Spreading joy through song to Baltimore’s youngest learners

By Sue Trainor, Young Audiences artist and singer/songwriter

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In 1998, I sang for the first time in a classroom for and with children who have profound special needs. That 45-minute gig rocked my world: the children may not have been “typical” physically or cognitively, but their connectivity was palpable and potent! I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Ever since, my motto has been, “meet people where they are,” because you miss out if you don’t reach out.

This spring I had the opportunity to work with William S. Baer School in Baltimore City, another school attended by children with profound special needs. During my eight-week residency at the school I worked in four preschool classrooms with children who were three to five years old, but were approximately 12 months old developmentally. Many of them were very fragile medically, most were non-verbal, and some were non-locomotor. Several were blind and/or deaf.

This residency followed the Wolf Trap 16-Session Literacy Residency model. I have been on the roster of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts since 2003, and I’m thrilled that Young Audiences has just joined the Wolf Trap family as the Maryland sponsor of Wolf Trap programs! In the Wolf Trap model, the teaching artist’s primary goal is to provide professional development for the classroom teachers by modeling arts-integrated strategies and coaching the teacher to practice the strategies in the classroom with students. It sounds serious and technical, and it is in some ways, but didn’t we just have the best time ever!

I’m a musician, so the artistic interest for me is the exploration of my art form’s fundamental expression and interpersonal connectivity. What does it mean, for example, to sing with someone who is non-verbal? It’s not singing in the traditional sense, but what is it that makes singing together work? Can we still engage in a more basic element of joined vibration? We can, and it is joyful—all the more so because it’s usually a brand new experience for the children and the response is profound.

I think fondly of Sean, a four-year old student at Baer. He is blind and non-verbal, and he loves music. I would play my ukulele and he would belt out his sounds. It was delightful! One day while we were waiting for the class to assemble, I sat face to face with him and joined his vocalizing, using his sounds. He was surprised at first, but he leaned in, kept “singing,” and together we created a joined sound-space and a profound connection. Now his teacher understands and can do this as well.

One of my favorite lesson experiences that came out of this residency was “Funky Duck.” The children were learning shapes, and the traditional math teaching strategies had them focusing on a specific shape which was velcroed to a felt board. The student’s task was to pull the shape off the board (or focus on the shape with their eyes if they were immobile). More advanced students were supposed to choose a specific shape from a small group of different shapes

I used the same fundamental teaching strategy, but I transferred it to a puppet that I dubbed “Funky Duck.” I velcroed shapes on the puppet’s chest, taught the teachers basic puppet manipulation, and created a chant for them to recite to a steady beat:

“I’m Funky Duck, hey hey
I’m Funky Duck, hey hey
I want to know, can you find
My circle today?”

We had 100% success—the children loved the puppet, focused intently and reached out to pull off the shape. The teachers promptly scoured their classrooms for puppets of their own that they could adapt to this and other purposes, including lessons about numbers, colors, and letters.

I look forward to returning to Baer School this fall, to reconnect with my preschool friends and to develop new connections in classrooms with older students.

Click here to learn more about Maryland Wolf Trap residencies. To schedule a program, please contact Young Audiences at 410-837-7577.

Are you a musician?

By Kevin Martin, Steel drum musician

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Young Audiences artists and teacher partners have written case studies documenting their work in schools and their exploration of one essential question. Each study provides a snapshot of how the artist or teacher works with students to integrate the arts into the curriculum and provide opportunities for students to imagine, create, and realize their full potential through the arts.

Project or Program Summary

For the Harford County Public Schools Title I STEAM Institute in July 2012, four Young Audiences artists were brought together to work with a group of Harford County teachers to help them develop their arts integration skills.

I taught a two-session program called “The Physics of Steel Drums.” Each session combined a steel drum rehearsal and a science lesson. I worked with the group to show how learning the steel drums could be combined with understanding the science behind the drums, working through basic wave theory. The program ended with a group performance of two songs on the steel drums and with small group demonstrations of wave theory using arts integration.

Purpose and Rational

As part of a year-long program to bring arts integration learning to all five Harford County Title I schools, this program showed teachers how to bring music into their classrooms by helping them begin to see themselves as musicians. By empowering the teachers with the ability to play and the confidence to perform music while learning science curriculum objectives, we can help empower them to bring that same experience to their students.

In order to develop their ability to use arts integration in their teaching, it’s important for teachers to develop the confidence to take on arts projects that are new to them. The question that was explored with each group of teachers was: ”Are you a musician?”

Teacher responses to initial survey of comfort level with music.
Teacher responses to  an initial survey of their comfort level with music.
Teachers also were asked to answer the question "Are you a musician?"
Teachers also were asked to answer the question “Are you a musician?”

Surveys were taken at the beginning and end of this program to measure the change in how teachers felt about performing music and whether they can view themselves as musicians, even if this was their first musical instrument experience.

Analysis and Outcomes

What are your overall conclusions regarding the documentation gathered for this case study?

This program was successful in its goal of empowering teachers to have the confidence to use music performance in their classroom teaching. Specifically, this project helped to change their view of themselves as musicians and decrease their anxiety of performing in front of others as well as taking on other art projects in which they have no background.

What conclusions have you drawn from the responses to the assessment tools you have developed?

Teachers work hard to become experts in the field of study that they teach. It is part of “what they stand on” when they teach. One of the barriers to bringing arts-integrated STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) lessons to the classroom without the aid of a teaching artist is that teachers can be uncomfortable teaching something in which they are not an expert. Many described it as feeling vulnerable.

By learning to play songs on the steel drum while learning core curriculum science objectives, the teachers agreed at the end of the program that it would be fun to try to incorporate other art forms like painting, acting, and dancing without having to be excellent at the art form themselves.

Back to the initial inquiry question, can it be answered?

Yes. When looking at the question “Am I a musician?” we started by listing what it would take for each teacher to answer “yes”:

  1. Be able to play songs well enough to perform.
  2. Have the confidence to play those songs for other people.
  3. Express oneself through music.

Each teacher, by successfully completing the program and through feedback given on a conclusion survey, achieved all three goals.

Summary and Conclusions

What was learned?

Teaching using arts integration is a great way to bring core subject material to life in the classroom and reach all types of learners. For classroom teachers to write and teach arts-integrated lessons, it is essential that they have the confidence and ability to take on projects that will require them to learn an art form with their class or even to be guided in art forms by their students who have specific art skills. By teaching teachers to play music and to see themselves as musicians we can achieve this.

What can be done differently in the future?

In the future, this program can be taken one step further by working with teachers with the instruments that they can get their hands on at their school to use in their classroom. During this program teachers learned how to play the steel drums and this is not an easy instrument to get a hold of for classroom work.

To help address this issue, Young Audiences has prepared a box of musical instruments that each of the five Harford County Title I schools can have access to for arts-integrated lessons.

I also would like to build into the program a final section where teachers can create a musical demonstration or activity for a subject of their choice.

How will this inform the work moving forward?

In February 2013, I worked with four of the five Harford County Title I schools whose teachers were trained at this program. I was able to work one-on-one and in small groups with teachers to help them start writing their own arts-integrated lesson plans using these instruments as well as those that the classes can make themselves.

Curriculum Connections

Music
Multidisciplinary Arts
Science Technology
STEAM

Learn more about Kevin and Rockcreek Steel Drums’  assembly, residency, and professional development programs.

Read other case studies written by Young Audiences teaching artists and teacher partners