Westridge School: English and Orchestra Collaboration Inspires Non-traditional Problem Solving
English and orchestra aren’t typically thought of together, that was precisely the logic behind two innovative, interdisciplinary projects this fall. Seventh Grade English, Middle School Orchestra, and Upper School Creative Writing classes collaborated on projects to interpret literature through art, sound, and motion. The ultimate goal? To create completely new situations that would help students develop new ways of thinking and problem solving. These projects, conceptualized by English teacher John Cross and orchestra teacher Leo Kitajima, implemented design-based learning, a relatively new teaching approach that integrates hands-on work, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, and allows students to tackle a concept before receiving a guided lesson.
The first project began when 7th Grade English students analyzed characters, events, and passages from The Book Thief and created 3D book reports that looked like abstract art pieces. The reports included a brief paragraph that explained and justified their designs. Next, the Middle School Orchestra class was asked to interpret adjectives from the reports and interpret them as sound. The orchestra students thought through what adjectives like “horrible” or “colorful” sounded like and found new ways to use their instruments to create compositions that embodied these moods.
In the second project, Upper School creative writing students brought an Emily Dickinson poem to the Middle School Orchestra class and led break-out discussions, identifying adjectives that summarized the tone of the poem. Following, in groups of six, the orchestra students were challenged to use their voices and bodies to create “machines” that translated these adjectives into sound and motion.
According to Kitajima, when students fell back on familiar responses for this new project, their solutions did not work. This point was discussed in the end-of-class debrief, where students shared lessons learned. “Those kids got it!” Cross observed. “They understood that their first thought might not be their best, that fresh perspective inspired them to think innovatively, to stretch for a “third thought” rather than settling on the familiar…they were testing skills and cultivating capabilities. They got to experience adjectives, feelings, and perspective. They realized the important role every person plays in a collaborative effort and took risks.”
When the Middle School Orchestra class met a second time, Cross saw the students apply what they’d discussed, “The girls thought about their work with the poem and with adjectives and made connections when they picked up their instruments. These projects helped move the girls’ thinking to a more authentic place, beyond the artificial and sometimes arbitrary notion of separate disciplines and divisions (in both senses of that word).”
Westridge School, 324 Madeline Drive, Pasadena, (626) 799-1053 ext. 200 or visit www.westridge.org.