Education Matters: Strumming through the ABCs


March was Music in Schools Month, the National Association for Music Education’s annual celebration to promote the benefits of high quality music education in schools.

Coincidentally, on March 20, the first of six sessions of a program called Guitars in the Classroom was held in Solana Beach and offered teachers a fascinating introduction to ways they can use music to engage and educate their students.

Guitars in the Classroom, or GITC, is a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to creating academic engagement through music in public schools. Founded in 1998, GITC focuses on teachers of students in kindergarten through fifth grade. GITC holds numerous training sessions throughout the year.

This class was filled to capacity, with 20 teachers, mostly from Solana Beach School District’s Solana Vista School, which serves students in kindergarten through third grade.

Solana Vista first-grade teacher Dawniel Malandra organized and recruited for the class. She said she had heard so much about the program and that inspired her to bring it to her school.

“I’m excited to create songs together with the kids and draw them in,” Malandra said. “I want to incorporate more music into the classroom.”

She said it was beneficial for teachers as well. “When teachers learn together, we can help each other,” she said.

The 20 teachers were each given a ukulele and basic instruction on how to hold it, how to strum, its parts, and notes of the strings. Chords, open tuning, and keeping a steady beat were some themes. The Steady Beat lesson included counting by fours and using hand signals and body rhythms to designate the rise and fall of the notes being sung.

GITC trainer Stephanie Lewis led the class, along with Jessica Baron, GITC’s founder and executive director. Together they taught simple songs the teachers could use right away.

Baron and Lewis also demonstrated more advanced ways to engage students in music and singing and showed how to incorporate English language instruction into songs. This last demo had teachers in the class visibly excited to see how GITC’s music program provides new ways to impart academic lessons.

The class comes with a 44-page workbook that includes basic information on how to play dozens of familiar songs using simple chords, such as: Apples and Bananas (for vowel sounds), BINGO (spelling), and Itsy Bitsy Spider (for movement and rhyming).

It’s not just learning to play to entertain and engage the kids, the instructors said. The music program will also incorporate English language and math state standards and be a powerful instructional tool.

The other goal is, of course, to get kids excited about playing an instrument of their own and to make music an integral part of their lives.

A magic wand

The musical experience of the teachers in this beginner class ranged from zero to classical piano expertise. Nearly all taught in the lower grades, although a few taught fourth and fifth grades.

One teacher said she was “ready to get out of my comfort zone.”

Lewis congratulated the teachers for signing up for the class. “It takes some courage” to get up in front of your students with a new skill, she said. “You’re modeling for your students to see you learning something new.”

The teachers were told they didn’t need to know how to read music to play an instrument.

“Don’t count yourself out if you can’t read music,” said Baron. “It’s only visual in its representation. Imagine if kids couldn’t speak until they learned to read.”

Baron called the ukulele a magic wand, saying the teachers using the GITC system will see children who are “out of step” or with low verbal ability start to participate with the group and blossom as they begin to strum.

“The point is to bring more joy and musicality into your lives, and to transmit that to your students,” she said.

Baron said music is like learning a language and will grow new neural pathways in the brain.

Katie Zimmer, Solana Vista principal, said she was thrilled with teacher interest in this program.

“One of the reasons I am excited about the implementation of GITC is that it equips our teachers with another technique to meet the varied needs of our students,” Zimmer said. “Students learn in so many different ways, and integrating music into the classroom gives students another opportunity to access and learn the curriculum.”

Solana Beach School District superintendent Terry Decker, who sat in on the first class, said it was rewarding to see teachers light up when learning something new and exciting. “It’s the same joy as when you see kids light up,” he said.

He said he sees his teachers “taking a risk, stepping out, and investing in their craft,” and he applauded their commitment.

The teachers are doing this on their own time, and not being paid. It originated as a grass-roots movement which Decker said is the best way to create change. “This grew out of their own interest,” he said.

Decker said he had no misgivings about the program. “It’s such a well-regarded program,” he said. It’s research-based instruction which “ties beautifully into what we want kids to learn.”

Promoting literacy

The Solana Vista GITC sessions were funded by the Coastal Community Foundation, through a $1400 grant from the Betty Scalice Foundation which provides funding for music education for north coastal communities.

Baron said the instruments for each teacher (and two for each teacher’s classroom) were donated by outside sources.

Once the grant was secured, the program was made available. A minimum of six teachers was needed to start the class, which at first worried organizer Malandra. But a few days before the first session, 20 had signed up, with more on a waitlist.

Besides Solana Beach, other North County school districts that have received GITC training include Encinitas and Oceanside.

Based in San Diego and active in 32 states, GITC has trained approximately 10,000 Song Leaders who are serving more than 500,000 students each week.

The trainers and leadership work closely with teachers to build dynamic curriculum for literacy through music, supplying teachers and students with training, music-driven academic instruction, coaching, educational materials, and access to instruments and musical accessories.

Music in the classroom, GITC leaders say, can be used effectively as a key strategy for learning across the academic curriculum.

“The inclusion of music increases student engagement in and enthusiasm for learning,” according to the website. “Our work promotes the joy of learning through the power of strumming, singing and songwriting.

“Think of the power of ‘The Alphabet Song’ to teach young children their letters, and take that to the 100th power. This is GITC.”

“I used the ukulele the very next day,” said Dawniel Malandra. “Every student was participating. As we learn more songs and how to write songs, I will be able to tailor our needs and match it with curriculum objectives. I think it will tap in to the students who are auditory and kinesthetic learners and those with an affinity toward music.”

Malandra said she told her students she was taking the class.

“They were excited to know how it went,” she said. “I think modeling life-long learning is important. I shared my successes and challenges with my new endeavor.”

Lefty rights

On a personal note, in addition to my obvious lack of musical ability and poor self-discipline, I blamed being left-handed for why I failed at guitar. Teachers always made me play right-handed, which I simply could not do. Air guitar for me is automatically lefty.

So I was overjoyed when Jess Baron handed me a lefty ukulele at the Solana Vista training session to practice on. It felt so “right” to go left.

Said Baron, “You happen to have a new friend who is a vocal proponent of left-handed teaching for left-handed people. I have gone on the record many times in guitar education as fighting the mainstream and defending the right of lefties to play lefty.”

Music to my ears.

As an aside, Decker, who said the only music he could play is the radio, was strumming along with the best of them at the session. I’m looking forward to musical school board meetings in the near future.

Early exposure to music for young children becomes more important – and more challenging than ever – with the federal government’s recent proposal to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which has historically provided modest funding for music instruction in schools.

The GITC program strives to promote academic achievement through its innovative approach to music integration in the classroom.

Guitars in the Classroom is offering a summer class at Brick 15 coffee house in Del Mar (dates to be determined), and a teacher retreat in Julian Aug. 3-6. For more information, go to:

--Senior Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at