Writing and Biomechanics Classes Share a Lot in Common

by Erika Solberg

Audrey Harper with her writing class.

At VAMPY, students and teachers share many characteristics: both groups have members who come from varied backgrounds and have diverse areas of expertise yet share a passion for learning and desire to create a community of like-minded individuals. In addition, some VAMPY students are also members of the same family, and this year that is also true for two teachers, Audrey Harper of Writing and her husband, Scott Arnett of Biomechanics.

While Scott is teaching his class for the first time, Audrey is a veteran VAMPY teacher. This year is her fourth — in fact, last year, when she took a new position as a secondary literacy consultant for the Warren County Public Schools, she made sure she would have three weeks off in the summer to be at VAMPY. With degrees in English and education and certification in gifted education, Audrey has a clear goal for her students: “I want to help them find the joy in writing.” At the same time, “my students also set their own goals for writing. That helps me derive lessons and everything we do.”

She loves VAMPY students because “they come here because they want to learn, and they want to be challenged. They’re curious.” She ensures they are challenged throughout the three weeks, including when they create their final project, a portfolio on a topic they have researched and then written about in five different genres of their choice. She requires her students to work in different genres “so they become more well-rounded. It’s also important they have the chance to try out something new because this is a safe space for them to try – they don’t have to be afraid of a grade.”

Scott Arnett observes students during biomechanics.

Like Audrey, Scott has clear goals for his course: “I want them to walk away with an appreciation of the field. A lot of the students are looking at career paths where they could incorporate biomechanics or that will be driven by biomechanics, such as medicine, engineering, and biomedical engineering. Even if they decide not to pursue those fields, I want them to be able to look around and see the influence of biomechanics. One example I give is maybe they have a grandparent who isn’t able to get out of a chair. Biomechanics can help them teach their grandparents how to more effectively stand up.”

Scott tried several majors in college, but once he found biomechanics, “I never looked back.” His reason for teaching VAMPY, in addition to the wonderful experiences Audrey related to him, is similar to why students come to the camp: he wanted to keep learning. He explains, “twelve years into my career, I’m at a point where I need a new challenge. Working with a different age group will put me into an uncomfortable state, which is a good thing.”

Despite their different subject matter, one element both Audrey and Scott’s classes have in common is a sense of play. In Audrey’s, the students sit around a table decorated in a colorful cloth and are supplied with scissors, glue sticks, tape, and post-it notes. Part of their work will involve decorating the room with such items as a Wall of Quotations — made from strips of paper on which they will write sentences from texts they read during the course that “stand out in terms of craft.” They will also keep a big class word list posted on the wall — by the end of the first day, it already has “harbinger” and “schadenfreude.”

In Scott’s class, games like Jenga, Bounce Off, and Topple Chrome sit on the table at the front of the room alongside bins of candy. As he goes over types of motion with his students, he twists his arms and legs, jumps in the air, and acts out a bear hug. The students, too, twist and turn their bodes as they go over the concepts — studying biomechanics is not a sedentary activity!

In addition to moving their bodies, Scott’s students ask a lot of questions, working hard — and happily — to understand the college-level material. In fact, Scott notes, “I got more questions from the VAMPY students in their first morning than I get in a whole semester from my undergraduates.”

Their project on the first afternoon of Biomechanics is to work in pairs to create a chart that explains and gives very specific examples of the major types of body movement such as rotation, abduction, and pronation. While they work, they perform motions and brainstorm activities that use those motions.

“Flipping pancakes!” Olivia Spencer of Georgetown suggests. Her partner, Brock Kessinger of Louisa, acts out a tennis forehand and backhand.

Griffin Salsman of Springfield, TN, and Najeo Sillah of Chicago, IL, work the problem together. “Three phases? OK, how do we describe that?” Najeo asks.

“The instant the entire arm starts rotating inward,” Griffin says.

The final pair, Kiersten Hamilton of Georgetown and Hannah Baker of Crestwood, are looking for activities that rotate parts of the arm and hand. “Fixing a lightbulb,” Kiersten suggests.

“Princess waving!” Hannah laughs.

The students get help not only from Scott but from teaching assistant Quentin Stevenson and from Scott and Audrey’s eleven-year-old son, Ryker, who is visiting class that day. When Quentin suggests to a pair that they use jumping jacks as an example, Ryker assists by performing several, pointing out the motions that he is doing.

Back in Audrey’s class, the first day includes a writing prompt on “fierce wondering,” selecting a book to read during the class reading hour, and suggestions on how to use their writing notebook. “You can write something and come back to it later,” Audrey explains, “but sometimes you won’t ever come back to it — sometimes you need to write something out so you can get back to writing something else.”

The second day begins with a game that works as a team-builder but also gets the students’ minds ready for the kind of work they will be doing during the course. The game, Headbandz, pairs students up and has them ask their partners yes or no questions in order to guess what picture is fixed to the band around their heads. Audrey and her teaching assistant, Allison Millay, give suggestions for questions if anyone gets stuck.

“Am I circular?” asks Taylor Galavotti of Lexington.

“Ish,” answers Abby Adams-Smith of Bowling Green.

“Am I oval?” Taylor tries.

“No,” Abby shakes her head.

Meanwhile, Angela Liu of Prospect asks her partner, Lawrence Wang of Collierville, TN, “Am I food?”

“Yes,” he responds.

“Do you eat me with bread?”

“Sometimes,” he says encouragingly.

At their end of the table, Nora Perez of Stewart, TN, and Elizabeth Pitts of Hopkinsville are focused. “Would I float?” Elizabeth asks.

“No,” Nora answers.

“Am I small?”

“You can be a lot of sizes,” Nora tells her.

As the game progresses through multiple rounds, everyone improves, asking more effective questions and guessing more quickly. When someone arrives at a correct answer, there are whoops and arms raised in triumph. Taylor even kicks out her legs. Some questions elicit laughter: “Am I used to carry dead things?”

When just one card is left — Elizabeth is trying to guess that she is a drum — everyone helps out and cheers when she reaches the answer. Just as important as the camaraderie, however, is that fact that through thirty minutes of play, the students have developed their skills in creative thinking, categorizing and sorting, description, communication, and understanding audience. All of these concepts are central to writing.

In the days ahead, both Scott and Audrey look forward to shaping their material to their students’ needs. Scott anticipates pacing the course according to the students’ level of understanding: “I don’t know how fast they will move through the material — they may move faster than my college students do. So I’ll be listening to what they’re saying.” By the end of the course, his students will translate their knowledge into an experiment that includes research questions, detailed design, and an explanation of findings.

For Audrey, her students’ work will be guided by their interests and by what they don’t get to do in school: “I allow them to have more creative writing experiences. I really want them to think about breaking out of that formulaic writing practice they’re exposed to.”

Given their passion for their subjects, their interest in their students, and their abilities to teach creatively, Audrey and Scott look to be the teaching power couple of VAMPY 2018.