Active Learners Blog
The Older Group with their musical instruments.
The Older Group with their musical instruments.

I always start the year finding out what the children want to learn and wish to accomplish during the course of the school year, so I can plan lessons around their ideas and incorporate them into the flow of our school days.

I love doing this because it gives us unlimited possibilities. Responses often include things like learn geometry, learn new unicycling tricks, learn about countries, learn to play the ukulele, learn to cook; responses are as individual as the children. It is so interesting to find out what the children want to learn and discover and such useful information for planning a rich and eventful school year. I also have many ideas for the Older Group (OG), as do Sally, Bill, Brian, and this year Dennis as well. Looking back over this past year, it is amazing what a vast amount of things we have experienced, learned, and accomplished, having tremendous fun while we did. When Antioch School children come home and report that they played all day, in a sense they have. When everyone is involved in the planning, when we play with concepts, laugh and cry over good books, play music, hike, learn, explore math, reflect in nature, are fully engaged, and approach learning with joy and enthusiasm, it could be described as play.

It has been fabulous having Dennis Farmer here to teach music to the entire school. In the Older Group, under Dennis’s gentle and joyful tutelage, we had the opportunity to learn to play brass, woodwinds, flutes, and/or strings. Almost every child in the OG decided to participate in either the band or the orchestra classes. The first day that children brought in their instruments was so exciting! Cases were open, and shiny instruments glowed with possibilities, as did the faces of the children. They wasted no time getting them out, putting together the ones that needed to be assembled, and trying them out. After the first class, I am not certain anyone was able to put down his or her instrument, and for most of the day, music was played in the OG, the quiet room, and in the hall.

Some children took to their instruments easily. They learned how to play the notes and were rapidly off playing other pieces by ear, and embellishing the ones we were learning in class. They learned to harmonize with each other’s instruments, and found time in either project time or free time to play together just for fun. Other children had to work harder to learn the correct positioning of hands, lips, or body, how to bow or how to manage air flow. While everyone, with motivation, practice, and good instruction, can become a musician, not everyone can just pick up an instrument and make it work for them. One of the great things about Dennis is that he was always available for one-on-one instruction early in the morning. Children who needed the extra time and instruction received it, and over the year, this really showed in both their musicality and their confidence as musicians.

It is always interesting to observe what motivates that extra desire to learn. In the case of music, it is often hearing our instruments really sound musical as we get better through practice. It was a joy to watch Zenya’s love for his cello develop over the school year. Carter took a much greater interest in his bass, after seeing and hearing the bass player at the Jill and Julia Show. A really cool bass player can do that for you. There came that time when there was a shift from duly practicing, to enthusiastic learning and joyful playing. After developing an interest in and love for their music, both Zenya and Carter auditioned for music studies at Stivers School for the Arts. Both passed their Stivers auditions in music — a very nice accomplishment in addition to becoming aspiring musicians.

After watching the first few band and orchestra classes and the pleasure the children were having, I had to ask Dennis if teachers could join the music class. How happy Sally and I were when he said yes! Sally chose trumpet, and I chose clarinet, and we joined in the fun. Over the course of the school year, all of the children worked hard and most had a great time learning their instruments. Luka joined the Older Group toward the end of the school year and valiantly took on the clarinet, keeping up with the class the best he could as a beginner. The more experienced musicians took on harmony parts so we could go back to some beginning songs to include Luka in our practice sessions and performances. Both Dallas and Corinne spent quite a bit of time in the OG at the end of the school year, deciding to begin their transitions in the spring. Both girls, along with Galen and Timmy, joined as percussionists. We ended our year of music playing “Cherokee Chief” as a full orchestra. We accomplished so much in one school year it was inspiring. Quite a few children joined the Yellow Springs Summer Music Camp (founded by Shirley Mullins 50 years ago) to continue learning their instruments and to enjoy playing with a group of musicians.

Last summer my 13-year-old niece, Hannah, came to visit from Alaska. She brought her knitting project, a knitted monster, and Rebecca Danger’s The Big Book of Knitted Monsters: Mischievous, Lovable Toys. Both knitting and the little monster were new projects for her, and she was loving the challenge. My sister and I started knitting monsters with her, and we all found it so joyful, none of us could stop. Knowing that this was something that many Older Group children would likely enjoy,  I ordered the book and purchased yarn and the knitting supplies necessary for several children to try knitting monsters.

At the beginning of the school year, we plan out some of the projects children might like to do during project time. We make sure we have the materials and time needed for the children to engage in projects of their choice. This year, music, drama, painting a car, gardening, unicycle skills, art, cooking, movie making, and knitting were top interests. Children enthusiastically participated in almost all of these, some children preferring some of the activities over others, or some choosing an entirely different path for their projects. The children have so many interests, and a rich and open environment to pursue them. What a pleasure to teach and learn in a school where this is not only possible, it is part of everyday life!

The knitting idea was a big hit. I brought in a couple of monsters I had made with Hannah, as well as the Knitted Monster book, which not only has fun patterns, it has biographies and descriptions of all of the monsters and the mischief they create. As the children looked through the book, there were exclamations of, “Oh, I want to make this one!” “No, actually I want to make THIS one.” “How hard will this be to make?” “They are so cute, I can’t pick.” They studied the book, trying to decide which to make. We started with one of the smaller easier ones, a little monster named Coco. These were not easy patterns for beginners. Some of the children already had experience knitting on straight needles, some knew how to both knit and purl, but others had no knitting experience. These little monsters required double pointed needles and circular needles, new to all. The more experienced knitters were able to grasp the techniques of using both the double pointed needles and circular needles and immediately became excellent tutors for the children with little or no knitting experience. Soon there were clusters of knitters, not only during project time, but also during free time, and during story time while I read to the class.

When the first monster was completed, everyone was so excited, and looked forward to trying other patterns; big monsters, small monsters, striped monsters, all kinds of monsters; each one with so much character and personality — not the characters and personalities assigned by Rebecca Danger ­­— the ones that were infused in them by the hands and minds of the children who made them. As the eyes were attached, the stuffing added, and the mouths placed: they came to life.

As the year progressed, monsters were everywhere: in the children’s carrels, on the couches, sitting in boots in the hallway, hanging out with stuffies any and everywhere, out on unicycle excursions with their people, even painted onto the stool Victoria designed for her graduation project. As they accumulated, we decided that it would be great to send a photo of the monsters and the knitters to Rebecca Danger, because her monsters were so beloved. We took a photo, sent her an email with the photo attached, and she sent a sweet letter back, pleased that everyone had been having so much fun with her designs.

The knitters went on to find other patterns of interest, and for a holiday gift for the Older Group, the OG parents bought knitting supplies (the original supplies had dwindled) and gift certificates to JoAnn Fabrics and Michael’s. The children brought in and shared pattern books and ideas. While the children learned how to read and use written patterns, many of them went on to create their own variations on the patterns, and Selah and Zay designed patterns for their own creations. Zay has even begun to write the new patterns down and create a knitting book.

What do music and knitting have to do with each other? They are two very different sets of skills, yet they share many of the same benefits. Perhaps the main things are the sheer joy of learning and creating, along with the gratification and confidence of knowing that you can master a skill that appears at first difficult and complicated. These things reinforce the idea that anything is possible and yes, fun, even if it looks really hard at first, reducing resistance to taking on other tasks or concepts that look complicated or challenging at first. Both music and knitting require persistence, concentration, and collaboration, which are important skills in both academic learning and in future success in careers. The children share what they are learning and teach each other the skills that they have gained. They learn that practice as well as making mistakes and correcting them, really do improve skills, and they have fun in the process. It just doesn’t feel like work.

Both music and knitting develop fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and what Howard Gardner calls Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence. Each requires different hands to work different jobs at the same time. Both sides of the brain are engaged with rhythmic patterning, engaging neural pathways to reading, logic, and math development. The mobility and dexterity strengthened by these activities stimulate and strengthen many connections in academic and other learning.

Music and knitting aren’t the only activities that build brain connections and strengthen academic skills; they are two things that we have loved this year that I chose to write about. There are many wonderful things going on, opportunities to learn new skills, and experience the world — our weekly hikes in the Glen, camping, the spring musical, and gardening, to name a few. This year, Talia Boutis chose to do her senior project with the Older Group. The experience she had with Don Wallis and the Writer’s Group when she was a student at the Antioch School was so powerful, she wanted to pass it on to this group and she did so beautifully.

Our days are event-filled, rich, and powerful. Parents appreciate this, I know, but some wonder if the children are getting enough time with academics. Most definitely, yes! We are inundated with so much publicity about academic performance, testing, state standards, etc; without analysis of how this is really working. Nationally, children are showing more signs of acute stress and depression, and academic performance, as measured by tests, is actually going down. The truth is, children’s brains do not operate well under a steady stream of input, especially when they have no choice in or commitment to what they are being taught. Learning under stress and pressure is not optimal for positive learning experiences. Our brains need not only information about the world around us, they need processing time, regrouping time, time to think creatively, to reflect, and to play. Learning is actually more efficient when you give processing time and mental breaks, when there is time in-between for other tasks and interests. Each thing we learn, even if it seems totally unrelated to another subject, strengthens our neural pathways and thus, everything else we learn. Having diverse learning opportunities and the ability to explore personal interests creates an atmosphere where children can learn in depth, enjoy learning, and retain their love of learning new things.

When children are engaged in what they are learning, feel emotionally secure and confident, have time to do activities of their choice, learning is fun. When learning is fun, it is its own reward. I was talking to Regina Brecha, an Antioch School graduate who has just finished her first year at Mount Holyoke College as a math major. She told me that she had no idea, until she began middle school, that there were people who hated math. Her Antioch School experience, and the teaching of Bill Mullins, had instilled in her a passion for math. Talia Boutis gained a passion for writing. This list could go on and on because children who graduate from Antioch School leave with a love of learning and the joy of a challenge. Most of the children graduate with strong academic skills, a fact that is evidenced by the number of Antioch School graduates on the honor roll, inducted into the honor society, selected for merit scholarships, or as Salutatorian or Valedictorian for the high school graduating class, or by the colleges and universities they get accepted into. For some Antioch School graduates, academics are not their areas of strength, but they bring their own unique skills and intelligence with them and shine in their own strengths. Antioch School graduates bring with them creative and critical thinking skills, the ability to work as a team, the ability to be proactive in their learning, as well as many and varied interests. These are skills for a lifetime of personal satisfaction and success.

This article was written by Chris Powell and printed in the 2014 Active Learners Journal published by the Antioch School.

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