Grad School, Big Dreams, and Little Ideas
“Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.” – Babe
Recently, I found myself in a private dining room at the Ravinia Festival, surrounded by forty of my sixth grade students and their families, sitting alongside ukulele phenom, Jake Shimabukuro. The kids were holding ukuleles they had spent the last 2 months constructing and learning to play. Jake and I led the kids in a mini jam session. Looking around the room I was taken by all the smiles, laughing and singing as they shared music together. We had reached a destination that I couldn’t have imagined nine months previously when the seeds of this project were first planted.
Two years ago I began my graduate work somewhat naively, thinking that my coursework would reaffirm the knowledge that I had garnered in my undergraduate work and through my time in the classroom and that it would end with me getting a nice pay bump. In my second summer of studies I signed up for two classes that would forever alter the way I understand and deliver music education. One of these classes, taught by Professor Matthew Thibeault, not only encouraged me to play the ukulele, but I actually built my own uke during the course. During classes, we would explore new literature and explored ways that this portable, easy, instrument could be used within the general music classroom. In the other class, taught by Professor Thomas Turino, I began to see music as more than just a product (the sound), but as a term that has multiple meanings and uses – performative, social, and cultural. That summer I experienced more joy in making and sharing music than at any time I could remember. I was not particularly skilled in playing the ukulele, but I was compelled to keep playing because it made me so happy.
Little Ideas finding their way to the classroom
Profoundly changed, I returned to my teaching job as a middle school orchestra director and, with an itch for ukulele, I started an extracurricular club to share my enthusiasm for the ukulele with my students. After several meetings, not only did we have 40 students in our club, but my assistant principal and school resource officer started attending as well. Mondays became the best day of the week because we got to end it with uke club- now called “Yuke’s Ukes.”
After club one day, the art teacher and I started to talk about the ukulele I had made over the summer and how cool it would be if we could do something like that with our students. In passing she mentioned that “form” in art was a big part of the sixth grade visual art curriculum and perhaps we could use the ukulele as a vehicle to teach that concept and more to our students The realization that my students could build their own ukuleles in art class was thrilling. On the drive home from work that night, I thought, “Why not?” We can connect art and music in a unit of study that will leave each student with a completely unique instrument and work of art that they constructed and have learned to play. At the very least, we needed to try.
Planning and Grant Writing
With approximately 300 students in the sixth grade the project would need some financial help to get off the ground. A grant writing cycle was ending for our local education foundation (The Glenview Education Foundation) so we decided we would try our hand at grant writing and see if they were interested in funding the project. Honestly, we thought that our journey would fizzle out at this point, that in our current economic climate a $7,000 grant to make ukuleles wouldn’t rank high on the list of educational initiatives for the community. Several weeks later, we received notification that the grant was approved! Our joy was only matched by our surprise, then instant realization, that now we had to find a way to implement our grand ideas.
We built the project to intertwine the curricula of art and music with an ultimate goal to foster creativity and create life-long music appreciation and participation. Another cornerstone of the project was that we wanted to offer it to every student in sixth grade, not just the students already involved in music or art. We wanted to reach every demographic represented in order to help create a community of ukulele builders and musicians so that everybody could share the same experiences.
The majority of the work was all preparatory and dealt with the technical logistics of building 300 ukuleles. The actual construction could be completed in one week’s time, but we were dealing with the constraints of 45-minute period meeting every other day, not to mention state-mandated testing and field trips. Students had a huge packet that guided them on their way through the process; teaching them about the ukulele, form in art, and craftsmanship.
300 students and 330 ukuleles*
(*We made extras for some students and staff.)
We introduced the project to the students with a short video with Jake Shimabukuro playing and talking about the ukulele. The notion that anyone can play the ukulele was one that we believed in whole-heartedly and his philosophy aligned with the project. We were all taken by Jake’s happiness, joy, and incredible playing.
From day one, the positive effects of the project were easy to see. Students started singing in the halls together, exchanging ideas about their favorite songs and how they would represent the feelings the music evoked on their ukulele designs. Working with the art teacher, I learned about her curriculum and the challenges she faces in implementing it. As the project progressed, we helped each other to discover the best ways to deliver our lessons and ideas to our students.
A visit from a ukulele superstar
On a whim, I sent a tweet, a phone call and an email out to Jake Shimabukuro and his management, just letting them know what we were doing. A couple of weeks later, still at school on a Friday night, I received an email from Jake’s manager, saying he’d like to talk and that they were interested in being directly involved with the project. Soon we had a huge Skype session planned where Jake would play for the kids, lead them in a mini lesson and talk about ukulele and music. Then, this past May, Jake digitally visited my school for two hours as 300 twelve-year old students sat on the floor of our cafeteria with ukuleles in hand. The kids were very excited when Jake personally invited them to his concert at the Ravinia Festival in July so that they could play together in person. The time was spent learning, singing, and sharing – needless to say; the experience was both gratifying and beautiful.
As I played, sang, and laughed with Jake Shimabukuro and my sixth graders, I took a moment to think about how we had gotten here. While it is difficult to fully explain, piece by piece, my experiences as a graduate student transformed into something even larger – something having to do with teaching, taking risks, and putting yourself out there. All of the late nights, endless planning, and misteps became some of the best teaching I have ever been a part of and certainly the most gratifying. It all helped to reaffirm my passion for teaching music and continues to push me to take risks and let those little ideas out into the universe.
Want more great music education content?
Keep in touch with Leading Notes by following us on social media or subscribing to our newsletter!