Mr. T teaches his Grade 1 students science, technology, math, and engineering concepts thru music. Photo courtesy of John Carlo Tulinao.

In Arizona, a Filipino is getting noticed for his unique way of teaching math, science to grade schoolers

Authentic experiences allow students to effectively learn and understand the relevance of their academic subjects, says Antipolo born John Carlo Tulinao.  
RHIA GRANA | Jun 05 2021

How does a teacher make a first grader grasp the many complex concepts in science, technology, engineering and math? For Arizona-based Filipino teacher John Carlo Tulinao, music helps a lot.

“I teach them the physics, the science of music,” says the 30-year-old Antipolo-born educator like it’s the most natural thing for a teacher to do. Well, it does come naturally for Mr. T—as Tulinao is fondly called by his students at Amberlea School in Phoenix, Arizona. After all, he’s got a master’s degree in Music Education and he comes from a family of singers and musicians. He even once organized a public school string orchestra back in his hometown. 

“Music is not simply an art form, there’s a science behind it,” says Tulinao, who has a master’s degree in Music Education.

For his grade school class in Arizona, Mr. T capitalizes on his musical background to explain science (e.g. force, friction, gravity) and engineering concepts (e.g. how sound is produced, the connection of vibration to sound, or how different pitches are achieved) with the use of musical instruments. For example, he explains what friction is by playing the violin, citing how force and vibration, or pushing the bow up and down, creates sound. 

One would usually find Mr. T in front of his pupils playing the guitar or any sort of musical instruments—he also plays the viola, the cello, the piano, the marimba, the saxophone, and the harp. There are times when he and his students would dismantle a violin and put the parts back together so the kids can better understand how it works. It even came to a point when he and his students built their own prototypes of musical instruments. “Music is not simply an art form,” he says, “there’s a science behind it.”

The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum, which he introduced in Amberlea in 2018, became so successful he improved it some more by incorporating culture. He also once brought to his Grade 1 class some Cordillera bamboo instruments he used in a lecture for graduate and undergraduate students. The kids started asking questions about them which led to Tulinao introducing Philippine ethnic instruments to the class, as well as their cultural roots. “Sobra silang na-amaze,” the teacher shares.

When the kids discovered one of the bamboo instruments was broken, they insisted on making a prototype. Before long, they were creating a “tongatong” (a percussion instrument made of various lengths of bamboo) from Pringles tubes. “Wala namang bamboo dito sa Arizona, puro cactus dito,” says Tulinao, laughing. The children didn’t quite achieve the desired result the first time so they made another prototype—but now with water pipes—and it worked. Now their tongatong creates music that’s almost akin to our native bamboo instrument.

Tulinao has since presented his unique teaching method in different conferences in the United States, catching the attention of the US-wide National Science Teachers Association which led to his winning of the Shell Urban Teachers Development Award.

Tulinao says creating his own way of teaching has become a personal eye-opener. It broadened his perspective on teaching. He realized how authentic experiences allow students to effectively learn and understand the relevance of their academic subjects. “Bukod sa mas nagiging interested silang matuto, mas nakakapag-form sila ng concepts and meanings,” he says.

Mr. T introduces the tongatong during a lecture at Arizona State University.

Learning about culture also becomes more meaningful for him and his students as he gets to highlight underrepresented ethnicities. Most of his students are Hispanic, African-American, and Asian (some are Filipinos). “Hindi lang siya empowering para sa akin bilang teacher, na I am sharing my culture. It is also empowering for my Filipino students as well. They feel proud na Filipino sila dahil naha-highlight ang kultura nila,” he says.

The reception to the STEAM program Tulinao developed has been so successful that the entire school will be adopting this method of teaching next year. “Nag-expand ang program,” says the Filipino educator. “Ang gusto nilang gawin ay maging arts school pero culturally responsive.”

Tulinao decided to accept the teaching job in Arizona because he wanted to mold young minds. “I really wanted to teach Grades I to 3. I think that’s one of my gifts—malakas ang amor ko sa bata,” he says. He also wanted to learn innovative approaches in education that can be applied in our country. The Bachelor in Elementary Education graduate worked first as a teacher in the Philippines for six years. The challenges he met are some of the reasons he decided to take up his Doctorate in Applied Learning Science at the University of Miami.

Kahit nandito ako sa US, iniisip ko pa din kung ano ang maibabahagi ko sa Pilipinas,” he says thoughtfully. “Kasi doon ako lumaki at doon ko nakita ang problema. So pagbalik ko, gusto kong makapagbahagi ako ng solusyon.”


Photos courtesy of John Carlo Tulinao