In the late afternoon on March 7 inside South Whidbey Elementary School, the strumming of guitars and soft singing voices of around a dozen teachers could be heard coming from the music room.
No, it wasn’t rehearsal for an all-teachers band. The group had a greater purpose in mind: Integrating music into the learning environment. The hope is that learning how to play the guitar and playing music to their students will increase student engagement and improve their education.
First-grade teacher Debra Davies-Vogel sings to her class so they can start the day on the footing. She’s hoping that learning and playing the guitar in front of her class will have the same effect.
“I’ve always wanted to bring more music into the classroom, but I don’t consider myself very musical,” Davies-Vogel said. “This has given me an avenue to bring music into the classroom.”
Around two dozen K-12 teachers and South Whidbey School District staff have taken part in a Guitars in the Classroom Training (GITC) program led by teaching artist Quinn Fitzpatrick. The group meets once a week inside the school’s music room.
Fitzpatrick said music stimulates multiple regions of the brain and reaches all different styles of learning. If kids in the classroom dance to the music, the students are taking part in what is known as kinesthetic learning which entails carrying out physical activities as opposed to listening to a lecture.
“It covers all different learning abilities and styles, and in general creates a more positive atmosphere than traditional lecturing,” Fitzpatrick said.”
Sitting in a semicircle around Fitzpatrick, the teachers played and sang everything from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to “If Your Happy and You Know It.” The class also included a review of their previous skills, as well an overview of song writing and rhythm techniques. They also discussed the importance of the music and its impact on the classroom environment.
“You’re affecting the mood,” Fitzpatrick told the class. “You’re setting up this as a positive place.”
The teachers’ experience levels vary. Some, like elementary school teacher Jean Cravy, played the guitar as a kid. But for others, such as Michelle Zisette, it was their first experience with a guitar.
“It’s been a goal of mine to learn to play,” said Zisette, a first-grade teacher. “It’s a great opportunity to have it right after school. We can support each other and ask questions.”
Teachers first began playing on ukuleles and eventually worked their way up to guitars. Fitzpatrick said open tuning, which tunes the guitar to one chord, has also helped in their learning curve.
“Most songs have only one chord,” Fitzpatrick said. “With the next two chords, they only have to put down two fingers.”
Fitzpatrick is an award-winning, top-tier wedding and event guitarist living Langley who has been teaching guitar privately and in groups at various education centers, high schools, colleges and universities since 2000. He also taught GITC since 2005. The program is from a San Diego-based nonprofit organization that helps train teachers to play the guitar and ukulele, which has in turn helped to promote student engagement, creativity, collaboration and a plethora of other benefits in the classroom, according to a press release.
The 10-week program ends on March 21.
Things came about when Fitzpatrick asked elementary school music teacher Kimmer Morris and school administrators if teachers would be interested in learning how to play the guitar. Superintendent Jo Moccia later sent out a district-wide email asking staff if they were open to the idea, to which many teachers responded in the affirmative.
Fitzpatrick said each class begins with teachers sharing success stories. That’s where Fitzpatrick heard the positive impacts of the music on their students.
“The most heart-warming are stories where teachers who are able to reach their students who they normally couldn’t reach, but are using music,” Fitzpatrick said. “Kids who are shy, closed are coming out of their shell and being more responsive.”
There will be future programs this summer and fall offered for South Whidbey School District staff or anyone working in a classroom setting. For more information, contact Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.guitarsintheclassroom.org.