By Jody Kerzman  | Photography: Photos by Jacy

If you’re looking for Kendra Clark’s first grade classroom at Bismarck’s Liberty elementary school, just follow the music.

“Music helps us set up the day,” explains Kendra. “It calms the kids down and starts the day right.”

Kendra started incorporating music into her daily lesson plans five years ago, before Liberty elementary was even built.

“My first year teaching at Liberty was pretty rough,” recalls Kendra. “We were in a very small classroom at Hughes while they finished building the school. I was having a hard time getting and keeping my students’ attention. That’s when a friend of mine suggested I add music. She told me to teach to my strengths.”

Music has always been Kendra’s strength. That might be because she comes from a musical family. Kendra’s mom taught piano and guitar lessons for years, her sister teaches music at the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan, and her husband is the band instructor at Simle Middle School. Kendra has a minor in instrumental education and music has been a part of every job she’s held, from camp counselor at Camp of the Cross to her current job as a first grade teacher.

Over the years, Kendra has made music a bigger part of the daily routine in her classroom. For the past four years, she and her students start each day with a song or two. Some favorites include “Best Day of My Life” by the American Authors and “Home” by Phillip Phillips.

“We started singing ‘Home’ and I discovered it really connected the kids. This is their home for much of their day. We spend a lot of time in our classroom. They need to be comfortable here.”

Turns out, singing does more than just make the students feel comfortable. It’s instilled a love of music in many of these kids. Kendra says every year at least three of her students get guitars for Christmas. This year, six-year-old Reese Spadgenske found a guitar under the Christmas tree.

“I like singing and I like playing my guitar,” says Reese. “I have my own guitar. I even have a strap like Mrs. Clark and a pick and a stand. My parents like when I sing.”

Parents also like the other skills their kids are learning through music. Kendra knows there are academic benefits to music.

“Kids who are in music use more parts of their left and right brain,” she explains. “Music is a part of our lives, from birth to death, so why shouldn’t we make it a part of our daily work here in the classroom?”

Six-year-old Beckham Holen says the moment Mrs. Clark takes out her guitar is the best part of the school day. And although he’s only six, Beckham knows he’s benefiting from music.

“Singing songs helps me remember stuff,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Kendra’s former students attest to that. Ten-year-old Grace Nelson remembers her year in Mrs. Clark’s class as one of her favorites. Grace is now a fourth grader; her classroom is across the hall from her former first grade classroom, and each morning she and her classmates happily head back to first grade for a few minutes to sing with their first grade buddies.

“When they hear the music, they come across to our room and we sing together,” explains Kendra. “We’ve always had fourth grade buddies in our classroom, but music has brought them even closer I think.”

“I like it because it gives us a better connection with our first grade buddies. We give each other high fives and some even have their own handshakes,” agrees Grace. “It makes our mornings happy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great singer or not. We all just sing!”

“It makes our days better and makes us happy,” says her classmate Norah Walker. “It makes us in a good mood.”

On Fridays, all the classes in the hallway join in the music. They stand outside their rooms and sing a song or two together, connected by music. It’s enough to make Kendra sing a happy song.   

Kendra and her fellow teacher, Karen Arnold, also wrote Liberty’s school song with help from Kendra’s sister, Megan Holkup, who teaches music at the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan. Click here to see video of Kendra’s class and their fourth grade buddies sing that song, as well as their favorite song, “Home” by Phillip Phillips.

To learn more about how music helps the brain click here for a link to an article Kendra recommends.

And, to see more photos of Mrs. Clark and her students, click here for a gallery of photos taken by Photos by Jacy.