Elective Classes Develop Individual Passions

in Spring 2022 by

Middle school…those critical years when the adolescent identity emerges and kids crave more autonomy…Park’s new elective classes to the rescue! This year, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders each chose their favorites from a total of 44 different electives – ranging from “Art & Activism” to “Ukulele.” 

The idea for new semester-long arts electives and year-long music ensembles began as faculty and administrators set out to create a more student-centered class schedule a few years ago, one that complimented early adolescents’ need for choice. Upper Division Head Ken Rogers explains, “As adolescents move toward adulthood, they want more control and participation in decision making. Choosing elective classes provides a way for students to explore and experiment in a safe and nurturing environment that encourages them to step out of their comfort zone.” 

The new schedule carves out one 80-minute and two 50-minute blocks each week, providing new opportunities for teaching and learning by providing agency to students as they explore new offerings and perhaps discover new passions. Julie Mumford, Park’s School Counselor, says “electives are an additional opportunity for students to try on new things and start to explore what subjects and interests ‘speak’ to them, which is all part of growing up and learning about who they are.” COVID and remote learning made it challenging to launch the new classes in 2020-21, so the new electives officially got off the ground in Fall 2021.

For students in Grades 6, 7, and 8, the elective blocks replace general music and art classes. (Music ensembles meet weekly in the 80-minute block for the whole year. Students who are not participating in ensembles can choose two electives per semester, while ensemble musicians can choose one 50-minute class. Look for an article about music ensembles in an upcoming Park Parent.) Instead of more survey-based music and art classes, sixth graders, for example, can zero in on “Building A Bench” with Dean Laabs in the Woodshop for the Fall Semester and try “Ceramics” with Nancy Popper in the Spring. In addition, students can explore other disciplines too, with brand-new drama and making classes. 

Elective classes have been designed with students in mind. Sixth graders take classes with just their classmates, while seventh and eighth graders are mixed together. This new class composition has been fun for students and teachers alike. Similar to being in a play or on a sports team, students can forge relationships across the grades. Art teacher Melody Bartlett reports that the mixed classes have been fantastic. “The seventh graders stretch themselves to be on the same plane as their older peers, and the eighth graders have an opportunity to mentor. Over the course of the 16 weeks of the class, they get to know each other, mingling and opening up over time.”

This fall’s improv students developing empathy and collaboration on stage

Drama teacher Kyra Fries acknowledges, “It’s hard to start a new class in middle school. Electives present a healthy challenge for students to learn in a new way – to work collaboratively and rely on self-assessment rather than homework and tests.” This year, she is offering classes as varied as “Improv Troupe,” “DIY Play,” and “Soliloquies, Monologues, Scenes,” – all based on imparting soft skills such as empathy and collaboration. These drama classes emphasize process over product (unlike this spring’s musical production of Shrek!) and are all modeled on the cardinal rules of improvisation, which are both simple and very hard to achieve: Say “yes, and” to everything, make your partner look better than you, and don’t judge self or others. 

JJ, a seventh grader, says that his electives don’t feel like regular classes. “There is no homework, and the teachers are so much more laid back!” In the fall, he took “The Human Figure” on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and “Bookmaking” for the 80-minute period on Wednesdays. This term, he’s learning more drawing techniques in “2D Studio Drawing,” and will be creating in the Makerspace for his “Art Through Coding” class. He has come to really look forward to his electives “because it feels like a break in your day, especially after a quiz or test.” His classmate Blake agrees, saying, “Electives offer students a choice to find and pick a class or classes they enjoy and they also offer a break from all the academic work. They’re a lot of fun and the pressure level is way lower than in normal academic class.”

A charcoal portrait of Travis James, created in “The Human Figure” elective

The change of pace is intentional. Recent research in neuroscience suggests that the process of creating art and music provides an opportunity for dissociative reflection, which in turn enables students to consolidate memories and engage in cognitive processing. Nancy Popper cites the work of neuroscientist Bruce Perry and psychologist Ellen Winner, saying, “Reflective thinking and creativity enable more productive brain function and improve relational interaction.” She explains, “I like to think of it this way: while students are in drawing class – honing their skills, engaging in creative expression, absorbed in their work, quietly talking with friends – they are subconsciously consolidating and processing information from the morning’s math and science classes.”

Students welcome both the lower stress environment and the opportunity to try something new. Gaby, a sixth grader, reports, “In electives, students can try something new and different, and not be afraid to mess it up. Electives are a place where a student can feel free and relaxed, without the stress and hard work of normal classes.” “I was looking for something that I had never done before,” says James (Grade 7). “Electives offer kids a chance to explore the world creatively instead of academically like other classes. They also give kids more choice in what they want to do.” 

While some students, like JJ, are choosing classes primarily in one discipline, others are treating electives as a sampler. Blake shares: “For my fall electives, I took ‘Ukulele’ (Music) and ‘Art Through Coding,’ (Making) and for spring I have ‘DIY Play’ (Drama) and ‘Art Through Activism.’” (Art) He elaborates, “It was pretty hard to choose because you wanted to pick what your friends choose but you also wanted to try something new or get better at something that you already know how to do. I chose ‘Art Through Activism’ because lately I’ve been working on a project to stop overfishing and ocean pollution and I thought that would be a good way to do it.”

Although COVID delayed the rollout of electives by a year, there has been a silver lining. Woodworking teacher Dean Laabs explains, “The upside of the pandemic is that we’ve been able to change the syllabus and imagine a new future. We are thinking differently and creating new opportunities for faculty to collaborate.” This spring, art teachers are breaking down the “silos” between departments by teaming up with Drama to offer “Puppetpalooza” and with the Library to offer “Art Through Activism.” Art Department Head Nancy Popper says, “We hope to continue to build on these cross-curricular elective courses, and are exploring possibilities of maker-space and 2D/3D art collaboration.”

Students who want to explore music and are not enrolled in a year-long ensemble have several options, including “Ukulele.” Music teacher Erik James explains that this simple stringed instrument is perfect for beginners who have never played an instrument before. “It’s a great introductory instrument for someone who doesn’t think they’d be good at it. It’s super comfortable, easy to relate to, works with small hands, and produces a nice sound.” In a typical 50-minute class, Erik spends about 15 minutes going over something new with the whole group. Then, the students go off in pairs and small groups to work through the new material. They’ll find a quiet spot in the main lobby, or the front stairs, and dig into the lesson. This approach, which encourages students to embrace their independence, has been a huge success. Gaby reports loving her sixth grade class: “Ukulele was really fun because I got to learn how to play a new instrument, and now, I play almost every day. Mr. James has been a great teacher – he is very patient and makes every activity we do in class fun.”

Practicing the ukulele on the front stairs

Students in Jamie Gunther’s “Digital Music” classes are exploring a whole new approach to music on their Digital Audio Workstations. Jamie introduced his students to the basics of synthesizers and mixing, and led class discussions about how digital music can open doors to career opportunities they didn’t know existed!” “After movies or television shows are filmed,” Jamie explains, “foley artists create and record sounds for everything you see on screen like footsteps, rain, or water poured into a glass.” Over the course of the semester, each student created their own project. “When I was in Digital Music this fall, I made my work my own, whether it was a podcast or an audiobook,” says Asher in Grade 6. While Myles, a seventh grader who enjoys coding and had already designed his own video game, created music for the various scenes in his game. 

For faculty, it’s rewarding to offer students a chance to really develop their individual passions. Erik sees elective classes as a perfect complement to their growing sense of identity. “Electives let kids dive into their interests – computers, arts, music, drama – as a means of personal expression.” Makerspace educator Elaine Hamilton concurs, saying that the classes “honor kids where they are, with what they’re interested in.” 

Art Through Coding students created bookmarks representing their first grade partners
Making shapes using the P5 coding language

This pilot year is also providing teachers with the ability to “workshop” projects with a small group of students. When she realized that the ten students in the fall “Art Through Coding” class had very different skills in the P5 coding language, Elaine revised the curriculum from recreating Joseph Alpers-style squares based on color saturation to pairing up with first graders using the design thinking process. “The kids loved working with the younger students. They’d ask: Who am I making this for? How do I get this circle to become an oval? And how do I represent what my first grade partner loves? And then they’d create an individualized bookmark representing their favorite things like dogs or soccer.” Lessons in all disciplines are bound to benefit from the iterative process. Erik reports, “I told my sixth grade Ukelele students that they’ve taught me so much and I know that this spring’s class will go even better.” At the end of the fall term, his students were asking if they could take “intermediate ukulele” next year, “so,” he says, “I think it’s been a resounding success!”