Learning Lessons: Taking Music Outdoors
Voice: November 2015
This story is part of a regular series, "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,'' that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania's public schools. Find more examples of innovative programs and videos at www.psea.org/learninglessons.
At the Western Wayne School District's EverGreen Elementary in Lake Ariel, there are children sitting in pairs, sharing headphones and an iPod shuffle.
Some pairs lay in the grass, watching slow, puffy clouds float by. There is a light breeze as the last of the summer sun kisses students' cheeks.
This isn't a scene from a quiet day at recess. It is a fourth-grade music class with teacher Kathleen Riley, and the children are listening to classical music. Later, they will talk about the connections between nature and the composer's thoughts.
It's a far cry from the traditional music classroom, where children sit at desks and study notes. But for Riley, this creative, outside-the-box teaching has proven a tremendous success.
Idea and opportunity connected
The idea for the program, "Taking Music Outdoors,'' stemmed from a continuing education course Riley took in the summer of 2013.
"The Sky is the Limit: The Outdoor Classroom" discussed ways to use green spaces for more than just science education. Riley had been using the fields for other kinesthetic learning activities in her music lessons, but any kind of listening activity would require her to bring speakers outside, and the only portable music device was her personal iPhone.
She thought if each student had his or her own device, or even one to share with a friend, they could learn about taking proper care of the device, while experiencing music selections as the composers had intended them to be heard.
"Kids seem to be always 'plugged in' to a device, but 'tuned out' to the world around them," she said. "I figured these devices would provide a way to connect those two things."
Riley applied for a PSEA Innovative Teaching Grant the following year, and in 2014 was awarded money for 18 iPod shuffles and all the coordinating pieces.
"The program provides students who are electronic device-obsessed a chance to focus on a colorful, natural, tactile ecosystem that continually evolves," Riley said. "Outdoor learning is part of getting students connected to and building enthusiasm for school. Curriculum comes alive anytime students are out of their defined classroom."
Students take the lead
Riley uses the program to teach students to take ownership of their learning.
"There's nothing like saying, 'take this device, listen in your favorite field spot, and come back prepared to discuss,' to place the whole responsibility for learning today's lessons directly on the student," she said. "Students gather and brainstorm outside of the music room to try to figure out how to use our iPod shuffles for class activities.
"I think they feel responsible for the ownership and development of their learning with these activities, and I know they are contributing to the evolving music curriculum."
A main challenge, she said, is finding the time to fit in all of the new activities the students want. After changes in staffing and district funding needs, she now only sees each class once in a six-day cycle.
"I'm trying to figure out what's going to give me the biggest educational value for the kind of lesson that we are looking for," she said.
Riley has been impressed with the discipline her young students have shown in sitting quietly outside.
"We sometimes forget, but students want to connect with what we are teaching them," she said. "We just have to make that connection back to them."
The program provides an added benefit for students with special needs, said Katie McElhenny, a learning support teacher at EverGreen Elementary.
"A lot of my students are very antsy, so having them get outside and move, and actually be in the environment which they enjoy more than being in the classroom, is a wonderful thing," McElhenny said, adding she has noted improved confidence in some of her students who have trouble with reading. "Music is something that comes more naturally to them. I had one student who couldn't read, and he didn't socialize well. But he was the only one who could follow the beat to the music."
A lasting positive impact
Students draw comparisons between their outside environment and the music.
"When you see the songs changing, it is definitely better because you're outside with the environment and the environment is changing with the song," said third-grader Ryan Schane.
Riley continues the lessons in the classroom. Students return from their outside music time and use the "What Did You Hear Board" to describe with adjectives what was in their imagination when they were listening to a certain piece. Their peers agree, or flip the adjective cards for an antonym descriptor.
"It's one thing to talk about a song that is supposed to be about springtime," she said. "It's another to be outside and listen to the birds chirping and see the sun rising over the mountains while listening to that song."
The "Taking Music Outdoors'' program has provided a unique opportunity for many of Riley's students.
"We are in an extremely rural school district, so a lot of students don't have access to the technological resources that some of the students do," she said. "It gives them an opportunity to take part in and be a part of the cool stuff they see on TV, and connect with people who live in the world around them."