Corrine Wolfe-Cornwell, an 11-year veteran of the classroom, is a fifth-grade teacher at Windsor Oaks Elementary in Virginia Beach. She attended the 2013 VISTA Elementary Science Institute at William & Mary with her colleague Irene Sclafani.
The two teachers conducted an extended problem-based learned (PBL) unit in the spring on living organisms, which culminated in a field trip to plant seedlings at Mt. Trashmore. The activity was featured in a Sunday story by David Macaulay in the Virginia Beach Beacon, a community publication of the Virginian-Pilot.
The PBL investigated ways to solve the erosion problems of the waterfront in Mt. Trashmore Park. The class worked with Lynnhaven River NOW, a local restoration project that promotes a healthy and clean river.
Earlier in the year, Wolfe-Cornwell did her first PBL activity on something entirely different: sound, which is part of the required fifth-grade curriculum.
“The instruments got wet, and the musicians didn’t have the money to replace them, so they were asking us for help.”
The class started out with a series of listening exercises pulled from YouTube videos. The students closed their eyes and tried to imagine what instruments were making the sounds they heard.
“I found all these cool music videos that featured sound in some unique way,” says Wolfe-Cornwell. “There were these guys from Stomp with sinks around their necks, playing them like instruments; brothers on China’s Got Talent who carved instruments out of vegetables; a group of five-year-old kids whose little arms could barely fit over the guitars; and group from Paraguay where make instruments out of trash that make beautiful sound.”
Windsor Oaks has a popular Ecology Club, so Wolfe-Cornwell encouraged the students to put their knowledge of reusing and recycling to work in the music instrument problem.
“I wanted to think about repurposing materials into ways people could make sound,” she says. “By thinking of making sound with vegetables or trash or with things in nature, it inspired them to learn the concepts of sound.”
One of the things that helped was a string vibrator that Wolfe-Cornwell purchased with her VISTA classroom supply stipend. “It shows sound waves and what happens when you increase the frequency,” she says. “In the past, I would have just shown them something on the computer, I would never have had a real scientific measurement instrument, but here, I was able to show them something that they could go up and touch.
“Before they started making their instruments, I wanted them to understand how sound works when you change frequency or amplitude.
“Before VISTA, I wouldn’t have thought to do that,” she says. “They were actually touching things and doing and seeing things in action as opposed to me providing the action.
“I think it engaged them more, got them to ask questions more, and it got them to integrate the activity into their own thought processes, as opposed to just watching.”
The students ended up creating a band of innovative and unusual instruments that provided a range of sound – from simple percussion to more complex stringed instruments.
“There was also a video of Jimmy Fallon with his night-time talk show musicians playing the theme from Sesame Street with classroom instruments,” says Wolfe-Cornwell. “We practiced our instruments along with that one.”
The culminating activity was their own rendition of “Let it Go” from the current Disney hit Frozen. “It was so much fun!”