Most middle school–aged students aren’t yet driving cars—but at Rowland Hall, some of them are already flying planes.
That’s because aviation is just one of the opportunities available to seventh and eighth graders as part of Rowland Hall’s expansive electives curriculum. And while some may think of electives as classes meant to give students downtime, or pad out schedules, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Electives not only enrich the core subjects students are taking, they also introduce new areas of study and interest,” said Middle School Principal Pam Smith. “Students can dive deeper into subjects they find interesting and discover passions they never knew they had.”
Middle School students use elective classes to look at the world and the skills they are learning in new and different ways. They discover competencies, and how to put them to work to become people the world needs.
Students use these classes to look at the world and the skills they are learning in new and different ways. They discover competencies, and how to put them to work to become people the world needs. Currently, seventh- and eighth-grade students have dozens of options to choose from when it comes to electives. Topics range from guitar to app design, and cover a range of diverse fields of study including fine arts, multimedia production, climate science, and public art and discourse. (Sixth graders, while not eligible for elective classes, are introduced to many of the concepts in their foundation classes with subjects like computer science, music, and debate.)
“Electives give students more of a voice and choice in the curriculum,” said Pam. “When they choose a class, it often leads to a greater investment in what’s being taught, as well as incorporates concepts they are learning in their other classes.”
Some of the electives offered are direct offshoots of core curriculum. Math teacher Jen Schones, for example, decided to start teaching personal finance as a Middle School elective after being told by several people that they wished they had learned about money management in school. Now she is helping students use addition, subtraction, percentages, and other math skills to discuss concepts like budgeting, investing, building credit, and taxes—skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
“The thing I stress to students a lot is that every decision you make with money has a consequence—both good and bad,” Jen said. “We do simulations looking at various choices like career, location, living expenses, and potential financial emergencies, and then students decide if they are willing to live with those choices, or if they would have done something different.”
The class also walks students through financial matters they are currently facing or will face in the near future. Paying for college is a topic of conversation, as is how to set a budget and save for a goal that is weeks, or even months, into the future. Guest speakers come in to talk about investment opportunities students could engage in now, including apps that allow them to buy stocks or money market accounts.
“I actually had one student ask their parents for a custodial IRA for Christmas after hearing about it in class,” said Jen. “Students are really responding well to the course, and not only learning skills for later, but putting some skills into action right now.”
Elective courses not only give students the opportunity to use skills they are learning in different ways, but also awaken them to aptitudes they didn’t know they had.
“There’s this misconception that you are either creative or you are not,” said visual art teacher Anne Wolfer. “I really try to help the kids push through and get to the mindset that we are all creative and that it just takes time, dedication, and a lot of hard work.”
In the public art elective, students unlock their creative minds by learning the many ways that art is created in communities, how a piece goes from an idea to a finished work, and the benefits of art in community spaces. It’s a great way for students to feel further connected to the community around them and to see themselves as contributors to a shared community. If you are walking through Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood, stop to take a look at the large mural that now graces the side of the Tower Theatre. The sweeping mountains, flowers, and a butterfly were all painted by Rowland Hall students. “It feels like we have a bigger connection to 9th and 9th now,” said eighth grader Callie L. “It’s like we are leaving a piece of ourselves there.”
“The kids are really putting themselves out there with this mural,” added Anne. “And in doing so they are gaining confidence in their abilities and preparing themselves to move on to bigger and even more expansive projects.”
Students aren’t the only ones given the opportunity to take on more expansive projects in electives; teachers do as well. Bill Tatomer was teaching math and American studies at Rowland Hall when he decided to put his 20-plus years as a Navy pilot to use for the benefit of the students. He now teaches three different aviation courses in the Middle School, covering everything from basic principles of flight, aerospace science, and aviation design to engineering, careers in aviation, and flight training. During the course of the program, some students even earn their drone TRUST certification, while others take their first steps to getting their private pilot’s license.
“The exposure these classes create, especially as a Middle School student, is truly incredible,” said Bill. “Additionally, when I see students have fun and thrive in the environments created by these classes, whether they continue in aviation or not, my heart is full. I love what I do, and I so love sharing this passion with Rowland Hall students.”
I wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, and the classes I took from Mr. Tatomer really gave me a leg up. I still use the information I learned today, and I utilize some of the lessons in my own teaching as well.—Davis Kahler ’17
The students love it too. Now-ninth grader Alexa Tracey admits she was a bit nervous when she found herself at the controls of a plane at the age of 14, but she knew she was ready for it because of all she had learned in Bill’s class. “It was nice to be able to know that I knew what was going on and that I was somewhat qualified to fly,” she said. “I would love to be a pilot someday, and taking this class made me realize getting my pilot’s license is an attainable goal.”
Alexa wouldn’t be the first Rowland Hall student to have found a career path thanks to the Middle School electives program. Alumnus Davis Kahler ’17 got his pilot’s license and is now working towards his hours as a commercial airline pilot while also teaching flying in Dallas.
“I wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, and the classes I took from Mr. Tatomer really gave me a leg up,” said Davis. “I still use the information I learned today, and I utilize some of the lessons in my own teaching as well.”
The elective courses at Rowland Hall give students the opportunity to differentiate themselves as individuals while deepening their understanding of core subjects through additional knowledge. They allow them to explore and learn new things and develop lifelong interests in subjects they otherwise may have missed out on. They also are a lot of fun.
Electives allow students to take flight.
Banner: Students in the Middle School's metal arts class, another elective option, working on a project in spring 2023.