Retired teacher and Novato resident Joni DeGabriele, above, puts her skills to work during the pandemic of 2020.
Coping With The Pandemic/Fourth in a Series
By Barry Smail
Novato Historical Guild
In 2013, long-time Novato resident Joni DeGabriele retired from teaching full-time. During her 30-year career, she taught music, drama and dance to preschool and elementary students in Marin County. Her last several years were spent teaching general education in her second-grade classroom at Lucas Elementary School. While working with her second graders, she noticed several students struggling with their social and emotional skills.
“This negatively impacted their academic learning,” Joni observed.
She attended a Kimochis workshop in San Rafael (Kimochis is Japanese for feelings) and began implementing their curriculum in combination with her music, dance, drama and puppet helpers. “I saw that all of my students benefited from directly teaching social/emotional skills,” Joni said.
Joni formed Musical Moments after she retired. Its mission, she explained, “is to build character in young children through music and movement. When children have the tools to communicate their feelings appropriately, they build confidence, positive self-esteem and stronger relationships.” A Musical Moments workshop uses auditory, visual, kinesthetic and tactile modes of learning through listening, singing, movement and playing percussion instruments. Joni created a website (musicalmoments.org), a brochure and produced a CD. Then she marketed herself to elementary schools in Marin County.
Fast forward to 2020. In the midst of Covid-19, Joni wanted to do something for her neighbors and friends. She reached out to her friend Nancy Rosell and asked if she would feel comfortable bringing Henry, her three-year-old grandson, to a Musical Moments presentation in Joni’s front yard. “Nancy thought it would be worth a try and gathered more friends and their children to participate,” Joni said. Since late September, a small group of children—shepherded by parents and grandparents—gather weekly on Joni’s front lawn to sing, dance, play percussion instruments, talk with puppets and in the process, learn tools to help manage their emotions.
New and familiar melodies are taught with social/emotional concepts embedded in the lyrics. Some of the songs include “This Little Light of Mine”, “Count on Me”, “Three Little Birds”, “Keep on the Sunny Side”, “Shake it Off” and more. Joni has a stable of puppets, each of which carries a special message. One is named Spunky the Monkey. “He’s silly and fun and teaches the children how to take calming breaths when they have mad or sad feelings,” Joni explains. Then there’s Grateful Gus—he shares his lessons of gratitude and loves rhythm and rhyme. “The kids become quite engaged with the puppets; they might know it’s me but it’s still magical to them.” “Joni’s class in one of the silver linings amidst the many challenges of the pandemic,” declared Roisin Quintan, mother of Aiofe (18 months) and Knute (4). “It’s so nice for them to get outside and be around other children.”
Prior to the pandemic, Joni was plying her trade at Neil Cummins Elementary School in Corte Madera. “I was contracted to do eight weekly social/emotional workshops with kindergarten and first grade students. We were halfway through the workshops when Covid-19 hit,” Joni said. When on-campus learning ceased, she taught the remaining workshops online.
Once the classroom teachers are ready to incorporate Musical Moments back into their schedule, Joni will resume online teaching to approximately 200 students at Neil Cummins. “I’m longing for the day when I can be with the children again in the classroom.”