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The City Journals

Fourth-grade Utah programs made memorable for students

May 02, 2022 08:26PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Several South Jordan elementary schools are resuming their year-end grade-level programs and adding some creativity after a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This month, some of the 150 students who will present South Jordan Elementary’s Utah program will have a treat for the audience.

Instead of playing on plastic recorders, teacher Deborah Hanson has been teaching her students how to play Native American-style wooden flutes carved by her husband, Gary.

“He used to say, when you ever end up teaching fourth-grade students, I’m going to make you a classroom set of flutes,” she said, laughing that in her 23 years of teaching before last year, she had never taught the grade.

In 2020-21, she ended up teaching fourth grade virtually, but this year, she’s back in person with a bunch of students who have learned how to play the flutes.

Retired fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Gary Hanson came to the class to introduce the flutes he fashioned during a three-month period.

“I talked to them about how the flute works, the physics of it, the mechanics and about how we breathe into the flutes,” he said. “We don’t really blow hard; it’s breath control. We talked about the fingering and the ways you can get a note out of the flute and the fingering to change notes.”

Gary Hanson taught himself how to make flutes after listening to an artist-in-residence play when he taught at Sprucewood Elementary.

“One day, he brought a flute to play for the kids and let me tell you, their jaws dropped and so did mine. They’re just such amazing sounding instruments,” he said. “My understanding is that most Native Americans say you play this instrument from the heart. You play it how you feel. It’s music, almost a healing or therapy, for the mind and the soul.”

His first attempt was finishing an unfinished flute, but then “my son and I looked at it and wondered if we could make one and the adventure began.”

Back in 2008, after “You Tube videos, web searches and just experimenting,” he used scraps of walnut, alder and maple to create flutes. Now he carves flutes out of more than a dozen woods and lets “the beauty of the wood speak for itself.”

Set in the key of A, the students learned to play the music of “Zuni Sunrise” and had it memorized about one month before the program; Hanson will be playing along on a drum her husband also made.

The fourth graders are also working on the “Lakota Courting Song,” which has multiple time signatures so the rhythm was tricky. These are the songs that will be played when parents arrive for the program.

A group of six flutists who wanted to learn another song will play during the program.

The program, which ties into the fourth-grade curriculum, will include speaking parts, songs and dances. Topics that will be highlighted include Native Americans; explorers, trappers and traders; and pioneers. It also will touch on the transcontinental railroad and the unique features of Utah’s geology. The program ends with the state song, “Utah, This is the Place.”

“The flutes are fun and fit into the Native American culture we study,” said Hanson, who added that students recently presented information about the five tribes in Utah. “Much of the arts have been taken out of schools and I feel they need these experiences. It destresses them and brings them into a good place. By learning how to play, they learn a bit about music and it makes them feel successful. Some kids who struggle in academics can excel with these and maybe this is their language, so it’s been good for them. It’s a unique experience.”

At Daybreak Elementary, fourth graders also recently sang songs about the transcontinental railroad, the counties and the state song when they shared Utah’s history; dressed in costumes, the girls wore pioneer skirts and boys were decked out in bandannas and cowboy hats.

The program was coupled with the Utah parade of floats, which entailed each student creating a shoebox float highlighting five things about a specific Utah county.

“Students covered the shoeboxes with butcher paper, added tissue paper to make it look like a float and just had fun being creative with it,” fourth-grade teacher Tawna Pippen said.

She said that the idea was for students to use items they had at home, not to purchase anything. Floats lined up had cotton balls for snow, plastic animals, sugar cubes, cut-up toilet paper tubes, postcards, Legos, stickers, felt, salt dough, plants and one student even put wheels on his float.

The floats were part of each student’s report about a specific Utah county.

Pippen said that in her class, each week students read about someone in Utah and take notes.

“They’re learning about people significant to Utah and practicing their note-taking skills at the same time,” she said.

“These activities — the reports, the floats, the program — they give kids a lot of fun learning about the places people have settled there. When kids get to do things like this, they remember it for a lot longer.”