Education Lab

Drum circles for PE: It’s happening in some Fresno elementary schools – and helping

Two sixth-graders in a hand-drumming circle at Kirk Elementary School in southwest Fresno weren’t feeling like drumming.

But as their peers’ drumming got louder and more enthusiastic, the girls grabbed drums and tried it out themselves. Their drumming started quietly – just the whispering of rolling finger tips, followed by some light tapping – but they were participating nonetheless.

The drum circle’s leader, Brian Semsem, said that “just being present is being active.” This drum circle is about freedom – and subsequently, empowerment – along with a sense of community. One sixth-grade boy adds that drumming is another way of communicating.

This drumming has been introduced at five Fresno Unified School District elementary schools – Homan, Heaton, Kirk, Olmes and Winchell – as part of meeting physical education requirements, which includes social and emotional development. The Beat the Odds Drum Circle is run by Every Neighborhood Partnership, supported by grant funds from Kaiser Permanente. More than 700 third-through-sixth graders have participated in hand drumming this school year.

Michele Pacheco, the district’s physical education content manager, said elementary schools are required to provide at least 200 minutes of PE every 10 days to first- through sixth-grade students and that drumming is just one part of PE.

Sixth-graders on the drums

The drum beats vary throughout the half-hour session at Kirk. At one point, the room rumbles like a stampede after Semsem asks the children to demonstrate how anger sounds on their drums. Later, Semsem stands in the center of the circle conducting, bringing the intensities of beats up and down. The roller coaster of sounds finally stops and Semsem says, “Sometimes that’s what life is like.”

Brian Semsem, center, coordinates the drumming rhythm as Kirk Elementary School sixth graders participate in a drum circle class on Wednesday, May 9, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

The session ends with Semsem asking students to “feel the space” – his slang for finding your own rhythm. As the drumming starts, one boy looks concerned and frustrated. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. But eventually he finds a rhythm all his own. So do all the kids.

When the drumming stops, Semsem tells the boy that he heard his voice on the drums and that it “brought value” to the group.

Semsem talks about the group’s harmony and how it didn’t happen immediately.

“It took some time to find where we fit, right? And that’s any community.”

But everyone persevered, he said, and the result was a new sound that was “pretty great.”

The drum circle, he said, is about “learning how we connect and still be different, be unique, and part of a group.”

‘They share their heart’

Semsem, the recreational resilience director for Every Neighborhood Partnership, is a former church pastor. He got the drum program started a few years ago through FUSD’s mentoring program as an after-school offering at Homan Elementary School.

“As we try to connect more students to positive role models, it’s another way of doing it,” said Darrin Person, a manager in the district’s mentoring office.

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Semsem got the idea from another drum program in Southern California that helped students suffering from trauma, abuse and neglect.

“We really need to understand the kids that we are working with and their needs,” Semsem said. “In order for them to be better academically, they need help and support developing socially.”

The drumming is done in a circle because a circle isn’t hierarchical, he said. It’s “about perfect symmetry, unity and equality.”

Kirk Elementary School sixth graders participate in a drum circle class on Wednesday, May 9, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

For Semsem, it’s less about technique and more about creating talking points “around connection, focusing, paying attention, empathy.”

“And when they start to talk, when they feel safe in that circle, they share their heart,” he said. “That’s probably the most profound thing.”

Kirk Elementary teacher LaKeysha Mattis, who participates in the drum circles with her sixth-grade class, is a lifelong drummer. She has an intimate connection with the power of music and it’s ability to “reach the soul.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are hitting the drum or you are around where the vibrations are at,” Mattis said. “The rhythm is going to get you.”

Sixth graders from Kirk Elementary School in southwest Fresno participate in a drum circle class on Wednesday, May 9, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Keeping the music going

Susan Seruby, a licensed clinical social worker with Kaiser Permanente, said the drum program is “a fantastic opportunity, to help kids begin the process of connecting what’s happening internally with what they’re presenting out to the world externally. … Children oftentimes don’t have words to express their distress, their sadness, even their happiness.”

Semsem loves the research and science behind what music does for the brain and development. But kids just know they’re having fun, he says.

Brian Semsem, center, gets the beat going with his cowbell as Kirk Elementary School sixth graders participate in a drum circle class on Wednesday, May 9, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

He’s training elementary school teachers to lead the drum circles on their own. They’re currently run by Semsem and Amy Savage of Every Neighborhood Partnership.

Kaiser Permanente provided a $23,000 grant to purchase drums and train facilitators. That grant was part of over $3.2 million donated in 2018 to community programs in the Valley that support access to health care, mental health, healthy eating and active living, said Salina Mendoza, a Kaiser community benefit manager.

Catherine Aujero, Fresno Unified’s visual and performing arts manager, hopes more drums can soon be purchased with state grant funds. Teachers could then check out the instruments from the district.

Semsem said the magic of the drum program is the people involved with it.

“It’s that connection to each other that makes the difference,” he said. “So if it’s drumming, PE, classroom academics, it’s really about the human element. Drumming is just one of the things that brings us together as humans to connect on a relational level.”

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.