Ukuleles bring new sound to Coralville elementary school's music classes

Borlaug Elementary fifth-, sixth-graders to perform with new instruments at spring concert

Fifth-grader Lamis Nogdalla positions her fingers as she strums a chord on her ukulele during Karly Zimmerman's fifth-gr
Fifth-grader Lamis Nogdalla positions her fingers as she strums a chord on her ukulele during Karly Zimmerman’s fifth-grade music class at Norman Borlaug Elementary School in Coralville, Iowa, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — Depending on the time of day, a passerby outside one of Norman Borlaug Elementary School’s music classes could be forgiven for believing a Hawaiian luau was taking place.

Though they wouldn’t find any leis or kalua pigs inside, that visitor instead would happen upon a room full of fifth- and sixth-graders, furthering their musical education while playing a classroom set of ukuleles.

The stringed instruments became new fixtures at Borlaug in January, after the Coralville elementary school’s parent-teacher organization unanimously agreed to purchase a set of 34 ukuleles for use as part of the upper grades’ music curriculum.

Music teacher Karly Zimmerman said she proposed using the ukuleles after hearing about other area schools that have pursued similar initiatives during professional development events in the Iowa City Community School District.

Borlaug now is one among a small but expanding number of district elementary schools where ukuleles are incorporated into music classes, she said.

“I just really wanted to stretch our music horizons with the ukulele,” said Zimmerman, who for years has owned a baritone ukulele and more recently picked up the smaller soprano variety used in class.

“That was a dream of mine since I came here a couple of years ago.”

Previously, Zimmerman said, the school’s five fifth- and sixth-grade music classes — which range in size from 18 to 33 children — could learn about xylophones, drums or singing during a typical 27-minute session, twice a week.


Now, she said, those elements are woven in with ukulele instruction, as the young students learn how to play different chords and progress between them during strumming exercises.

“It was a great way to motivate the students because of the newness of the instrument, the versatility,” Zimmerman said. “This is something they’re going to be able to take beyond the classroom. You could grab a ukulele and play chords when you’re hanging out with your friends, or when you’re an adult.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is for each fifth- and sixth-grade class to play the ukuleles in serenading fellow students, family and friends at Borlaug’s annual spring concert.

Even several months away, Zimmerman said her classes are exceeding expectations.

“They’re so engaged and they come in, ready to learn and get their hands on them, and we’re moving,” she said, of the instruments. “They’re like, ‘Let’s play songs. When can we learn the next one? What’s next?’ They’re super motivated.”

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