Some teachers go the extra mile -- literally.
Francesca Miller is one of those teachers.
When the pandemic hit and Ms. Miller’s kindergarten students transitioned to distance learning, she wasn’t ready to let go of the music they’d been making together in the classroom. Instead, she organized multiple Guitars and Ukes in the Classroom (GITC) socially-distanced Porch Pickups℠ so that her students could safely pick up free ukuleles to strum and sing along with their teacher from home. If families were unable to make the trip, she literally went the extra mile and dropped instruments off at their homes. Now her students, who are on a year-round academic calendar, play music daily as part of their distance learning curriculum. Ms. Miller reports that the ukuleles and interactive music making continue to have a profound impact.
“Some students weren’t showing up to classes online at all, but the ukulele brought them back,” Ms. Miller explains. “It’s like that line from Field of Dreams...If you play it, they will come. Even if they are not turning in any assignments, they will come to class for the music.”
Ms. Miller is no stranger to using music as a tool in the classroom. Even before she joined GITC in 2015, she started every class playing songs from a carefully crafted mixtape. But it was GITC that gave her the encouragement and the training she needed to do something she’d always dreamed of -- learn to play the guitar.
“I had my guitar but I wasn’t playing it. I like to say it had a really nice place hanging on my wall,” jokes Ms. Miller. “But then my principal at the time sent out an email about GITC, saying we could learn to play guitar and incorporate music in the classroom, and I said to my friend who was also a teacher, ‘Let’s do this!’ We took the class together and it was great because I really felt like I was on the verge of something.”
Turns out she was on the verge of something greater than she’d imagined. With GITC’s support, Ms. Miller learned how to play ukulele and guitar; she also equipped her classroom with ukuleles to share at school and began strumming, singing, and writing songs for learning with her students. She saw positive effects almost immediately.
“My favorite part was the songwriting,” she explains. “Something would happen at school and the kids would spontaneously say, ‘We should write a song about it!’ They were so excited and engaged.”
Ms. Miller remembers one student in particular who was profoundly affected by the music. “I had a student in my class in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) and he had lots of absences. His mother didn’t want to send him to school if he didn’t want to go, so he rarely came,” she explains. TK students are 48-60 months old.
The following year she had him as a student again, this time in Kindergarten, and this time she was equipped with her GITC training and tools, including her own new ukulele!
“Adding the ukulele changed everything,” she explains. “He would be the first one at the rug, ready and attentive. He was excited and alert. And when we first put that uke in his arms, he held it and looked like a master -- he had rhythm immediately!”
He also attended school more regularly and became a more active participant in class. “I truly believe the ukulele contributed to him becoming more verbal in class. [Before the uke] he would talk with his hands in his mouth or spin and dance while speaking. After the uke, he learned to keep his hands by his side and to speak in a loud, clear voice,” says Ms. Miller. “Music is a language that everyone speaks and it reached him.”
Music continues to reach Ms. Miller’s students as they explore the new realm of online learning. Although the class is currently strumming together online daily thanks to GITC board advisor, Jasmin Powell, who “adopted” the class and provided ukes for home, Ms. Miller hopes to devote one full day a week to the ukulele. She has of course encountered a few challenges -- Zoom delays, video that freezes, and students who can’t resist fiddling with the uke tuners -- but overall she views music as her greatest tool during this national crisis.
“I can see it literally waking up their brains,” she explains. “I can see it shining out of their eyes, like laser beams!”
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