Blog by Gail Wingfield
Second grade teacher Monica Dolan was delighted when, during the morning line-up, Camden, a student in her class, looked up at her with shining eyes and said, “Today we are having uke class!” The children around him echoed his enthusiasm. They all remembered this was the day GITC’s teaching artist was coming for the classroom’s weekly residency visit. Everyone was excited to write songs and play their ukuleles again.
As a woman of color, Monica’s childhood experiences were similar to those of many of the 2nd graders she teaches today. She always wanted to take music lessons but her family had no money to spare and there was no access to elementary arts education in her school. Music remained absent from her life until she found GITC as a veteran educator in 2020. For the past 2 years she has been learning to play the ukulele with GITC and to lead hands-on music in her classroom.
During her own school years, Monica did well in school but felt that a college education was out of reach because of her family's economic situation. She worked after school and summers to help support her family. After high school she started taking classes at a community college and later was accepted to San Diego State University. By working her way through school, and with the help of scholarships, student loans, and financial aid, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Even though Monica’s longing to learn the guitar remained a dream, after she married and started raising a family she considered it her responsibility as a parent to provide her own children with musical opportunities. Her son and daughter both learned to play the clarinet and joined the band at school.
Monica has been a classroom teacher in Title 1 schools for the past 27 years. At the start of the pandemic, she heard that another teacher at her school was bringing music to her classroom with GITC. She was hesitant to try it herself because she thought it was too challenging to learn to play an instrument. Then a personal tragedy struck, and the need to do something positive provided the necessary motivation to move ahead with music. She asked herself, “Do I wait even longer to do something I’ve always wanted to do?” The other teacher, Gingerlily Lowe, was in training with GITC, and she encouraged her to sign up for a GITC course. Monica says she knew she was “not a young chick” but she wanted to push herself out of her comfort zone and take the advice she gives her students daily: try.
With Gingerlily’s support, Monica signed up for a GITC course. She did it for herself, and also because she believed it would make her a better teacher, capable of bringing an element of creativity and fun to the students in her virtual classroom. She started by learning the ukulele in a free GITC after-school Total Beginner course online.
Monica’s favorite phrase, developed from her own efforts, is, “We’re not going to cry, we’re going to try.” As a language learner herself, she knows it’s important to have a growth mindset and grit when working towards a goal. She decided to learn deliberately, at her own pace. This was a perfect match for the GITC approach in which learning to make music is meant to be a pleasurable journey, not a race. She took GITC’s Total Beginner course twice and practiced on her own. Now she is taking the GITC Experienced Beginner course. Monica says she is getting better little by little, and she is loving the adventure!
During the pandemic Monica participated in two GITC co-teaching artist residencies in her online classroom with GITC teaching artist, Sharon DuBois. Thanks to support from the San Diego Unified School District’s VAPA department, GITC was able to obtain ukuleles for all her students so they could play and sing together while socially distanced at home. Music became the best part of their day and a way to stay engaged and have fun. It brought joy to her students and light to her own life.
The last time her second grade students had a normal school year, they were in kindergarten. Now that they are back in the classroom, Monica finds music more important than ever for boosting recovery from very significant pandemic learning loss. She leads music three times a week with her students, playing ukulele and writing songs with them to further academic learning in many subjects. Recently, she was delighted to overhear her students talking together about how to plug their favorite math strategies into songwriting. They asked her if the class could make up a song about math, with each student writing a verse about the strategy of their choosing. Of course, she said yes!
Monica is determined to make sure that music is not out of reach for her students, as it was for her. "Art and music give children the opportunity to shine." she said. “Exposure to music through GITC can create a musical connection, making it possible for my students to take it a step further as they grow.”
For herself, Monica feels very fortunate. She loves her job, loves teaching, and her students are amazing. “It can be overwhelming, yes, but I embrace the constant chaos.” She is grateful to be supported by the GITC faculty who make her feel that wherever she is in her musical journey is ok, and is a step forward to becoming more proficient. And what’s the next GITC course she plans to take?
Next, she’s going to learn the guitar.