The first time Jennifer Rittershofer saw kindergarten teacher Julia Cole playing ukulele with her students, she knew she had discovered something special. At the time, Rittershofer (known as “Mrs. R” to her students) was working as a Reading Intervention Specialist for grades K through six in La Mesa, California. Part of her job included picking up students from their classrooms to take them to reading sessions, and she immediately noticed that something about Mrs. Cole’s class was different.
“When I walked into Julia’s class, kids were engaged and singing. The energy was different and I wanted to stay,” Mrs. R explains. She decided to ask about the music and learned that Mrs. Cole had trained with Guitars in the Classroom (GITC), a national nonprofit that empowers teachers to use guitars and ukuleles to facilitate learning across all subjects. Her interest was piqued. “I thought maybe it could be a way for my students, many of whom were learning English as a second language, to be more engaged.”
Lucky for Mrs. R, Mrs. Cole was not only a student of GITC -- she was also a Faculty Trainer who taught a weekly beginner class for teachers in their La Mesa school district. Mrs. R signed up and immediately took to the material.
“Jenny caught on very quickly,” explains Mrs. Cole. “She would come pick the kids up with her uke and sing up and down the hall. I could tell she had a love and a knack for it.”
In fact, Mrs. R had such a love for it that when the pandemic hit and the school year ended, she convinced her husband to take Mrs. Cole’s summer GITC class online with her. They strummed through the summer together, thinking the fall would bring a return to “normal” life. That return never came. Instead, Mrs. R learned that district funding for Reading Intervention had been cut and she would be returning to work in the fall as a third grade instructor teaching online.
It didn’t take long for panic to set in. But then Mrs. R remembered one very important tool she now had in her toolkit -- her GITC training! Using her own funds, she purchased ukuleles and tuners for her entire class and quickly got to work.
“No matter what the year looked like, I knew we needed to have something fun. It just needed to be different -- because this whole year has been different,” she explains.
At first it looked like students might return to in-person class, so Mrs. R. held back on distributing the ukuleles. She played her ukulele during class time transitions and sang a morning song each day -- even on tough days when she struggled and made mistakes.
“I really want them to know learning is hard. It’s a process, and adults make mistakes too,” she explains. “We were talking about empathy and I found the song Lean On Me to play for them. It was a challenge and I told them I was nervous to play it. It’s important that they know that things are hard for adults too. The truth is, no matter what I do, they are always excited and clapping.”
Students were so excited by the music that a few who already had ukuleles at home began staying online after school hours to play and sing with their teacher. One student went as far as cutting a ukulele out of paper just so she could join the fun! But now that distance learning appears to be a more permanent arrangement, Mrs. R is preparing to distribute ukuleles to her students. She knows that they need the music now more than ever, as do their families.
“When I had virtual back-to-school night, one of the dads saw my ukulele and he loved it. I think it’s something different and unexpected during this time when everyone is stressed about everything,” she explains. “I am definitely getting parents wandering over during class time and peeking in because it’s a different feeling than just playing background music. Even if I’m doing a bad job singing, it’s important for me to have a personal connection with the kids. It’s my way of saying ‘I know we’re not together, but I’m still here.’”
Mrs. R’s creativity and commitment to her students is also inspiring Mrs. Cole, the teacher who brought her to GITC in the first place. Mrs. Cole is now preparing to distribute ukuleles to her kindergarten students so they can strum and sing songs for learning at home.
“She sparked a light in me,” Mrs. Cole explains. “She’s bringing GITC to her students and their families and it’s truly inspiring.”
Mrs. R agrees that the bonds that form between GITC teachers are both strong and special. “I think what’s so neat, especially with teachers, is that when I go to Julia for help and I take another step, then that encourages her to take another step, and so on. And even though trying something new can feel scary, it’s worth the risk to feel a part of something [like GITC]. The reward is that we’re learning something and we’re sharing it together.”