My school has been slowly implementing something called SEM, or the “Schoolwide Enrichment Model” over the last few years. We are far from being a model of this idea, but some aspects are starting to take hold. For example, each of our students (except the lowest performing math kids, but that’s another whole post) gets to choose an enrichment cluster for last period Friday. These are high-interest mini-courses offered based on assessment of teacher and student interests; they last 8-12 weeks and then we start a new cycle. Most of the kids get their first or second choice of cluster, the class sizes are small, and in theory, they are less teacher-directed and more a collaborative exploration of a new topic by the students with the teacher.
I sat out the first round, as it’s technically my period to do team leader stuff. But I had a million ideas for things I’d been dying to try, and after all, I am one of the teachers who attended Confratute, the University of Connecticut’s weeklong training for SEM, and anyway, it’s hard to help other teachers implement something that you’ve never done yourself. So this time around, I offered a cluster, the Science of Sound. I’ve wanted to teach this for years, even though I’m not that knowledgeable about music or the physics of music or how instruments work or any of it; I figured this format of exploration would be perfect for learning about something along with the kids.
It is rapidly becoming one of my favorite hours of the week. Most of the kids in the group are excited to be there, and the class is tiny thanks to the removal of the low-performing math kids. At least one boy has come alive in a way that I’ve never seen in him before; he makes higher level connections all the time in this class, and reveals random bits of knowledge about music that I would never have guessed he possesses. The first couple of weeks, I tried to have them select a project from a book on sound & science, write up a plan, and then build it, but in the end we mostly just played around using the book as a basis and junk I collected from teachers and students as our raw material. One group built a shoebox guitar complete with toothpick frets (when you press the strings near a fret, it really does alter the sound), another group built a single string bass (there’s a better name for this but I forget it), one boy made a “telephone” by tying a string between two plastic cups. The kids are fascinated by their projects. I try to ask questions prompting them to think about what is causing sound to vary between one rubber band and the next, one tube and the next, and so on.
Yesterday, I gave an impromptu lecture on waves, starting out with general stuff like amplitude, frequency, wavelength, and so on, veering into a brief conversation about am versus fm radio (something I don’t know a ton about), then going into why helium makes our voices higher and how there are gases that work the opposite way, making our voices lower. The kids connected the discussion of vibration of molecules to the work on air pressure that we’ve been doing in regular science. One boy suddenly raised his hand and said, Oh so frequency gives you pitch?! Which, yes, it pretty much does. (Though I’m reading a pretty neat book called This is Your Brain on Music, which proposes that pitch is really created by the brain’s processing of frequency… but I think that’s a bit much for the first go-round on the topic).
All of which brings me around to the incredible amounts of learning that can go on when you do something that kids are excited about, keep a good balance between exploration and inquiry and expectation of specific outcomes, and broaden rather than narrowing the curriculum. My favorite parts of the week are robotics and my enrichment cluster; and I have a feeling that these are things my kids will remember 20 years from now.
By the way, that one boy who is so excited about my enrichment cluster has also become fascinated by scientific vocabulary. He and some other boys were giggling about a post-it note at the end of class the other day. I asked to see it. It said “Compression” and had a list of students’ names, some with checkmarks beside them. Incomprehensible. Is this inappropriate? I asked. What is it? The boy laughed. Compression is when I squeeze someone’s head, he said, into a smaller space, like molecules. He’s not a violent kid, and no one was complaining, so I just laughed, gave it back, and told him that I wasn’t responsible if he distracted others and got in trouble for it. Later when I introduced compression waves I said it was his favorite word, and the whole class giggled. Finally, on the way downstairs, he said, We just dropped some altitude, right Ms. F.? I love quirky kids.