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Students learn new skills during 6th annual Tornado Term

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Students learn new skills during 6th annual Tornado Term
Ecology T-Term students do an insect survey

Ecology T-Term students conducted an insect survey led by scientists at the Tennessee Aquarium. 


It’s 10:08 Tuesday morning and McCallie freshman Benjamin Jeong is putting the finishing touches on the front of the quilt he’s making for his Textile Arts Tornado Term class on the second floor of Walker Hall.

“I’m really artsy,” he says. “I like to be creative. I’ve done painting, drawing, knife making, I hadn’t done textiles. It’s super fun, as I expected.”

One floor down, 12 young men are building ukuleles in a class taught by Michael Lowry, the head of the science department, and Chip Evans, who started the guitar program at McCallie before retiring a few years ago.

Retired teacher Chip Evans

Retired teacher Chip Evans helps a student with the ukulele.

“This is very old school,” said Lowry. “It’s a chance to get them off their (phone and computer) screens for a while. And Chip’s amazing. He actually makes guitars from scratch. So he’s an educator, maker and player. You might find somebody who’s got two of those skils, maybe. But all three? What a talent.”

These aren’t the only classes offered in McCallie’s seventh annual T-term, the mini-semester that began immediately after Christmas break and ends on Friday the 13th this year. If you want to improve your gambling skills you can take The Math and Science of Gambling. There’s Cowboy Camp, which will get you up close and personal with cows and horses. You can discover your “Inner Warrior” through Cleve Latham’s popular yoga and meditation class. 

Got a hankering to learn more about Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, Elvis and the Memphis Blues? Try “Southern Music: The music of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Nashville and more.” Want to wade into the ecology of the Tennessee River? Take a field trip to the Tennessee Aquarium.

“It’s a way for students to absorb knowledge by doing rather than just talking,” said Sumner McCallie, the school’s Dean of Faculty and Curriculum. “It gives a student a chance to take deep-dive into a single subject. Building a ukulele is something we just don’t have a spot for over a whole semester, but it works perfectly in this format.”

There’s also all the peripheral knowledge that can be gained. For instance, Lowry uses the ukulele class to teach the science behind the music generated by the vibrating strings of the instrument when it’s played.

Beyond that, there’s Evans, who takes his students’ cell phones at the door, and says of the week-and-a-half class: “It takes them out of their comfort zone. They’re working with vert finite measurements. It’s not measure twice, cut once. It’s more like measure five times, cut once.”

As sophomore Cole Ruth and freshman Jones Dunn prepared to place necks on their ukulele bodies earlier this week, Elizabethan dance music played in the background. The day before that they’d heard Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon” as a guitar played. Neither student had ever heard “Ol’ Blue Eyes’” velvety voice before.

So there are layers of learning going on here. It’s not only about gluing, sanding, cutting and varnishing wood to build the perfect ukulele. It’s about expanding one’s knowledge, whether it’s hearing Sinatra sing for the first time, or learning about what wood Evans has often trekked westward to find to build the best guitar (Sitka spruce for steel-string guitars, Lutz spruce for classical guitars).

A student sews pieces of a quilt during the Textile Arts T-Term

Or, in the case of faculty members Randy Odle and Ross Shumate, with a lot of help from Shumate’s mom Lois, how to make the perfect quilt.

“This is our second year doing this,” said Shumate. “It’s been incredible, the way they get lost in it. It’s a perfect mix between monotony and creativity. It just pulls them in.”

Freshman Lincoln Olson signed up for the quilting course because, “I like to make things and learn new skills. And it’s fun to hang out with friends.”

Of the considerable role Lois Shumate plays in all this, Olson says, “She’s delightful.”

Delightful and enthusiastic. Ross says his mom will call “all year long. She’ll say, ‘‘Ross, I’ve got an idea (for the quilting class).’”

The students can choose from three general designs this year, up from two a year ago. 

Said Lois: “So now we have a three-ring circus.”

One of the teachers’ favorite days is when the students go to the Ready, Set, Sew fabric shop in East Ridge to pick out their quilt fabric.

“It’s great to watch them pick their own fabrics,” said Lois. “They’re very protective of their fabrics. It’s just wonderful to see their enthusiasm for this. You think teenage boys sewing, quilt making. Will they be embarrassed? But it’s so exciting to see them take ownership of what they’re doing.”

Nor is it merely the students who’ve come to love this T-Term offering. Odle’s daughter Ellie, a GPS senior, recently bought her father some fabric from which to make a quilt.

“I’ve fully finished two,” Randy said. “And I’m working on a third.”

Ross Shumate proudly keeps photos sent by last year’s students of what they’ve done with their quilts, everything from giving them to a girlfriend to hanging them on dorm room walls. 

“Not one of them doesn’t use (the quilts),” he said.

And what will become the ukuleles?

“I’m going to play it some,” said Dunn. “I might decorate it, too.”

But it was something Ross Shumate said about teaching the quilting class that is surely at least one goal of T-term, whether it touches the student, the teacher, or, hopefully, both.

“I’ve taught T-term courses in the past when I thought I needed a vacation after teaching the class. But with this quilting class, I feel like it may be giving me life.”

Or at least an expanded view of life’s possibilities.


Photos from Tornado Term are posted here