NU Splash: Local high schoolers test college waters

    If Roger Almendarez did everything right this weekend, he taught 30 students how to skank.

    The second-year Ph.D. student participated in NU Splash, a makeshift school day where college students teach their own classes to area high schoolers. Students took Tech by storm Saturday to make their own concrete in a lab, learn to belly dance, share Starcraft II strategies and more.

    Almendarez taught two courses at Saturday’s Splash: one on the history of ska music and another on hip-hop in film. He says he hoped students could fully immerse themselves in the course, thinking, analyzing and even dancing in ways they wouldn’t have before.

    “People have seen movies, people have heard music,” he says. “In turning the thoughts back to their lives… I’m hoping to get them to think more critically about their engagement with music and film.”

    A Splash in time

    Splash programs have been popping up nationwide since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started the first one in 1988. Second-year Ph.D. student Liza Plotnikov was an undergraduate at MIT when its Splash started up. She got hooked on the program, and last year, she helped Northwestern launch its own.

    About 80 high schoolers attended last year’s Splash. This year, 400 kids spent their Saturday navigating Tech with pseudo-class schedules in hand. Plotnikov says 80 student teachers led classes throughout the day, including some students from the University of Chicago and MIT.

    To participate, hopeful student teachers submitted class descriptions for approval and went through a short training. Students could teach on any subject they wanted, from game shows to robotics to cryptozoology, so there was hardly a Math 101 to be found. At last year’s Splash, Plotnikov taught a course on famous failures in engineering, but this year she’s working with five others behind the scenes.

    “I’m actually pleasantly surprised,” she says. “We did very little advertising, but we got a whole lot of interest from people wanting to teach all sorts of different topics.”

    Last year’s program was funded by Northwestern’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and was free to high schoolers, but this year students were charged $10 to attend. The cost covered supplies and lunch, and high school students could take as many classes as they wanted during the 9 to 5 “school day.”

    “A lot of high schoolers, even ones who live really close to universities, never end up on their campuses,” Plotnikov says. “They really like learning things that they would never get a chance to learn in school.”

    Jocelyn Gravel and Laura Ledvora, both Weinberg freshmen, heard about Splash from a chemistry lab director. The concept piqued their curiosity, and on a whim the roommates decided to co-teach a course on symbolism in popular music.

    “There’s always that song where you’re like, ‘Wow, what a great line,’ but no one ever talks about that in school,” Ledvora says. “All the English classes are always about novels or things kids can’t really connect to.”

    One of Splash’s objectives is to engage high school students who may not be interested in going to college or finishing high school. Many would be the first generation of their families to attend college. Gravel and Ledvora kept this in mind when developing their lesson plan, bringing in examples from the real world to explain the merit of literary devices.

    “I want them to actually be interested in school,” Gravel says. “It’s actually applicable to your own life.”

    Getting their feet wet

    Gravel and Ledvora started their class with a South Park clip about symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye; a spunky freshman with a pink bow on her head giggled through it. To teach about symbolism, they play Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” and point out subtle references to slavery. Next is “Thriller”; the kids in the back swish their hands back and forth in true zombie fashion as Ledvora explains imagery.

    Later comes a pop quiz. Gravel plays the Seals & Crofts song “Summer Breeze” and the high school kids have clearly never heard of it. “It’s a classic,” she reassures, and asks the class to analyze the line, July is dressed up and playing her tune.

    After a few seconds of hesitation, a quiet girl raises her hand. “Metaphor,” she says, “because July isn’t actually wearing clothes or playing music.” She wins a pencil.

    At the end of the day, the girls think their classes went pretty well, though not perfectly. Some students paid closer attention than others, but using Top 40-style music as a springboard for an English lesson seemed to get through to the kids.

    “I think for a lot of them it was the first time seeing these terms,” Ledvora says. “Letting them connect it to something they’re familiar with reinforces it better.”

    Almendarez tried to keep the high schoolers’ interests in mind, too. As a Ph.D. student, he has experience teaching and writing his own syllabi, but he says the freedom to choose your own coursework makes Splash classes different.

    “It’s good experience to sit down, write your own syllabus and really think of a lesson plan,” he says. “How are you going to kick this idea to 30 people in a way that they all get it, they all have fun learning it, and they can leave the class having felt good about their general experience?”

    Almendarez studies screen cultures within Radio/TV/Film and hopes to become a professor. For him, participation in Splash was win-win; it gave him a chance to practice teaching the subjects he likes, and it let him involve students with a topic they’re interested in –- pop culture -– on a more academic level.

    “Ska is Jamaican music, but it’s being created and really being formulated right at the time when Jamaica finds liberty from England. So how does ska music relate to the formation of the nation-state?” he says. ”I’m trying to make that connection for them to think about culture as something we create, not something that’s just there.”

    Soaking it in

    Ledvora’s personal goal on Saturday was to change how at least a few Evanston students interacted with school, to help them approach education differently. She thinks she succeeded.

    “Some of my teachers have been my most positive influences in life,” Ledvora says. “Even if just for an hour we can be a good role model or a positive influence that makes them interested in something, then it’ll be worth it.”

    It’s hard to tell whether the high school students or the college teachers took more from their Saturday at Tech. And if they both got something, maybe it doesn’t matter.

    “They’re not coming for you to lecture…it’s finding a way to interact with them that gets them thinking,” Almendarez says. “It’d be funny to have someone read this out of context: ‘Oh, you’re going to teach them how to skank!’”


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