Worldwide audience tuning into area teacher's grammar songs
Published: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.
When Melissa Corbett picks up her guitar to play, she sometimes doesn't know what chords she's using. It's as if God places her fingers where they need to go, she says.
GrammarSongs by Melissa
Watch and listen to videos of Melissa Corbett's grammatical songs on YouTube.
Corbett, a fifth-grade teacher at the Healthy Learning Academy charter school, uses that gift to help her students learn and retain complicated grammar rules with ease.
To date, she has written about 50 songs designed to help children remember everything from nouns to idioms to subordinating conjunctions.
And seeing the success students have had with her educational jingles, Corbett and her husband launched a website and a YouTube channel to share the lessons with others.
"I can be teaching my class all day, but when I'm sleeping, I can be helping someone on the other side of the world," Corbett said.
Corbett has taught since the early 1990s -- although she took several years off from teaching to raise a family. She has spent most of her career teaching first grade.
But two years ago when she was looking for a new job, Corbett came across Healthy Learning Academy's advertisement: Searching for a teacher who isn't afraid to sing and dance with students.
"And I thought, 'Well, I can do that,' " she said.
Corbett brought her guitar to her interview with HLA and sang a song about short vowel sounds to Principal Anni Egan.
"And I said, 'I'm throwing away every other application,' " Egan said. " 'You've got the job.' "
Corbett bought a cheap Yamaha guitar and a book of chords in the mid-1990s, when she was just starting out in teaching. She knew how to play the flute, but she wanted to be able to play an instrument and sing at the same time for her students, she said.
She wrote songs from time to time, about science or colors, but it wasn't until 2011 that Corbett said she started to supplement whole lessons with music.
Corbett started teaching a class of third- and fourth-graders in the fall of 2011. It was the first time she'd taught third grade since 1994, she said, and looking at her book of standards — everything her students would be required to know for standardized tests — she wondered how she could possibly get them to retain it all.
So, she started writing songs.
Basic parts of speech, comprehension and writing skills, punctuation, metaphors, simile, hyperbole and a few songs about math — "Just all of it," she said.
And they're not dinky little mnemonic devices set to the tune of "Mary Had A Little Lamb," either. Corbett's grammar jingles are full-blown songs, with multiple verses, a chorus and catchy chord progressions.
Soon, and nearly by accident, Corbett said she'd amassed 50 songs. She even took requests from other teachers at HLA, she said.
Once, her husband, Cullen Corbett, said he went into the bank and by the time he came out, his wife had written an entire song.
"It's a unique talent," said Melissa Corbett, who has had a hearing impairment since childhood. "I can't explain where it happens or why it happens."
Seeing that the songs were helping her students, Corbett started to wonder how she could help others.
Over the summer, she and her husband started uploading videos to YouTube and building a website at grammarsongs.com.
Corbett's most popular video, about subjects and predicates, gathered almost 12,000 views in three months. Last week, on the busiest day to date for the Corbetts' YouTube channel — GrammarSongs by Melissa — the channel received 2,000 hits, from as far away as Alaska, Egypt and the Philippines.
English teachers in Russia have sent messages to Corbett saying her videos have helped students learn idioms. An HLA parent translated a few videos into Spanish so a teacher in Mexico could use Spanish subtitles.
People from 155 countries have visited Corbett's YouTube channel.
Grammarsongs.com is still under construction, but Cullen Corbett said he hopes to start charging for content in January. He said subscriptions wouldn't cost more than $4.99 a month, and the Corbetts want to offer free subscriptions to some teachers and scholarships to anyone who can't afford the fee.
But the lessons are free to Corbett's students, who settled onto the floor quickly on a recent morning to sing some songs about grammar.
"Mrs. Corbett is so much fun," said Inari Lynum, 10, who played the part of the contraction monster when the class sang "Beware of Contractions."
As Corbett strummed and the class sang along, Inari's puppet monster, made from a brown paper bag, would "eat" extra letters in words her classmates held up, turning "do not" to "don't."
HLA Principal Egan said there's research showing music works to help children retain knowledge — and she and the other teachers see it working every day.
HLA students consistently perform well on standardized tests, but they also seem to like the instruction so much more, Egan said.
"When fifth-graders still want to come to school every day," she said, "you know you've got something good."
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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