Musician pioneers program integrating music and learning

Musician pioneers program integrating music and learning
Jessica Anne Baron, founder and executive director, Guitars in the Classroom, which trains nonmusical teachers to lead songs and song writing for learning. Today, Baron’s method is being used to teach every subject at every grade level including engineering at Harvard University. Photo by Lillian Cox

ENCINITAS — Singer and acoustic guitarist Jessica Baron left her home in Chicago in 1985 to pursue a potential record deal in Los Angeles. Instead, she decided she wasn’t interested in performing and simply wanted to make music. 

“I began teaching at 12, and realized I wanted to create more singers and musicians,” she recalled. With a bachelor’s degree in child development, she landed a job as a K-5 music teacher at Santa Cruz City Schools.

A subsequent position as a human development educator inspired her to earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

In 1998 she began what would be her life’s work by developing a program to train nonmusical teachers to lead songs and song writing for learning.

The first school was Soquel Elementary in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“The idea of training teachers to learn to play a musical instrument and sing and to use those skills to teach lesson content seemed almost unfathomable at that time, but the teachers proved that it was possible,” she recalled.

“It was person-to-person and totally grassroots. We helped teachers do what they’ve always done which is to use music to teach very basic things such as the alphabet and colors.”

The singing technique was also applied to English, social studies and proved to be especially powerful in science and math. Twelve years later Baron’s method is being used to teach every subject at every grade level including engineering at Harvard University.

To date, Guitars in the Classroom has taught more than 9,000 teachers and staff in 31 states to play, teach and lead songs for classroom students of all ages.

Teachers learn both guitar and ukulele. Many choose to pass the instrumental skills on to their students.

Since moving to the coast in 2006, Guitars in the Classroom has been offered at regional trainings in North County and San Diego.

Liane Preston teaches second-graders at Christa McAuliffe Elementary in Oceanside. Her students include several English-language learners.

“We take what we are learning in class and write lyrics to a familiar tune,” she explained in a phone interview. “Today we were discussing what makes a complete sentence.”

Preston said that together the class wrote the following song:”

“A sentence tells what someone does.

A sentence tells what someone does.

A sentence tells what someone does.

It is a complete sentence.”

“Students walk away singing it and later they are singing it to themselves,” she said. “It’s so exciting just how much they remember, and we can do it with just about any subject we are learning. Singing activates a part of their brain that helps them remember the skill better.”

Donna Mills teaches third grade at Capri Elementary in Encinitas and integrated music with visual arts and social studies in a lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I was surprised how easily most of the children could come up with lyrics when you give them a melody, and how often it was the quieter children who did it,” she said. “Maybe that’s because it’s a different way of expression. The extroverted children will say, ‘Look at me’ while the introverted ones are thinking about creating lyrics to get attention.”

Baron’s programs include AMIGO (Achievement through Music Integration with Guitars), which provides eight weeks of training for English learners using singing and song writing for each subject.

MERCIE (Music Integration for Resource and Special Education) is a pilot program targeted for special needs students.

This spring it will debut at TERI, Inc. in Oceanside, which supports students with autism and other developmental challenges.

Guitars in the Classroom receives support through grants from the National Association for Music Merchants (NAMM), Art N Soul on 101 gallery and private donations.

The local community can provide support by donating guitars, music supplies and money. Forty dollars underwrites the cost of six weeks of training for one teacher.

People can also offer their time, talent and expertise by volunteering or helping to start a program in their community. To make a financial donation, or for more information, visit guitarsintheclassroom.org or email jess@guitarsintheclassroom.org.

Guitars in the Classroom will hold open registration for teachers and others working with children from 4 to 5 p.m. Mondays starting April 15. The training is hosted by Park Dale Lane Elementary School in Encinitas.

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