Nonprofit Little Kids Rock helps schools engage students through music they love

In early July, more than 500 educators from across the country descended on Colorado State University for the sixth annual Modern Band Summit, an event aimed at helping schools modernize music classes to get more students involved in music education.

The meeting was organized by the New Jersey nonprofit Little Kids Rock, in partnership with the Bohemian Foundation, to highlight the organization’s free services and music supplies to help schools make music accessible for all students, the Coloradoan reports.

“Little Kids Rock offers free professional development seminars to public school teachers across the country, instrument donations, lessons, curricula and other resources,” according to the news site. “At the workshops, educators learn how to teach modern band programs at their schools.”

Fort Collins 18-year-old Mariana Henke started in the program as a seventh grade student at Polaris Expeditionary Learning School, and it sparked a passion that compelled her to learn to play guitar, sing and write.

“That’s when I fell in love with music,” she said.

Henke used the music skills she learned to produce her own original album for her senior project, and to entertain the hundreds of educators at the July Summit, which featured more than 30 hands-on workshops on guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals and music technology, according to the news site.

Polaris music teacher Jasmine Faulkner said Henke is the perfect example of the type of students the program aims to reach – those who may not be interested in orchestra or choir, and have no prior experience with instruments.

Faulkner said the program transformed her music class by focusing on indie, metal, blues, hip hop or other music students like, which is inspiring students like Hinke to write their own material.

“That’s the highest level of learning,” she said, “when students are creating.”

And for the 2018 Polaris graduate, it’s just the beginning.

“Henke … will study music at California State University Monterey Bay this coming school year,” the Coloradoan reports. “She wants to pursue a career in music.”

That path, cleared by Little Kids Rock, points to the strong influence adult role models have on students, particularly when those role models share a similar passion.

Researchers with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia reflected on that reality in “The Content of Their Character,” a summary of character formation efforts in a wide variety of U.S. schools.

“The moral example of teachers unquestionably complemented the formal instruction students received, but arguably, it was far more poignant to, and influential upon, the students themselves,” researchers wrote.

More information about Little Kids Rock is available on the Bohemian Foundation website, or at

To date, the organization has reached more than 650,000 students in over 270 school districts across 45 states.

In Fort Collins alone, the program has served more than 7,000 children and donated more than 1,500 instruments with the support of the Bohemian Foundation.

Bronx Prep student falls in love with cello

Bronx teen Richard Jimenez is a freshman at the College of Saint Rose, and he credits a unique opportunity and mentorship at Bronx Prep high school for helping him to succeed in a neighborhood where many do not.

As an 8th-grader, Jimenez overheard the school’s orchestra teacher, Mr. Alvarado, playing the violin, and it inspired him to take up the cello a week later. In the years since, Jimenez developed his talents with Alvarado’s guidance, becoming an example for future students who often feel their options for escaping their inner-city neighborhoods are limited, according to Democracy Prep Public Schools.

“If you can’t be extremely book smart or play sports, there’s not really much else you can do. I have a lot of friends who believe that,” Jimenez said.

“Music was my answer. Music was my way of getting out of here,” he said. “It kept me away from all of the bad things happening around me.”

Daily practice—in orchestra class, at home, and during school study time—quickly built Richard’s skills and confidence, and by his junior year he played his first solo in the Bronx Prep Spring Showcase, an experience that also helped him overcome his personal struggle with performing in public. “I remember going up to Mr. Alvarado saying I need tips on how to break the nervousness I had,” Jimenez said. “He said, ‘just play’ and walked away. That was probably the best advice I ever got.”

Jimenez credits Alvarado for opening up a path for his future he didn’t know existed. “He gave me the gift of music and the gift of a different form of expression that I didn’t know was real,” he said. “He guided me into becoming the person that I wanted to become. Everyday I treasure that.”

Alvarado contends his relationship with Jimenez made a positive impact on him, as well, and credited much of his student’s success to hard work, practice and personal dedication. “It’s unheard of for anyone to begin playing string instruments at the age of 14 and be at the level he’s at,” Alvarado said. “All of that has to do with his motivation and passion for music. Moments like that, I stop to think, ‘this validates my life’s work.’”

Jimenez also serves as an example of what other students can accomplish, and Alvarado said he’s not shy about sharing his story with other minority students looking to break into fields where they’re typically underrepresented. “He was consistent, devoted, passionate, and just wants to know more and grow,” he said. “I feel that’s something our younger scholars need to succeed: To see a success story from Bronx Prep; to see our own scholars being successful.”

Teachers like Mr. Alvarado play an indispensable role in directing the path of students’ lives—and in modeling the kind of people that they can become.

The Content of Their Character, a summary of the School Cultures and Student Formation Project conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, points out:

The moral example of teachers unquestionably complemented the formal instruction students received, but arguably, it was far more poignant to, and influential upon, the students themselves.

For Jimenez, Alvarado’s positive example not only offered a path to success out of his inner-city neighborhood, but also a template to help others in his community and beyond.

“The greatest I can become—that’s the level I want to reach. I believe it’s a mission to spread the beauty of music to others. I know what it did for me and what it can do for others,” he said. “The same thing that Mr. Alvarado did for me, I want to do the same and continue that path. Giving back to where you came from is very important to me.”

While Jimenez found a transformative experience in music, it’s only one of many ways educators can connect with students to build character and unlock their true potential.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers a lesson that weaves history, film, and music to entice students toward a similar kind of passionate pursuit of excellence that fueled Jimenez’s success.

EL Schools leave their mark on students

Inspired by the hit musical, Hamilton, 5th-graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC. spent weeks researching colonial history and composing rap songs to explain what they learned about the period. In their EL School, this is how deep learning happens, and the projects leave a mark on students beyond just the content that is absorbed.

EL Education is a New York-based nonprofit that supports 165 schools in 30 states to implement EL’s model. Kate Stringer, writing for The 74, reported on EL’s model, which is grounded in “content, character, and craftsmanship.” EL Schools weave these three Cs throughout all of their students’ learning.

The Hamilton-inspired project, and others like it, are known as “expeditions.” Stringer explains that expeditions are processes, “of inquiry, discovery, and creativity . . . [and that] teachers and leaders say this form of whole-child, project-based learning is the key to the network’s success across geographies and socioeconomic backgrounds, reaching more than 50,000 students last year, and 1 million in its history.

Expeditions provide a singular opportunity for character formation. Stringer says of the projects, “[I]t’s not enough to simply learn about a subject and create a project. EL students are expected to give back to the communities they learn from, so many of the projects are designed as lessons that students can use to share their newfound knowledge.”

In this way the students begin to see how character is a concept that permeates their life. It has an impact not only on their academic work and success but also in the ways that they treat others and contribute to their community.

Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education says, “Once a child finishes her schooling and enters her adult life . . . for the rest of her life she will not be judged by test scores. She will be judged by the quality of work that she does and the quality of person that she is”

In a presentation at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, David Brooks argued that some people find balance in their life through living in “dense organizations . . . some schools are thick and they do leave a mark.”

Dr. Ashley Berner of the Johns Hopkins School of Education delves into school culture in Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, “A strong school culture means something very different from a friendly school, or a high-achieving school, or a school with few discipline problems. Rather, it means a school where the moral vocabulary, rituals, discipline, academic expectations, and relationships align. Such a school can define its mission, hire faculty, and attract students and parents based upon a shared vision.”

EL Schools provide this coherence through their learning expeditions. Students know that they will be judged by the quality of their work, the depth of their knowledge, and their content of their character. This school culture makes all the difference.

Becoming an EL School is a slow process—often taking four to five years—because culture changes take time. But thick cultures leave their mark and can have an impact on students through their life.

Teaching students discipline, respect, and understanding through music

HUMBLE, Texas – Park Lakes Elementary School teacher Stephanie Tiner is using music to teach students important qualities like discipline, respect, and understanding—lessons that can be a foundation for deeper conversations about good character.

Tiner secured a $3,700 grant from the Humble Independent School District Education Foundation this school year to purchase drums, bongos, maracas, and numerous other percussion instruments she plans to use to introduce students to “D.R.U.M.”

The acronym stands for Discipline, Respect, and Unity through Music, and it’s the title of a book authored by veteran Humble music teacher Jim Solomon about the power of music to bring people together, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Tiner told the news site that Park Lakes serves a large population of bilingual students, some with limited English, and her music class brings those students together with their traditional classmates.

Unlike schools that keep students segregated by their English abilities, Park Lakes blends the students in non-core classes to help them work together and learn about their racial differences and language barriers.

“I really wanted to try and figure out a way to use music to really tackle those issues that I kind of feel our country is even having a hard time with,” Tiner told the Chronicle. “Getting along with people who don’t look like you or sound like you through music is a wonderful way of doing that.”

Tiner said that although she just recently received the new instruments, they’ve helped to engage students in a collaborative effort to carry a rhythm and to learn to share the various drums, bongos, and lummi sticks on a rotating basis.

“It would help them to have to work together, to have to listen, to be disciplined, to treat each other with respect,” she said. “When you try to create music with people you are not listening to or that you don’t get along with, it’s noise, and I tell them all the time, ‘This isn’t noise class—this is music class.’”

And students have responded well to infusing lessons on character with the music.

“Having a more character education driven classroom in general around this has made a big difference,” Tiner said. “They are constantly trying to work together to earn points to move onto the next step.”

Tiner’s music-driven character lessons are an excellent way to engaging students in more in-depth conversations about the virtues of good character.

The experience of cultivating habits of respect, attentiveness, and humility in schools through music and other subjects should lead to deeper conversations about why we should show respect and listen attentively when it’s easier to insist on our own perspective and disregard others’ opinions and feelings. Incorporating character virtues into music classes (example here) will make the character lessons explicit.