Each summer, when the USC Thornton Community Engagement Program sets its goals for the year, its first step is to ask the USC Family of Schools for their input. And two years ago, Vermont Elementary expressed a clear need, “They wanted a way to introduce their fourth-grade students to music and motivate them to eventually join middle school band or choir,” said Susan Helfter, director of the program. “That’s how we created Adventures in Music.”
Adventures in Music is a ten-week program that introduces the fundamentals of music and draws on fourth graders’ understanding of culture, geography and mathematics. Students learn folk songs from different cultures and in different languages. They learn music notation and solfege and practice clapping different kinds of beats. And they listen to recordings of famous compositions and critically discuss their importance.
“One of the things that makes our programs unique is that we tailor our programming to what the schools need as their environments change from year to year,” Helfter explained. “Our intention is to first support the music and the arts instruction that’s already going on, and then supplement where we can.”
For Vermont Elementary that meant the program was designed as a short-term course that met during the school day so as to reach students with no prior music experience.
The model worked. Adventures in Music was a major hit. Malika Morris, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, said she was grateful for how the curriculum bridged academics with creativity and created a break in the school day while keeping students mentally engaged. “It brings cheer to them,” she said. “They’re able to get out any antsies or wiggles that they have, because they’re able to move around and sing.”
Valeria, a fourth-grade student, said the class made her want to make music a bigger part of her life: “I want to write songs, sing and perform without being shy.” One of Valeria’s peers, Rudy, grew confident on stage: “When we do a concert, I feel nervous, and then when we start singing, I don’t feel nervous anymore. I feel smiley.”
Watching her students perform together was a highlight for Community Engagement mentor Chelsea Sharpe (MM ’17). “My favorite part is seeing how excited they get to perform and how seriously they take the matter,” she said.
Mentor Rose Campion (’18), who also taught Adventures in Music at Vermont Elementary, noted the time that one of her students, Ramón, intercepted her in the grocery line at Ralph’s to show her that he’d been practicing his songs. “It was nice to see that I’ve made a measurable impact on his life,” she said.
The kind of admiration Campion’s students have for her attests to the enthusiasm she brings to her teaching. “Working with the young students, that will always be the highlight of my day,” she said.