Teach Kids With Music and “Expand the Bland”

I recently spoke with and was inspired by Alex Nesmith, multi-platinum music producer and co-founder, Spark The Mind and Smart Shorties.

His idea is strikingly simple: make learning fun – contagious even – and the lessons will stick. Partner the lesson with a recognizable beat – and you have the formula for Smart Shorties: harnessing the power of hip-hop to teach inner city kids math.  All of the Smart Shorties songs are based on popular rap music from the likes of Akon, TPain, Drake and the Black Eyed Peas.


“That’s the hook. I like to expand the bland… At the base of everything – what I stay true to – is to make the products as engaging as anything on MTV or BET.  The exception is that our message is educational,” he explained.

Also known professionally as “Al E.Cat”, Nesmith has been a musician since the age of 9 when he began playing the saxophone. He remembers “the experience of a lifetime” – meeting Artie Shaw in 1986, the summer before starting at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a music (and athletic) scholarship.

For practical reasons, he earned a degree in electrical engineering – but the music bug would not let go. He finally decided to pursue audio engineering and sound recording at Full Sail University Center for the Recording Arts in Orlando Florida. In 1991, Nesmith jumped into the music business as a sound engineer and struggled in that business for a few years until he met and worked with the group Outkast.

In 1994 Nesmith moved to Atlanta, Georgia and started a private recording studio: The Hit Mecca, building his talents and career. He worked with superstars including AKON, Avant, Busta Rhymes and Goodie Mob, and received his first multi-platinum plaque in 1996. By the year 2000, Nesmith was a top music producer, working in London with the Geffen, Universal, Elektra and LaFace Record labels.

At that point, he had started a family and had two little kids at home. “I’d accomplished everything I wanted to do.”

As much as he loved the music he was producing, it just wasn’t kid friendly. “My kids would ask if they could hear what I was working on and my response was, ‘Absolutely not!’ I started thinking about doing something where I could take my kids into the studio with me.”

Smart Shorties Is Born

Fast forward to 2005, when Nesmith was working nights producing an R&B album in Toledo, Ohio. “I met a teacher who complained that her young students couldn’t remember their multiplication tables,” he explained. “I casually said to her that you can get children to learn anything if you put it to a beat.” That teacher was Christine Smith, co-founder of Spark The Mind the parent company behind Smart Shorties.

Without any real planning, Nesmith visited Smith’s classroom, eventually producing a song about the 12s multiplication table based on a popular music hit with lyrics written by the students. Smith used the “Math Facts” song in her classroom and the story was aired on a local ABC affiliate station in Toledo. Later, Nesmith and the website, Smartshorties.com, appeared on Good Morning America and, “that’s how the business was born!”

But Does It Work?

Smartshorties.com is marketed primarily to schools and teachers but parents can order the songs directly from the website or via iTunes or Amazon. A smart phone application is also in the works. The product is most popular in the southeast, but they are in a total of 120 schools in 24 states.

Alex points both to the success of his CDs and downloads, and also to his two older kids, Allyson and Sean, (now 13 and 12) who were tutoring other children in multiplication tables when they were 7 and 6 years old!

Co-founder Christine has had documented success improving math scores for 6th grade students taking the Ohio Achievement Test: from 0% passing in 2004-2005 to 48% passing in 2005-2006.

Arts Enrichment Camp Offering

For the first time, the company is offering the 3-week “Smart Shorties Summer Arts Enrichment Camp” to be held at Catholic University in Washington, DC.

“To me, summer is all about fun. This will be a fun way for kids to explore things they’re not usually exposed to like music, dance and theater.”

One-week sessions begin on June 25 and run through July 9. Check the website: Smartshorties.com for more information about the products or the camp.