Drum lessons help Great Neck Middle sixth graders hone critical and creative thinking

by Cindy Focke

Band teacher Heather Smith gathers in a drum circle with sixth grade social studies students at Great Neck Middle. She shows them her authentic djembe (pronounced jim-bay) drum.

“There are three sounds this drum can make,” she said. “Tone, bass, and slap.” She demonstrates by rhythmically pounding the drum with two hands to “get enough resistance so you get enough sound.”

The activity was made possible through a grant from the Virginia Beach Education Foundation. “Full STEAM Ahead in U.S. History” focuses of revolutionizing how social studies is taught and makes the subject engaging and interactive for students, said Great Neck Middle instructional technology specialist Jessica Carpenter. Students learn through projects that combine science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM).

“The hands-on approach fosters critical thinking and creativity as students explore and interpret historical concepts in a tangible way,” Carpenter said. She also said students learn to problem solve, analyze historical data, and gain future ready skills.

The students had already learned about European exploration in North America and West Africa and those societies and cultures. By coincidence, Smith studied and lived with musicians in Ghana, where she learned how to play the drum, native to the West African culture.

After Smith demonstrated how to play the drum, social studies teacher Iwalani Wilson announced the class assignment: “We are making replicas of djembe drums today.”

Sixth-grade social studies teacher Iwalani Wilson applied for a grant from the Virginia Beach Education Foundation to enhance areas of study. Students had the opportunity to create miniature West African djembe drums after studying about West Africa.
Supplies were distributed, including half of a small plastic bottle, balloons, scissors, beads, rubber bands, brown paper bags, and string. They brainstormed in groups how to use the items to make authentic-looking miniature drums, like the one belonging to their music teacher.

Mara Riehle and three classmates secured yellow balloons as the top of their drums and used the brown paper bag to resemble wood on its base.

Mara said she enjoyed the activity.

“I like learning by doing,” she said.

Nearby, Mckinley Wetmore and her group strung beads on string to create an artistic pattern on their drums.

Across the hall, Erica Brown’s students were also drum-making.

Sixth grader Carly Bolen said she loves art and realized that djembe drums are all different because each is made by hand.

“I didn’t really know that,” she said.

Her teacher said hands-on projects such as this helps students value other cultures and deepens the understanding of the subject matter.

The foundation’s grant also provided the school’s sixth grade social studies students with supplies to design replicas of shelters inhabited by indigenous cultures, including igloos, plank houses and pueblos. They also created terrain models with playdough to demonstrate knowledge of land and water features.

Principal Thomas Quinn said students made real-world connections during the project and recognized “the importance of focusing on the process as well as the product.”

And there’s more to come, including the use of Legos to recreate key events of the America Revolution, and programming and coding small programmable robots to simulate traveling along the Oregon Trail and Underground Railroad.

Iwalani Wilson was pleased as she watched her students work together and add their own creative touches to the drums. “Look at them,” she said. “They are engaged, and they are learning.”

Sixth-grade social studies teacher Iwalani Wilson applied for a grant from the Virginia Beach Education Foundation to enhance areas of study. Students had the opportunity to create miniature West African djembe drums after studying about West Africa.[/caption]