Guitars in the Classroom: A New Way of Teaching

by: Theresa Litz

The San Diego-based nonprofit Guitars in the Classroom (GITC), founded in 1998, is changing the way children learn in school. Teachers in participating schools use guitars, ukuleles, songs, and songwriting as part of their normal lesson plan, across an academic platform. “Beat is the foundation for all other musical and language learning—and expression of the beat is central to children’s academic success,” says GITC Founder and Executive Director Jessica Baron, a music specialist, author, and child development expert. “Children who are good readers learn rhythmically.”


In weekly sessions, GITC trainers (musicians and music specialists) teach public school teachers how to integrate music in their classrooms, even visiting schools to work directly with teachers and students. The developmental approach teaches them simplified acoustic guitar and ukulele to eventually become creative facilitators who strategically employ music in every subject area. Songwriting is crucial to the overall process. By the second week of GITC training, classroom teachers are taught the first steps for writing academically relevant lyrics to familiar melodies.


Setting the Tone

According to Baron, this is why Guitars in the Classroom is so unique. Teachers—and ultimately children—work together, first by substituting nouns in the lyrics and then writing entire lines. GITC has identified 45 “anchor songs,” well-known folk and traditional tunes, which can be modified to include fact-based content. Baron says, “During each session, melodies are added and classroom teachers develop a wonderful repertoire of simple songs they can lead.” The principles of GITC are drawn from the Orff Schulwerk Approach, a child-centered teaching model in which music is language. Experience stimulates a child’s sense of wonder, while instilling intellectual curiosity.

For young students the ukulele offers an accessible entrée to music making because it’s easy and produces a joyful sound. Simple strumming to a steady beat—supported by bouncing hand signals for chords—engages kids. “They’re clued in,” says Baron. “They can begin to learn the words to songs as they fit into the beat. Next, they begin to hear pitch and melody.” Playing ukulele also helps kids develop their hand/eye coordination and fine motor skills. Plus, the instrument is easy to transport and store in classrooms. Kala Brand Music Company, Saga Musical Instruments, Oriolo Guitars, and Luna Guitars help GITC provide ukuleles for teachers and schools.

Excited 3rd graders show off their ukuleles. Their teacher, Joey Sutera, trained with Guitars in the Classroom (GITC) last summer. The students recently wrote songs for learning math.

 Creating Musical Strategy

Making music in classrooms drives academic learning and lyric content reinforces general knowledge. The largest emphasis is on language learning and math. “In a GITC second grade math class, it’s obvious how music is motivating children to do real, creative, critical thinking, which boosts their academic performance: they strum, clap, dance, and sing to the beat, while doing math problems. It’s so much fun for the kids, and they achieve something every second,” Baron says.

The song-based approach is powerful for English learners. Music can make a big difference in practicing sounds, words, and phrases. “Acting out the lyrics and singing are fundamental to fueling kids’ imagination and learning language at the same time. In our program, these children are 100% engaged and on track,” she adds.

A Grassroots Effort

“Trainers are leveraging what they know and love. One teacher trainer can eventually reach 2,300 kids,” Baron explains. Guitars in the Classroom encourages educators to discover and develop their own musicality. “Our goal is to maximize musicality and eliminate failure. The work is infectious. It makes everybody happy.”

At UC Berkeley, GITC is an elective summer class. Student teachers can have an important impact on children, she says. “It’s all about role modeling. Kids become excited by the possibilities and artists who say, ‘You can do this, too!’”

It’s clear GITC is making inroads. Los Angeles Unified School District funded a pilot program for K-5 music teachers to train with GITC, and across the country, teachers have been trained in 32 states, as well as Canada. GITC looks for experienced classroom teachers with a background in music instruction to become teacher trainers. “They need to be compassionate,” says Baron, who is quick to point out that they are not looking for perfectionists. “Key to their success is the ability to relate to beginners of any age with warmth and patience. We want to share the bounty of music with teachers and kids who may not have ever had access.”

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Hi we are a small school in Pennsylvania. Do you help out of state schools? We have a little money we raised for a music teacher who passed away. He was into guitars, so we thought if we could buy some classroom guitars in his honor and teach kids about them that would be a good way to honor him. Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.

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