NORTH KINGSTOWN – Eighth graders at Wickford Middle School took part in an all-day event last Thursday, which featured nonverbal drum lessons and poetry, all with a focus on community and social-emotional learning. The event, called Spread the Words: African Drumming and the Moving Poetry Project, took place in eighth grade social studies classes and the gymnasium, culminating with a huge drum circle and posters or poems being hung around the school.
According to a powerpoint outlining the day’s event, Spread the Words sought to answer one question: Can sharing a learning experience together spread messages of cohesion and peace beyond our community?
Stephanie Griffin, a special education resource teacher at WMS who coordinated the event, said she came up with the idea after a recent policy was made by former Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, which said that school districts could no longer charge students to participate in field trips. The ruling resulted in several regularly scheduled field trips being canceled.
“I did this because we got some news in our state about funding field trips,” Griffin said. “And I came up with an idea that maybe we should have an interior field trip, a stay-at-school field trip. So I brought the experience to the students.”
The drum lessons were led by Dana Maguire, of Dana Maguire Drums, who taught the eighth graders how to play their instruments nonverbally. Throughout the lessons, students followed Maguire’s wordless lead, while also relying on and keeping pace with their peers.
Griffin said the nonverbal lesson was meant to reflect the ways communities work together more harmoniously if individuals listen to others and complement each other.
“Dana teaches a lesson that requires 100 percent student engagement,” Griffin said. “It is remarkable to see students in the age of ever-present and distracting technology actually pay attention to one another to keep a beat on an unfamiliar instrument of communication.”
“We laughed, we made mistakes,” she added. “But on the whole, we made some music, which was fun.”
And because she knew she wouldn’t be able to get a percussive instrument in the hand of every eighth grade student, Griffin also integrated writing poetry in the day’s proceedings.
“I also wanted people to pick up pens. I wanted to spread the words, the poetry, the things that make people feel that Rhode Island is a special place,” she said.
All throughout the gym, posters made by the students, featuring their poems, were hung on the walls, surrounding the community drum circle. Griffin also said that the posters would be spread throughout the community.
She went on to say that the purpose of the event was to make students aware of the need to listen to one another–whether it be in art or in the community at-large.
“For us to be in a community, we have to be willing to listen, we have to be willing to create with each other,” she said. “We have to feel the need to collaborate, to make art, to make music.”
“When we do these things, we’re telling everybody that there’s a different way to communicate,” she continued. “There’s a way where we can find togetherness in just a song or just a poem. The children need experiences like this because they go home to their cellphones and they’re disconnected. Here, we brought them together with one purpose, and it was to make things beautiful.”
And in light of the threat of COVID-19, or coronavirus, spreading throughout the world, Griffin said that the all-day event focused on the spreading of meaningful words and actions through art, poetry and music.
“On a day when there is so much worry with the idea of something spreading, WMS eighth graders participated in a community art project intent on spreading words of poetry to the local community and beyond,” she said. “[N]ot only did we drum together, we made art together.”
The day ended with a community drum circle, led by Maguire, with students beating their drums without a moment’s pause, all in-sync, attuned to each other’s rhythm.
“Our day of learning with Dana Maguire [...] was a big success as smiles and good cheer was in evidence in the gym this afternoon,” Griffin said after the event.
One eighth grader, Noah Dukat, called the event a “great experience,” citing the nonverbal aspect of the drum lessons as a particular highlight.
“This was certainly a great experience, it was pretty fun,” Dukat said. “I learned a decent bit about how the drums actually work, even though [Maguire] didn’t speak the entire time. We just figured it out by ourselves through his guidance.”
“We could still all get what he was attempting to communicate,” he added. “Even some of the people who had a bit of trouble with it at first learned relatively well by the end of it.”
Tatem Cabral, another eighth grade student, also said she had a lot of fun following Maguire’s wordless instruction.
“It was really fun seeing how he could give instructions without even talking,” Cabral said. “It was a bit confusing at times but you could tell that he knew what he was doing. He was actually good at directing us all, and we just followed what he did. It was especially interesting for me because I’ve always had an interest in drums.
Cabral added that students also relied on each other to keep with each other’s rhythm.
“We definitely based off of each other a lot,” Cabral said. “I looked over at some of my friends I was sitting near to know how fast to go.”
And Andrew Stafford, also a fellow eighth grader, called Spread the Words a “life changing experience.”
“I’ve never gotten taught without someone speaking to me,” Stafford said. “It gives you another perspective of life, of what it is not only to play music, but to be the music that you are playing.”
Griffin also made sure to highlight how grateful she was for the faculty and staff of WMS for allowing her to coordinate a “stay-at-school” field trip, giving the students a chance to partake in something they might not otherwise get to experience.