By Abby Dorsey
Maryland Elementary School first grade teacher, Reagan Duncan, closes each day of virtual learning with the same instructions for her students -- “Go out into the world, my little world changers!” she says cheerfully via Zoom. “I figure if they hear it every day, they will start to believe it.”
Miss Duncan is the ideal person to talk to her students about changing the world, as she herself is currently shifting the culture of her entire public elementary school in Vista, California towards making music. After a chance meeting on a San Diego street corner with Guitars in the Classroom’s founder Jess Baron, Miss Duncan signed up to take her first ukulele class. She was immediately smitten.
“I’d been looking for this thing -- something that would help me shift my students’ trajectory in life, ” she explains. “My school has the highest number of homeless students in the district. Many of my students are English language learners. My biggest hope is always to shift their trajectory with small, positive changes. Even if it’s just three degrees, it has the power to change their lives when they are adults.”
Uke Can Do It!
Miss Duncan found the effects of the ukulele to be just that -- life changing. Just as she started her GITC training, the pandemic hit, and she was forced to make the transition to distance learning with a whole new set of challenges. How would she keep first graders engaged over Zoom? How could she convince six year olds to show up to class online when school attendance was already a challenge for them before COVID-19? The answer, it turns out, was right in her hands.
“I started playing ukulele and singing songs with my students virtually last spring and immediately noticed that my language learners were picking up words faster with music,” she explains. “So when distance learning continued this fall, I decided that even though I was still teaching virtually, I was going to teach my kids to play the uke, and they couldn’t just watch -- they needed it in their hands!”
Reagan put a call out on Facebook for friends to help her fund instruments for the students to play at home, and in about a week, she had enough donations to empower GITC to provide a ukulele for every child in her class with subsidized support from Kala Brand Music, one of Guitars in the Classroom’s enduring sponsors.
Now midway through the school year, every morning the students begin with fifteen minutes of songs accompanied on ukulele. “That’s how we start the day, and if they miss it, they’re disappointed! As a result, I have excellent attendance,” she laughs.
“Both attendance and participation are higher because the music helps keep kids engaged. We pick our ukes up throughout our lessons each day to practice grammar, syntax, basic structure and punctuation. It translates so well into language arts and brings new vocabulary into their world through song. I never feel like I’m wasting my time as a teacher when I add music to my lessons.”
Neither, it seems, do other educators at Miss Duncan’s school.
Since starting her training with GITC, Reagan has inspired sixteen more Maryland Elementary staff members (including the school psychologist, school nurse, and both special education teachers) to enroll in the program. This January everyone is taking one of GITC’s Total Beginner or AMAISE for Beginners courses!
“Momentum is building,” she reports. “Both my principal and assistant principal are excited. Over half the teachers in the school have signed up so far, with at least one teacher in every grade level learning how to incorporate music into everyday learning. I shared this with Jess Baron and we have a goal of creating musical continuity for our students from Tk all the way up through fifth grade!”
We’re pretty sure they’re going to get there.
Spreading the Joy
Of course, Miss Duncan isn’t stopping with just recruiting teachers from other classes; she’s also actively fundraising to start student ukulele clubs for each grade level. She hopes that the model her school is building will serve as a point of inspiration and reference for other schools in the district. She already raised donations to empower GITC to provide 14 beautiful concert sized Tanglewood Tiare ukes through GITC’s partnership with Korg’s Educational Division called SoundTree. These larger instruments are wonderful for the 4th and 5th graders who are starting a ukulele club in person, socially distanced, outside next week!
“I found love and passion for playing the ukulele and teaching with it,” shares Reagan, “and now I’m helping to create a culture of music and learning through song with my colleagues and our Maryland Elementary students,” she explains. “It brings me so much joy to see the kids enjoying it, and when someone feels inspired, it’s contagious. THIS is the virus I want people to catch! I want them to catch the musical bug and be excited, and just keep doing it!”
Support Miss Duncan's Ukulele Clubs HERE!