Ukuleles help students learn English

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BISMARCK, N.D. - Moving to a new school in middle school can be overwhelming.

Imagine moving to a new country at that age. The language and culture barriers can be devastating to some kids.

At Bismarck’s Wachter Middle School, there are 30 students who came here from across the world, from places as far away as Ecuador, Mexico, Guam, Liberia, Kenya, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania, just to name a few.

Lucky for them, one woman at their school has found a unique way to help them succeed in class, while building their confidence one note at a time.

Rissa Williams claims she’s not a musician.

“I have no musical background,” she explained.

She also claims she’s not a teacher.

“I am an aide, English Language Instructional Aide. This is my second year,” said Williams.

But in her two years at Wachter Middle School, she’s already touched a lot of lives, through music and through teaching.

All because of one instrument.

“It sounds beautiful,” explained 7th grade student Rai Samaniego, who moved to Bismarck from Ecuador.

“I like to play ukulele,” said Mario Tovar, a 7th grade student originally from Mexico.

“We learn from these ukuleles a lot,” declared 7th-grader Djiby Diallo. He moved here a year ago from Africa.

They’re learning more than just how to play the ukulele.

“It helps me learn words in English,” said Tovar.

It also helps them with math.

“Music is math. It’s fractions, and fractions are decimals, and decimals are percentages,” Williams explained. “We work really hard at this. I think they are applying that same amount of focus and dedication in other classes.”

When one of Williams' students earns high marks on a test in another classroom, they earn their own ukulele to keep at home. It is a confidence boost for the students, and Williams is eager for each of her students to earn their own ukulele.

“It is common for an English language learner to be quiet for six months,” Williams said.

But that is not the case in this classroom, and that is music to Williams' ears.

Williams received a grant from the Bismarck Public Schools Foundation to purchase the first 10 ukuleles, music stands and tuners. The district paid for an additional 10.