By Berit Ollestad
Who says learning can’t be fun?
Certainly not the kids at the Alfred Vail Elementary School. Grammy-nominated recording artist Jonathan Sprout had them singing and dancing to his songs about Martin Luther King Jr., Sacagawea and Abraham Lincoln last week.
It had been 13 years since Sprout’s last visit, and if the auditorium was any indication, it was 13 years too long.
“A hero is someone that we look up to and respect. They aren’t cartoon characters, they are real people,” Sprout told the children, encouraging them to learn the story of aviatrix Amelia Earhart and discover what her dreams were. The young audience responded with squeals of delight.
Photos by Berit Ollestad. Please click icon below for captions.
Each hero was introduced with a list of clues. By the time Sprout unveiled the last one, virtually every hand shot up.
“My favorite speech by this ‘hero’ was a speech that he made 50 years ago this year called the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech,” said Sprout. After reciting some additional facts about Martin Luther King Jr., he engaged the children with song-and-dance routines.
Growing up in Hightstown, Sprout set out to sing for grown-ups.
“But I always felt like a fish out of water,” he said. His mom, an elementary school teacher, pointed him to his current career path. “She sort of induced me to sing for her 3rd grade class one day.”
As he was packing up to leave that performance, another teacher came over.
“I couldn’t help but hear you through the walls, and I wanted to ask you if you’d be willing to consider playing what you just did for the entire school? We have $150 left over in our school fund and we could give you that,” the teacher told him.
“How could I say no to that! Starving artist, $150 in 1981! I finally had found my people,” Sprout recounted. “I realized rather quickly that I somehow wanted to make an impact, and not just simply make people laugh. I always had enjoyed biographies. So I am sort of like a niche within in a niche.”
Over three decades, Sprout has sung at more than 5,000 children’s concerts and recorded 10 CDs. Some of the proceeds from his CD sales go back to the schools.
He described his craft is “heart-motivated, not market-motivated.” One of his rules is to avoid featuring celebrities whose story is not complete. Many sports heroes, for example, have fallen from grace in recent years.
At Alfred Vail, his best reviews came from the pint-sized critics shuffling out of the auditorium.
“I liked it because it told me about the heroes,” said second-grader Sofia.
Ava: “I really liked the songs!”
“It was great!” said Jonah.
“It’s always amazing to me how some of my students that are shy and quiet in the classroom really come out of their shells at these types of performances. Especially when there is music involved,” said 2nd grade teacher Francesca Reganato.
Sprout was scouted by Julia Benz and Maryanne Woods of the school’s Cultural Arts Committee. Principal Janet Kellman said these sorts of assemblies expose students to the arts and provide educational experiences they cannot get in the classroom.
“I like to tell my educators that this place is like a little slice of heaven,” Kellman said. “I’ve worked in some pretty challenging places over the course of my career and these children really are special and so well mannered. It makes it that much easier to dig into academics.”