Garden Springs students explore the world

When folks at Garden Springs Elementary School wanted to tell students more about the world around them, they sat down and created a new class.

The explorium class — which began this school year — offers students exposure to foreign languages, distant cultures and music from various countries, plus a taste of the foods those countries enjoy.

During class on Tuesday, teacher Julie Mullins led third-graders through a discussion of how Christmas is celebrated in Kenya. The exploration then turned hands-on as the children made, and played, their own version of bells used in African music.

The goal, Mullins says, is to expose students to the arts and other cultures, while stimulating them with hands-on learning. After the first of the year, explorium students will be learning sign language, and finding out more about Kentucky's own culture by learning to play the Appalachian dulcimer.

Every Garden Springs student — the school has about 640 children in kindergarten through fifth grade — attends explorium class for an hour a week. In addition to hands-on learning, each student must keep a journal describing what's been covered in class.

School officials and parents say they're more than pleased with the results.

"My kids came home laughing and sharing Spanish with me. They brought home a receipt for tortillas and wanted to make some at home," said Rene Vandenberg, a parent representative on the Garden Springs site-based council. "They're just so excited to be learning something different, and I've been thrilled with it."

The new class is unlike anything Mullins has taught in her 19 years of education. She was a writing specialist before being selected to become Garden Springs' full-time explorium teacher, based on her college background in Spanish and music.

While Mullins plans the course material, she says she makes adjustments based on students' interests. For example, doing a segment on Spanish, Hispanic students at Garden Springs took a leading role in telling classmates about their language and culture, she said.

The new class grew out of discussions by Garden Springs' site-based council members last year.

"The kids were having writing class once every six days," Vandenberg said. "That was wonderful in the sense that they got some pieces published and entered some writing contests. But we felt something was missing. So, we started throwing out ideas."

One suggestion was to incorporate foreign language. Someone else suggested that cooking could help expose kids to other cultures. Music, too, seemed an ideal part of the mix.

At some point, it became obvious that an entirely new class was the answer.

Several names were suggested for the proposed new class: The Enrichment Program; Kitchen Of The Mind; Different Ways of Knowing. Garden Springs Principal Karen Borders is credited for coming up with the name "explorium."

Ilena Bryan, 9, who transferred to Garden Springs just three weeks ago, says it's unlike any class she's ever taken.

"It's great fun, and Ms. Mullins is a great teacher," she said.

Larry Person, 9, says he loves to "learn about different cultures."

Alison Cooney, also 9, said she loves learning about "foods that other people eat and how to cook them, and then writing it all up in our journals."