By Peter Musselman, Lower School Music Teacher
Lower School students discover a new way to study nature: by listening
One element of Place Based Education is to return again and again to the same place over time, opening our awareness about what has changed and what has remained the same. It’s also what musicians do every time we pick up our instrument or practice a piece.
The whole class was cheering. During one of our first days back on campus this spring, children in our music class had burst into the center of a “show-me-your-motion” circle game, and dove onto the ground to flail in the soil. This was the magic and spontaneity we had been missing. Our students needed to hear and respond to each other in community. And clearly they needed to get dirty.
Second grade Teachers Lori Buesking and Marcelle Valladares had made similar observations, and as we gathered to plan our interdisciplinary curriculum, we considered the benefits of the forest-as-classroom. We decided that the study of ecosystems would be the basis for teaching and learning across subject areas, including music education.
The mindfulness approach became an essential part of our integrated workshops. Lori’s class practiced Mindful Snacking and Marcelle’s group learned Mindful Walking with fox feet, owl eyes, and deer ears. I wanted my students to develop their ability to notice details of the natural space, and to do this by sitting in the forest quietly, observing and listening to the sequence of sounds. I knew that when they began to listen to nature, they would discover something remarkable: music is everywhere.
Marcelle reminded us that one element of Place Based Education is to return again and again to the same place over time, opening our awareness about what has changed and what has remained the same. It’s also what musicians do every time we pick up our instrument or practice a piece. So I asked students to begin by choosing a spot on a trail in a wooded part of campus that they would return to regularly in the course of our study.
From their chosen spot, students listened for bird calls and learned to identify birds by sight and sound. They created their own bird identification logs in which they drew graphic notations of bird songs they heard. Eventually we brought ukuleles and fingering charts for chords and scales, and students documented their work with iPads. Some worked alone along the trail writing odes to nature, using the names of the flora and fauna as musical material; others transcribed the syllabic rhythm of bird or plant names into eighth and quarter note notation.
Students became increasingly curious about the ecosystem they were studying and sought answers from on-campus sources. They requested non-fiction books from Librarian Lisa Ellenberg, and invited Facilities Director Kitty Firth to visit our class to consult about forest rehabilitation projects. And because they had become interested in ukuleles, second grade teaching assistant Jazelle Trubiani presented a lesson about the history of ukulele in Hawaiian culture.
The curricular intersections that took place by teaching and learning outdoors resulted in a meaningful and restorative experience for both the students and myself. By sitting still and being mindful, our senses were heightened, and we were open to details we hadn’t seen or heard before. In the process, we immersed ourselves in the tactile experience of coaxing new compositions from musical instruments. And in our quietness, we let the music of nature come to us.