Music Levels the Playing Field: TK-Kindergarten Teacher Patti Steele Hits a Home Run with Her Ukulele
When T-K/kindergarten teacher, Patti Steele, organized a Guitars In The Classroom (GITC) Porch Pickup℠ to distribute ukuleles to her students learning at home back in March, she knew they would be excited. What she didn’t expect was how eager the students’ families would be to participate. She came to the home of GITC’s executive director to help hand the ukuleles out in person one weekend.
“I was actually shocked at how many families came out when the kids could pick up their instruments. They were all so excited,” explains Ms. Steele. “I got to see so many families, and by families I mean all the members, not just those I saw at drop-off or pick-up when school was in session.”
Like many GITC teachers,
Ms. Steele began the school year strumming and singing with her students in person as part of their everyday curriculum at Paradise Hills Elementary School in San Diego, California. But when the pandemic caused school closures, the class was forced to pivot online -- and if you can picture how difficult it is to keep a room full of kindergarteners engaged and learning in person, imagine the challenge of doing it over Zoom! Ms. Steele jokingly refers to her first weeks online as “a nightmare” but the technical challenges and the struggle to engage students through computers was anything but funny. Class attendance dropped and Ms. Steele feared she would lose track of some of her students. That is, until she reached for her ukulele!
“The greatest number of kids would show up when I said we were having ukulele time,” Ms. Steele explains. “And anytime our GITC teaching artist, Jefferson Jay, would join us online -- that’s when I had the most Zoom attendance.” These teaching artist visits to classrooms at Paradise Hills were co-funded by the San Diego Unified School District and District 4 Councilmember Monica Montgomery’s discretionary funding for her community through the City of San Diego.
Ms. Steele was tapping into something that many GITC teachers are witnessing in online classrooms -- the power that music holds to engage students and increase focus and fun in distance learning settings. With all the boxes and buttons, Zoom sessions can feel impersonal or even uncomfortable for young learners. Add tech or language barriers and things get even more complicated. Music has the power to break through these barriers, or as Patti Steele puts it, to level the playing field.
“Online learning is so hard at this age, but music is a way to reach them all and level the playing field,” she explains. “Some of the parents didn’t speak English, some had to go to work, but this was some common ground. I think the ukulele is what saved me, and the kids, too. It was a common denominator and it was the highlight of my Zoom classes.”
GITC set up a Play and Pay it Forward campaign online to raise funds for student instruments. Families who could afford to contribute did so, and some GITC benefactors helped out. This community approach made it possible for GITC to help many classes at the end of the last school year. Once her students had picked up their own instruments, Ms. Steele quickly noticed that they were not the only ones enjoying classroom ukulele time.
Siblings, parents, grandparents, and pets began to join in the fun, too. When the class wrote a song about COVID to the tune of Wheels On the Bus, family members pitched in ideas. And at age 64, veteran teacher Ms. Steele felt like she was getting to know her students on a whole new level.
“It was such a nice inside picture into their families,” she explains. “In one family, all the siblings had ukuleles and they would all sit lined up, on the couch with this huge cat, and play together. It was great. I learned so many things I didn’t know about them.”
Ms. Steele is also using the pandemic as an opportunity to expand her own GITC training, with a current focus on guitar.
“Open [tuning] guitar is great for me and I’ve been doing that with GITC instructor, Joan Maute. I just love the sound of the guitar,” she explains. “Before that, I took a songwriting class taught by GITC founder, Jess Baron, and it was so moving to hear the amazing songs people wrote. I enjoyed getting to know everyone and the class really kept me going, despite the world feeling so scary. GITC classes have given me something to look forward to. They’ve also given me a window to the world while stuck at home, because the other teachers in my online classes are from all over the United States!”
She may love strumming her guitar, but what is Ms. Steele most looking forward to when classes resume online in just a few weeks? Ukulele time with her students, of course!
“I can use the ukulele in every subject and that’s the thing that’s great about it,” she explains. “It’s the thing I’m most excited about. It’s my highlight. And even if I retire, I still plan to volunteer with the teachers at my school to keep GITC going. I will help the young teachers coming in and say, “I’ll sit with you in class. I’ll tune your ukes. I’m just here to help you.’ I want to do something to take away the obstacles they think are in their way. So many avenues open up through music that we don’t even know about. It levels the playing field and brings people together -- especially now, when there is so much divide.”
Check out these great photos of Patti Steele's class: