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BHS STEM Teachers Add Musical Values In and Out of Classroom

Photograph by Christina McCarthy

As said by Glenn Wolkenfeld, a lead science teacher here at Berkeley High School (BHS), “Any kind of passion builds resilience.”  In an ever-changing world it is those who are resilient that are most likely to succeed in modern-day society, meaning, those that can learn to adapt to new circumstances have a higher probability for success.  And let’s not forget the myriad of forms that success can take. Both Wolkenfeld and Dan Plonsey, BHS mathematics teacher, are admirable examples of people passionate about something: music.

Starting out playing the clarinet at the age of six and moving on to the saxophone when he was ten, Plonsey has spent much of his life playing music.  His parents were always supportive, playing records and ensuring he practiced, “even though this lead to my being late for school some days!” said Plonsey.  Now a member of various musical groups, the most recent being the ensemble New Zombies, Plonsey has collaborated with musicians as notable as Tom Waits and Fred Frith.  He explores the more unconventional side of music, saying that many of his musical ideas are  “inspired by [his] contrary nature … ”  Unsurprisingly, he likes the aspects of pop culture that call for uniqueness, but doesn’t like that “most of what [he hears] conforms to listener’s expectations, making [him] think that the artist’s goal is not to explore [their] imagination … ”  After all, is music not a form of self-expression that should be unique to each individual, not produced to please a specific audience and gain a following?

Always having been interested in music, Wolkenfeld began playing the guitar around  11 or 12 years of age.  He says that “in terms of [his] own guitar ability, [he] probably peaked around 16 or 17 years old.”  When he became a teacher, his occupation further enabled his ability to compose music.  Reportedly, the lyrics and tune of his first curriculum-based song came to him within just the first few days of him being a teacher.  Wolkenfeld now has a website and YouTube channel, both called sciencemusicvideos, where he uploads musical content about biology for students.  These two sites have proven to help students learn biology.  When asked how he feels about the success of both sites, Wolkenfeld said, “I am happy with the work I have done creating biology curriculum that’s musical and … I sort of think of it as this little miracle that has happened in my life.”

In a society where individualism has been something of long-time controversy, it is important to acknowledge how music further enables people to express themselves and what makes them unique.  For Plonsey, this could mean challenging past concepts and trying to do what some see as impossible. For Wolkenfeld, it might mean using his musical abilities to teach complicated concepts.  Other times, however, it could be something as simple, and yet as complex, as writing and playing about what is on their minds.

Whatever the case, both Plonsey and Wolkenfeld share the courage to not only express themselves in ways unique to them, write about what is on their minds, but to also share their work with others.  Expressing oneself can be quite difficult, so having strength of character is something of an advantage for those that have it.  This relates to Wolkenfeld’s notion that “passion builds resilience.” Someone truly passionate about something will have the courage to continue it through whatever hardships they face, a value that he hopes to impart with his students.