Project-based learning at Essex Middle School: algebra and songwriting

Making math and music at The Edge

algebra and songwritingWe were lucky enough to get to sit down with three groups of students at Essex Middle School’s Edge Academy just before the break and hear how their year-long project-based learning (PBL) projects are going.

In the final installment of the series, we talk with three students making math and music in equal measures.


Algebra and songwriting might not seem at first to have all that many similarities, but for these three 8th graders, there’s more overlap than you’d imagine.

Especially, as they explain, they’re like a family that tends to take care of each other.

Please take a listen to this special episode of our podcast, featuring a live performance of Paramore’s “All I Wanted”, which, I’m not gonna lie, I like better than the original. Uh, a lot.

You’ll also hear about how these two projects inform where the trio sees themselves going, career-wise. Teaching? Singing? ….Baking? WHY NOT.

Give it a listen. A full transcript appears below.


Yasmin and Violet (background) : (singing and acoustic guitar)

Audrey (narrator): What you’re listening to right now is an original mash-up by two students on the Edge team at Essex Middle School, performed live for this podcast. Yasmine and Violet are writing and recording an album together, releasing the songs online as part of their year long project-based research. Another student, Marry-Ellen, is tackling online algebra. We’ll be hearing from all three of them on this episode of the 21st Century Classroom.

We’ve been profiling students at a middle school in Essex Junction, Vermont, who’ve been kind enough to share with us the progress they’re making on year long research pursuits. We’ve heard from students writing plays and novels, and building an Eco-machine for food sustainability. And in this last installment of the series, we’re going to hear about music and math, and the places they meet up. Without further ado, Yasmine, Violet, and Marry-Ellen.

Yasmin and Violet (background): (music fades to stop)

Audrey: So, Violet, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your project with Yasmine?

Violet: Our project is a song based project. We’re writing a whole album of songs. We’re doing three covers, which, two of them are mash ups, one of them is a regular cover. And, we’re doing eight to nine original songs, and we have already started three. Yeah.

Audrey: Cool. So, how does the division of labor work? Like, is there: one person writes, one person sings, or what? Mixing?

Violet: We picked the mash-ups and the cover songs together.

Yasmin: Yeah.

Violet: Though, I wrote the first three songs that we’re doing. I’ve written lots of songs, so.

Yasmin: Yeah, she wrote them before we started, and we decided to do those.

Violet: I’m pretty sure we’re going to write songs together, and I’m going to help her, because I don’t know if she’s ever written a song before, so.

Yasmin (background): *Chuckle*

Violet: There’s not a lot to it. You just, you don’t use your brain. You use whatever you’re feeling, usually, so it won’t be too hard.

Audrey: Ok. And what about your project?

Mary-Ellen: I’m taking algebra, an online algebra course, as an independent study this year for my project book.

Audrey: So, does it produce a project at the end? Or are you going to document the experience of taking it?

Mary-Ellen: My initial thought in the beginning, since our theme this year (every year we have themes, one or two themes), was that, instead of taking the regular algebra 1 course here, with one of the teachers here, for my project I would just take algebra online because our theme is “Imagination,” so it’s just kinda anything that you want to do.

Audrey: So, this album of songs? Are you planning to, who’s your audience? Planning to put it online? Perform live?

Violet: Well, we’ve posted our three cover songs on YouTube already. And we might perform at a couple of assemblies maybe, potentially.

Yasmin: Yeah, maybe. *chuckles*

Violet: And, yeah. Whoever’s around.

Audrey: So, are you looking at who’s watching the videos on YouTube? Are you keeping track of that?

Violet: Um, yeah. We have like 8 views on each song. It’s not that much. I mean, I don’t have a very popular account because I haven’t been posting in a while. But, I do broadcast on YouNow. YouNow is like YouTube, but you broadcast live. I do it every day after school. I’ve gotten 127 views, and about 309 likes. It’s fun to do that.

Yasmin: Yeah.

Violet: We should do it together. I mean, we have.

Yasmin: We have.

Audrey: Are they a cappella songs, or are you..?

Violet: For our three cover songs, we used the guitar. She plays the guitar. For our original songs, we’re going to use the piano.

Yasmin: I play the piano.

Violet: She plays the piano.

Audrey: And, are you sharing any of your algebra work as you go, or are you just using the online software to keep track of your progress?

Mary-Ellen: My friends, like Yasmine and Violet, they’ll be like “so, how’s your studying going?” And I’ll be like, “oh, it’s good.” I’ll just kinda like show them the score sheet. Well, it’s not a score sheet, but it’s kinda like keeping track of the test scores. And, yeah, kinda go from there and see where everything is.

Yasmin: I check in on her every once in a while.

Violet: I mean, yeah, all three of us do algebra, but she’s doing algebra for her project.

Yasmin: We’re not.

Mary-Ellen: And, it’s not just them. It’s just kinda everyone. We all just kinda look out for each other. Not, like, in a fake kinda family, just kinda like friends.

Violet: I am your mother.

*chuckles all around*

Audrey: So, have you compared notes, as far as how you guys are liking algebra not online versus the algebra online experience?

Violet: I honestly like taking it not online, because I just… Writing it down for me is so much easier because, I don’t know. Online just gives me OCD. Online just gives me OCD, because I feel like I’m gonna… Cause then I have to search for, like all the course again, it’s just too much work, so. Usually, just breaking it down into a couple of papers. I mean, we hate trees. Yasmine and I have to hate trees while we take algebra.

Yasmin: It’s what our algebra teacher says.

Violet: Because we use so much paper. But paper is really good right now because online, I know it’s so much easier to use, but like, for me, it’s just, I like taking it so it’s in front of me.

Audrey: Step by step.

Violet: Step by step. Like the notes. He hands you the notes, and then we do them. Online we’d have to find the notes. Then I don’t know how I’d do the notes, because you’d have to either print them out and then do it, or you’d have to type in all the answers and I find that stupid.

Mary-Ellen: Well, the way that tests work, or the whole thing, it has a subject and it gives you a lessen and a practice with 4-6 problems, and it gives you step-by-step stuff in the practices and everything. And then there’s like 3-5 tests that you can take, ranging from easy-medium-difficult. And it’s not like typing in answers, it’s kinda like all multiple choice, which is one of my favorite parts about it. Because, yeah, Violet, typing in the answers would be a bit complicated.

Violet: I don’t like computers, they’re too complicated. I feel like a grandparent right now. My grandparents are actually smarter than me with technology, never mind.

Audrey: But you’re on this YouNow and YouTube. So, is that a different experience than computers for you?

Violet: Well, my iPad, I like have mastered my iPad. I mean, I don’t know. I just find it’s like. The reason why I got it 3 weeks ago was because I was not getting any views on YouTube, and it made me really mad. So, I decided to try this out because you can watch other people do their broadcasts, and I wanted to go watch my friend do her’s, so I got the app. Then I’m like “hey, why don’t I just do one?” So I did. It was cool. And, the way this things works is you get fans. They can “fan” you. I have like 74 fans right now.

Audrey: And how long have you been on the platform?

Violet: 3 weeks.

Audrey: Wow.

Violet: I usually get like 3 fans every broadcast. And then, you get coins, too. And you can also, if you buy bars, you can be someone’s #1fan. You have to give them lots of bars, though, and you have to pay for that, so I’m not going to do that. But I do have a #1 fan, his name is (*censored*). He’s given me about 240 bars, and that costs money, so I get guilty whenever someone gives me bars because I’m like “you’re paying, you’re like giving me money right now.”

Yasmin: Accept you don’t get the money.

Violet: I don’t get the money, but you’re like wasting money on me, so I get like (sarcastic tone) “ok, I feel so happy, because people are spending money on me.”

*chuckles all around*

Audrey: So then, are you guys gonna put the songs from your album up on YouNow as well?

Yasmin: Yeah, we’ll do some broadcasts on YouNow a couple of times.

Violet: Oh, I think we can do it on computer. We should get it on computer.

Audrey: So, kinda take me through the process of writing a song together. Like, how do you come up with the idea for the theme and the lyrics? How do you split the melody? Like…

Violet: It goes either way for me. When I’m writing a song, either I have really good lyrics and I wanna just put a melody with it, or I’m playing piano, and I randomly come up with something I really like, so I then just start randomly singing, and then I have lyrics. So it really depends on what type of day it is; or, if I’m doing homework and I’m seriously bored so I just start singing; or if I’m doing homework and I’m seriously bored so I go to my piano and come up with a melody. It depends on how the song process goes. But, usually for me it goes melody on piano first. Yeah.

Audrey: And then how do you leap into the process Yasmin?

Yasmin: Well, I’m gonna be probably helping out with the song writing, since I don’t know how to play the piano or the guitar. We’ll just kinda come up with the lyrics together, and I’ll probably help with the harmonies, too, since I’m pretty good at coming up with harmonies. Um, and yeah.

Audrey: And are you guys looking forward to performing the songs at an assembly, or getting them out there online?

Yasmin: Makes me nervous, but I’m excited.

Violet: Yeah, I actually don’t get nervous, because…

Yasmin: She doesn’t have any stage fright, yeah.

Violet: I don’t have any stage fright, because last week I was in a play, so. I didn’t get nervous at all, even though I was in front of someone I like, but I still don’t get nervous.

Yasmin: *chuckles* Yeah.

Audrey: And then, when you’re doing your algebra, are you having any social interactions with other people who are doing the algebra? Do you report back to folks who are not doing the online algebra course?

Mary-Ellen: Um, not really. Well, in terms of reporting back, when like Yasmine or Violet or whoever will be like “so, where you at?” Then we’ll just kinda see how far behind them I am, because I started the course in late October, early November, and they had started their algebra on the very first day of school.

Audrey: So then, is algebra something you’re really interested in? How did you, when you thought about algebra, like “me taking it,” like, how did you come up with wanting to do an online course?

Mary-Ellen: Um, it was actually Phil, our facilitator, who was like, “you know, instead of doing blah-blah-blah, whatever, you could just take algebra as an independent study.” And I was like, “ok, how?” And he was like, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to teach it to you, so probably online or something.” And yeah, that happened.

Audrey: And then did you research different options for online courses?

Mary-Ellen: Mmhm. Yeah. I looked at 4 or 5 different sites. And, most of the sites that I really looked into cost money. Even if it was just a little bit, I was like “no, I’m not going to do that one.” And then I found one, and I was like “oh, this is kinda cool,” and it was free. But it was a little bit complicated, and the sign-up process was kinda weird, and it asked for like, what’s it called…

Yasmin: Your personal information.

Mary-Ellen: Yeah, kinda personal information stuff, so I was like “this kinda seems like a phishing thing,” so yeah, then I was like “nah.”

*chuckles all around*

Mary-Ellen: And then, I went back, I was just like “free online algebra sites,” and I found the one that I use now.

Audrey: So, for the two of you thinking forward from when your album is complete, are you going to continue on with music. Are you thinking, like, long term in terms of careers in music?

Violet: Yeah. We’re going to make this place a recording studio, and so we’re probably going to get to use that a lot.

Yasmin: We still haven’t e-mailed our community partner, which we were supposed to do about a month ago.

Violet: Yeah…

Audrey: Who’s your community partner?

Violet and Yasmin: 96.7

Yasmin: We were planning on interviewing them for a little. Asking about recording studios, how they choose their music, and um, yeah.

Mary-Ellen: I think they do it mostly by request.

Yasmin: Yeah, I know, but I was just asking. Like how they plan out the 5-oclock traffic jam. Stuff like that.

Violet: Yeah, because they mostly mash that up.

Yasmin: Yeah, they do a lot of mash-ups on that.

Violet: We could make up our own, with my song.

Yasmin: Yeah.

Violet: And, yeah. And, yeah. And, yeah.

Audrey: So, are you guys thinking in terms of wanting to find out more about DJ-ing as a career, or radio production, or just song production?

Violet: For me, I want to become a singer, but who knows if that’s going to happen. Probably not, I don’t know. But, if I didn’t become a singer, I’d probably want to bake, because I love baking, because then I could eat as much junk as I want. Or, I’d want to be like a pre-school teacher because I like little kids, even though they get on my nerves sometimes. I like change every day.

Audrey: And then what about you, Yasmine, in terms of thinking beyond this. Do you have an interest in the music industry?

Yasmin: I’ve been singing for a long time now, and I really enjoy it. For a while, I’ve been thinking of making a career out of singing if I can. I mean, I don’t know, maybe go. Because I also play the violin, too, I’m a very musical person. So, I’m thinking maybe, thinking of Juilliard, and she was thinking of Juilliard, too. And then I kinda started really getting into math, too, cause I like math, too. I’m into algebra. And I’m kinda getting a mixed feeling, like what I want to really do for my career, but I’m always going to want to sing. I don’t want to ever give up singing or playing the violin.

Violet: We should start a band.

Yasmin: Yeah, yeah. We should call up my bass player Jessie and be like “Yeah, lets start another band.”

Yasmin: You just like Jessie so much.

Violet: Jessie’s awesome! Honestly, he’s like, 11, and he’s a great bass player. Honestly.

Yasmin: He’s 11?

Violet: He was 11, and he was like a great bass player. I’m like, “How do you do this?”

Audrey: And then are you thinking in terms of math, like as a career? Or in online services?

Mary-Ellen: I kinda discovered, I guess you could say, last year that I kinda want to be a teacher. At first, I was like “oh, what would I even teach?” And then, later in the year, we’re in math class and Phil puts up the warm-up and, a couple minutes in, done the warm-up, looking around, everyone’s kinda bent over their papers, doing whatever, and I’m like “wait, are you guys not done yet?”  They’re like, “no, how’d you finish so quickly?”  I was like, “what?” And so, then I was like, “oh, maybe I’ll just be a math teacher.” And then even later, I did an FCS project, like a money-managing thing, is that what it was?

(unknown): Mmhm.

Mary-Ellen: Yeah, and you had to pick a profession, and then pick a house, and a car, or vehicle, clothing plans, meal plans, and stuff like that. Like, how much you would pay for everything.

Audrey: What’s FCS?

Mary-Ellen: Family and Consumer Sciences.

Audrey: Oh, right.

Mary-Ellen: It’s kinda like a home-ec class, yeah.

Violet: Everyone calls it home-ec, and when I call it FCS people look at me like I’m from another world.

Mary-Ellen: But that’s what it is; on your schedule it says “Family Consumer Science.”

Audrey: Mmhm.

Mary-Ellen: Yeah.

Yasmin: Not people in this school.

Mary-Ellen: Uh huh. And, if that doesn’t happen, then I like music too. Like, their project is just all about music, but…

Yasmin: Mary-Ellen also plays violin, and sings.

Audrey: Very cool.


This has been an episode of the 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Check us out online at or drop us an email at and let us know how you’re liking the show.



Part 1: Building an eco-machine at The Edge

Part 2: The play’s the (learning) thing

Want to be featured on a future episode of our podcast? Got some amazing student work to share or better yet, students with something to say? Drop me at line.

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