At Summit Lakes Middle School in Lee’s Summit, seventh- and eighth-grade students typically check out books, digital audiobooks, e-books, and now, ukuleles.
The school’s library media specialist, Christie Brown, said she came across the idea in 2015 while reading an article in School Library Journal. Brown said she liked the idea of a library offering something more non-traditional, such as musical instruments.
“We have a ukulele club that started a few years ago,” Brown said. “... Around the time it started, I ran across this article about a school that was checking out ukuleles, specifically. Since we have this ukulele club, I thought it was interesting.”
Fast forward to the start of the 2017-18 school year, the library now has five ukuleles for students and staff members to check out and Brown said the small stringed instruments have been “very popular.” Ukuleles have been checked out at least 15 times since the beginning of September, she said.
Brown is getting used to the occasional ukulele strum inside the library as students try out the instrument for the first time.
“A lot of them are curious and they’re just intrigued,” she said. “Some also have friends in the club.”
Students at the middle school can check out ukuleles for one week at a time. Each instrument also comes with a carrying case.
The musical instruments, which are Waterman ukuleles, were donated by KALA Brand Music Company to the ukulele clubs at Summit Lakes Middle School as well as Lee’s Summit West High School. The ukulele cases were donated by Legacy Music of Lee’s Summit.
For about two years, Summit Lakes Middle School has offered its own ukulele club. The club is sponsored by Gail Rowland, an orchestra director, with the assistance of Darla Nelson, a sign language interpreter at Lee’s Summit West High School.
Nelson, who also sponsors the ukulele club at Lee’s Summit West High School, initiated requests for the ukulele donations.
At Summit Lakes, Rowland says about 50 students and staff members participate in the club. Rowland believes the instruments help kids find their voice and find a group with which to get involved.
“It’s very accessible and it’s four strings with easy, quick chords to learn,” Rowland said. “There’s a lot out there on YouTube people can learn and play along with.”
Students at the middle school said they enjoy playing the ukulele for a variety of reasons. For some, it helps advance their musical ability.
“Ukulele club is a great opportunity to enhance my musical skill,” said Sydney Lutz, a seventh-grade student. “It also helps me when playing my viola by learning where to put my fingers and teaches me new plucking skills. Being able to check ukuleles out at the library helps me learn even more at home. It’s super easy, and we’re super lucky to be able to borrow and bring home instruments.”
Other students, like seventh-grader Tate Sterling, said the instrument is something they pick up for fun.
“I play ukulele because it gives me something to do when I am bored, but I like playing it because it is fun to play,” Sterling said. “It has a very unique sound and it is fun to learn how to play.”
Earlier this year, the middle school library held a contest where the student body worked to come up with names for the five ukuleles. Their task was to think of names after characters from young-adult novels.
The students selected the following names: Ponyboy from “The Outsiders” by S. E. Hinton; Harry from the “Harry Potter” series by J. K. Rowling; Percy from the “Percy Jackson” series by Rick Riordan; Katniss from the “Hunger Games” series by Suzanne Collins; and Tobias from the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth.
Currently, Brown said “Katniss” and “Harry” are the most popular ukuleles among the students.
It’s not just Brown who was inspired by the idea to bring instruments into the mix inside the library.
According to the School Library Journal article that inspired Brown, libraries in California, Maine and Illinois also offer ukuleles. The article quoted Chad Clark, a new media librarian in a Chicago suburb, who hatched the idea of checking out the stringed instruments at Highland Park Public Library.
“It’s about empowerment,” Clark told the School Library Journal in 2015. “Let’s circulate ideas and experiences. (With ukuleles) kids have the option to explore. There’s no prescribed use; just pick it up and play.”