During the first two lessons of his plebe math class taught through remote learning, Lt. Col. Charles Sulewski found the cadets to be too quiet. They weren’t engaging in the way they did in a typical classroom environment and there was limited interaction throughout the lesson.
So, when the cadets logged on for the third lesson, they found something a little different waiting for them. Sulewski, who plays in the math department’s band and has a piano, violin and guitar in his home office, welcomed the cadets to class with a medley of Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” on the piano.
The idea was to use music to get the cadets talking. He then invited the members of the class to logon 5-10 minutes early each lesson and for one of them to do a show and tell for the rest of the class. From his miniconcert, the idea has caught on like wildfire.
The next time, a cadet opened class by playing classical guitar. He was followed by cadets introducing their parents, doing a DJ set, feeding a baby goat, teaching about their families’ cultures and more.
“I wanted to leverage technology to help sustain the idea of personal connection with the students while we’re operating in this remote learning environment,” Sulewski said. “I saw it as a way for our students to learn something about each other that may have had difficulty surfacing in our regular classroom environment.
“It just took off,” he added. “The next day, I had a student playing guitar live for everybody and each day there has been a very excellent response from the cadets taking ownership and showcasing either a talent or showcasing their lifestyle.”
There is no sign-up list, so each time Sulewski and the cadets in the class login it is a mystery what they will learn or see that day. Some days it is a musical performance. Other days, they meet family or learn something new other than math.
At the urging of a friend in the class, Class of 2023 Cadet Patrick Sherrod decided the night before a lesson that he would present the next day.
So, he grabbed his laptop, walked out onto his family’s farm in Illinois and waited for his classmates to logon. Before they started the math lesson for the day, Sherrod treated them to a brief lesson about the cattle industry. His family farm has 800-1,000 head of beef cattle at any given time and he taught the rest of the class about the types of cows—mostly Holsteins and some colored cattle—the companies they sell to and how they mix the feed.
“Not very many people have access to that or know a lot about it,” Sherrod said. “There are people from all around, but it’s pretty unique to have someone from a farm with an abundance of cattle. I thought I’d just take them out there and we’ve got a pretty unique operation.”
Whereas the first two days there had been limited interaction during the class, now the chat was filled with questions about the cattle industry and once the actual math lesson started the interaction and buy-in from the cadets continued, Sulewski said.
“The ice was broken and with the ice being broken, we’ve got fully engaged cadets, participation and they are very respectful to get in the chat box and say I have a question,” he said.
Sulewski said the show and tell portion before class has had the intended impact of increasing the interaction among cadets all throughout the class, not just in the few minutes before it starts. It has also had the added benefit of allowing his class to grow closer and for him to learn more about the cadets by seeing who they are outside of their cadet uniforms and the West Point environment.
“It makes me feel proud to know that I’m helping with the idea of developing leaders of character. Everything that we offer at the academy, whether it’s math or something else, is designed to dovetail into the idea of building a leader of character,” he said. “I think this idea of them taking ownership of this and sharing with each other is just adding to that level of understanding of each other. I talked about the diversity already and understanding the diversity of where everybody’s coming from, and it’s helping in that full development of becoming a leader of character across the board for all of them.”
Class of 2023 Cadet Kathryn Cornett has a Chinese class that ends only 10 minutes before Sulewski’s math class, but since the show and tell has started she wastes no time at all switching over and logging in.
“There’s usually already a few people,” Cornett said. “I click on 10 minutes before class starts and there’s already like seven people on there.”
Two Fridays ago, when they logged on it was Cornett they heard performing for them. She followed in Sulewski’s footsteps and opened class by playing the piano and singing an original song. It was a chance to put herself out there and show her classmates a side of her they may not get to see in a typical classroom at West Point.