Ready… set… listen!

Ever sat and listened silently for an extended period of time with a class of 8 year olds? In the cafeteria where they normally get to talk with their friends as much as they want? I wasn’t sure about how this was going to work with elementary school kids, but I was convinced: in order to have an effect on noise levels in any space, you start by listening. So if the project Sound Bites aims to reduce the noise levels in the Coronation Elementary School cafeteria, we need to make listening fun and engaging for the students…

Ready… set… listen!

It is a fairly ambitious task to ask 20 or so children under the age of 12 to sit and listen in silence for any length of time, so music teacher Connie Wilson and I took great care into setting up the following activities for success.

“Anybody want to do a treasure hunt?”

The kids were all in.

Sound Treasure Hunt

  1. Before playing the sound treasure hunt, ask students to name any sound they hear (e.g. a sneeze, a car horn honking, shuffling feet).
  2. Ask students to identify a sound they hear frequently in this room, and not say it out loud. Pick one student to ‘play’ the sound while everyone else covers their eyes (e.g. eraser on whiteboard, chair scraping, percussion mallets clacking against each other). Ask for volunteers to guess what the sound was.
  3. Ready… set… listen: Over a two-minute period, sit quietly and listen. Then, ask students to write or draw the sounds they heard. If they have trouble remembering what they heard previously (I do!), they can write or draw any sounds they are currently hearing. Ask volunteers to read their list or describe what they heard. Notice the similarities and differences in what students hear.

Tips:

Use a visual aid to show where you are in the two minutes period to avoid the inevitable question ‘how much longer?’

Adapt the length of time to your group. I prefer several listening periods of shorter time frames so the treasure hunt is different every time. Given how much how quickly sound changes in an elementary school, one two-minute treasure hunt could feature the janitor walking down the hallway with a trolley, greeting a few kids, while the next might be about the sounds of the heating system starting (reluctantly), and the next basketball practice in the gym down the hallway.

Brainstorm a number of distinct acoustic environments to listen to that are within easy walking distance. Repeat the treasure hunt in each location, writing and drawing the sounds of each. Discuss, comparing locations.

For Sound Bites, we chose to listen to a stairwell, the library, and two different locations in the cafeteria. The kids floored me with their enthusiasm and acute ears. As you can see in the images in this post, their responses are amazing, complex and varied, and say as much about each individual as it does about their school.

Spotlight: Coronation Sound Bites

Sound Bites collage by Louise Campbell

Picture a large room: concrete floor, low tile ceiling, bare plaster walls, tables lined with stools, a wall of industrial fridges and an attached commercial kitchen. Imagine the accompanying sounds: hums, buzzes and the metallic clanks of a busy kitchen. Now imagine the same room filled with 100 or so kids eating lunch, anticipating going outside to play. The enthusiasm and efficiency of this room are laudable; the sound levels impressive. I’m excited to be Artist in Residence for Sound Bites, a School Hosts an Artist project aimed at reducing the noise level in this room, Coronation Elementary School’s cafeteria.

A school cafeteria is similar to a restaurant or a bar – there are a lot of people in an enclosed space, usually with a fair amount of background music and/or noise. People talk loudly so they can be heard by their friends, which means other people talk louder in turn. In brainstorming with science teacher and visual artist Shelly Sharp, we came up with the following focus questions:

“How does sound affect our well-being? What can we do as artists, students and adults to understand and positively impact sound quality and volume in the Coronation Elementary lunchroom?”

These questions fall perfectly into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math), as sound touches on issues of awareness, self-expression, behaviour, group dynamics, acoustics, and more. Students had previously studied molecules and transfer of energy, so sound waves and acoustics built on their prior knowledge.

The following experiment uses a marble as a model for a sound wave to learn about reflection, absorption and dispersion of sound.

Materials:

    • marbles
    • 3 different materials of similar dimensions (e.g. wood, squishy foam, corrugated cardboard)
    • Tape measure

Experiment:

Place the materials against a wall. Mark a spot on the floor to shoot marbles from, keeping the distance between marble-shooter and materials consistent. Shoot the marble three times against each of the materials, letting the marble roll to a stop after it bounces off the material. Measure the distance of each shot and record. Depending on the age of your students, crunch the data as you see fit.

Discussion:

Ask students for observations:

      • How did the marble bounce off the materials?
      • What were the similarities and differences between the different materials? Why might this be the case?
      • How does this relate to:
        • the room you are currently in and how it sounds?
        • a quiet environment like a library?
        • a loud environment like a cafeteria?

This experiment gave us a great hands-on beginning to discussing sound. Next up, we’ll visit the cafeteria in Music class and take a listen…