to Wolff’s songs at his website, www.singinghistory.com.

February welcomes more than blustery weather. It brings Presidents’ Day, honoring all the country’s leaders, not just the two who claim birthdays this month. But if your presidential knowledge is sketchy, (Who can remember the highlights of Andrew Jackson’s term?) history teacher Tom Wolff can jog your memory.

Wolff, who teaches five sections of Advanced Placement history to juniors at South Forsyth High, has made remembering details easier by putting his lessons to music. On any given day, his students may be handed song lyrics and invited to stand and sing about Roosevelt creating the New Deal or Washington freezing in Valley Forge. And the results are evident: Wolff’s classes score 35 percent above the national average on the AP history test.

To date, his songbook includes more than 50 pieces that span the entire curriculum, from colonial days to the present.

“There is just so much information in the AP curriculum they have to know,” said Wolff. “This helps kids remember the content.”

Wolff, who was Georgia’s History Teacher of the Year in 2012 and the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2011, reinforces the lyrics not only with catchy, folk-style tunes but also with videos that scroll along with the songs.

“I have the kids stand up, learn the songs and sing along, though some sing along a lot better than others,” he admits. “Even so, it’s much better than just sitting there for 50 minutes and letting me drone on.”

Over the last several years, Wolff has invited students who play various instruments to create a classroom jam session. “It’s great when you have three or four others playing,” he said. “I’ve also added a project that has the kids write their own songs. It’s a research project that has them writing the lyrics and [music] and then creating a video to present with it.”

Some of those projects are part of an end-of-term concert, usually held the week before the AP exam. The individual teams, along with Wolff and a backup student band called The Liberty Boys, recap historical highlights that might just show up on the test.

“We started doing the concerts in 2005, first with just me and an acoustic guitar playing 20 songs,” said Wolff. “But it’s become a more student-centered thing. And it’s very popular; we usually get about 300 people crowded into the performing arts center.”

For this upcoming April concert, Wolff is rehearsing with juniors Holden Kirkconnell, Nick Carlisle and Jack Dusch.

“I never had a teacher who played music in class,” said drummer Kirkconnel. “It’s more than a fun thing; it really gets the information across. When a tune is stuck in your head, the information comes with it.”

Guitarists Dusch and Carlisle recently teamed up to create a song about the Cold War.

“It was really fun to write our own song and performed it,” said Dusch. “We had to research the material for the lyrics, and that made me look much more specifically into events. But it wasn’t just great for learning the material; it was fun to express myself.”

Wolff has stuck to the musical lessons for his 15 years at the school because they’re also fun for him.

“It keeps me digging deeper into the topics, and that keeps things fresh for me,” he said. “The ideas can come from anywhere because there are endless topics. I do think my dream would be to do American history concerts - that would be like winning the lottery.”