Adventures in learning: town-gown interaction

Tim Campbell ’01 spends his Friday afternoons preaching. His audience is smaller and younger than most, consisting of seven second and third-graders. And the gospel according to Tim is quite unorthodox, as well.

“What did we learn last week?” Tim asks his students.

They respond enthusiastically, in unison, “Pasta making can be an art.”

Campbell teaches “Don’t Be Fucilli,” one of the more offbeat classes in Adventures in Learning, a six-year old program brings Williams students to Williamstown Elementary School for five weeks every spring. Students teach their after-school classes once a week.

Williamstown residents Anne Hogeland ’77 and Elizabeth St. Clair ’80 created the program in 1994 to forge a link between College students and the elementary school. Hogeland said they also wanted to give College students the ability to reach out to the community and for the schoolchildren to be able try new and exciting things.

“I had three young children when I started the program, and I was interested in providing exciting educational opportunities for the whole community, including my own children,” said Hogeland.

St. Clair did not exactly have high hopes for the plan at first. “We both were Williams graduates, and my experience led to me ask her, ‘Are you kidding? You’re not gonna pay them? No one will do that!’” recalled St. Clair.

When Hogeland went along and started the program anyway, St. Clair volunteered to help handle the workload. “I was overwhelmed by the number of student teachers that we had,” said Hogeland.

There is little doubt that Hogeland’s plan has succeeded in accomplishing its goals. When campus tour leaders declare that “town-gown” relations at Williams are very good, they must be referring to Adventures in Learning. “It has meant a dramatic increase in the placement of Williams students in the community,” said Hogeland.

Heather Matthews ’02, who teaches “Young Authors” with Julie Joosten ’02, said the program helped burst her own Purple Bubble. “It just sounded like a fun a way to become involved with the younger side of the community. Especially when you’re isolated at a college, you don’t see a lot of kids,” said Matthews.

Campbell became interested in the program because he enjoys working with children of second and third grade age. Although the program includes students in second through sixth grade, most teachers restrict enrollment in their classes to two or at most three grades.

Campbell had wanted to do Adventures in Learning after working as a counselor at a YMCA camp the summer before his freshman year at Williams. When the program did not fit in with his schedule, he returned to school after another summer as a counselor and decided to try it out.

“Actually, it took me a while to come up with what class I wanted to teach,” said Campbell. Drawing on his experience as a carbo-loading track runner with a family of chefs, Campbell settled on pasta making. “The first day, we just did a bunch of magic tricks and splatter painting. I showed them a lot of art from an art book. I just tried to convince them that pasta making can be an art, too. I just based my five weeks around that,” said Campbell.

Not all classes are as unconventional as Campbell’s. A broad range of classes includes many—such as Campbell’s—that introduce students to unique hobbies and pastimes, such as “Needlepoint” and “Improv Antics.” Others introduce schoolchildren to extracurricular activities such as a capella singing (“Weephlats”) and theater (“Next Stop, Broadway!”). And a student can always take a introduction course to a relatively academic topic, such as science (“Environmental Adventures”) or the Internet (“Design a Homepage”).

Hogeland said that she modeled Adventures in Learning after the College’s Free University program in January, in which Hogeland worked when she was a student.

“I liked helping to facilitate people teaching courses on subjects and giving people the opportunity to teach courses in a very unstructured environment on issues which they find very exciting. I think people learn very well in that environment as well,” said Hogeland.

This year a total of 46 teachers combine to teach 24 classes. While some of the teachers are local parents, the majority are still students at the College.

If the program reads like Free University, it sounds a lot different. Inside Noga Chlamtac ’01 and Yeowan Kim ’01 “Bonkers for Biology” class on Friday afternoon, Kim is wrapping up the class on acids and bases. “Next week will be more like a lab,” she said. “We’ll be working with bacteria.”

“Yay!” said Eli, the boy who just ate a pinch of borax.

One testament to the program’s popularity among the elementary school children is that many students take more than one class. They say it is a nice change from their regular classes. “It’s like an end of school weekend party every Friday,” said one third-grader in Campbell’s class, who proceeded to wipe her hair with dough-encrusted hands.

Lisa Hiley, now in her second year as program director, especially likes what the program offers to the schoolchildren. “It gives kids a chance to learn in a fun environment. The kids who sign up for the program are there because they want to be, and they’re excited about the subject,” said Hiley.

Hiley and Daily Supervisor Sue Lenhoff are at the school every day to ensure that everything is running smoothly. Lenhoff, who travels to each class at least twice a day – there are eight at the school on Friday – describes her job as making sure that everybody has everything they need, and seeing if anyone needs a behavioral expert. “I’m a mom,” she explains.

Informational meetings for the program begin in late November, and course proposals are due by January 13. Student-teachers design and plan their classes independently. Said Hogeland, “We really just try to provide background support and let the instructors take the lead.”

Hiley says that the she does some fine-tuning during the planning process, but nothing more. “I may call a student back and say ‘this course might work better for younger kids or older kids,’ or ‘we did something similar last year, maybe if you focused it this way it would attract more kids,’” said Hiley. “I’m happy to offer advice, suggestions or any materials that we may have, but once the students have signed up, it’s really up to them to design the course.”

Matthews appreciates this independence. “They really give you a lot of liberty to explore and find a topic that you really want to share with kids, and one that you would want to be creative and have fun with. They let you take that and fly with it. It’s a neat exercise – to be able to create your own class,” said Matthews.

The benefits teachers gain from the class are just as variable as the classes themselves. Hogeland said that student teachers often go into teaching after they graduate.

That is one of the reasons that the instructors of “Musical Mania,” a class for fourth through sixth graders which puts on a short musical every year, keep coming back to the program. Torie Gorges ’00, Debbie Ebert ’00 and Becky Iwantsch ’00 signed up for the program their freshman year because it looked like fun. This year, Alicia Currier ’00 has stepped in for Iwantsch, who is abroad.

Gorges likened teaching to being a camp counselor, but also said the program has made her start thinking about her career. “All four of us are thinking about going into education, and this is a good opportunity for us to test it out. We figure out things like which age group we like working with best, how to get the kids on stage and how to get their attention,” said Gorges.

Matthews agrees that the program has broadened her horizons. “Experience-wise is a really valuable thing, and it has been a branching out for me. It’s even made me think a little bit about a career,” said Matthews. She added, “It’s so refreshing to see the energy that the kids have. It has given me much more respect for any elementary school teacher I ever had.”

As for Campbell, he takes away something simpler. “It just brightens your day to see kids having fun; to see kids learning.”