Written by Barbara Krebs, a Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member.
Colorful sticky notes adorned the walls of the classroom. Like before-and-after photos of an amazing remodel, the notes told the story of how a group of Head Start teachers in Southern Maryland unveiled their hidden talents to reach their young students through the arts. The ‘before’ stickies began, “I used to think…” Teachers filled in the rest of the sentence with thoughts such as, “dance, music and theatre weren’t that effective,” or “movement and story time could not go together,” and “it was hard to integrate the arts into the classroom.”
Then, as Young Audiences teaching artists demonstrated techniques that blend learning and the arts, the Head Start classroom teachers began making their own artistic/educational connections – connections that would help them return to their classrooms and engage kids in ways they had been hesitant to trust before. They soon realized that when kids are singing, dancing, and moving, it’s easy for them to forget that they’re actually learning!
The Professional Development course was held on February 17th and sponsored through the PNC Grow Up Great® initiative. Created to help children from birth through age five develop a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime, the program generously funded training that provided Head Start teachers with a variety of resources to increase learning, engagement and confidence by incorporating art into the curriculum.
Three YA teaching artists, musician Lisa Mathews, actor Khaleshia Thorpe-Price, and dancer Anna Menendez, taught the group. They learned, for example, how to use dance tools to create patterns, how to use their bodies and musical instruments to express themselves, and how the use of props and different character voices can more fully engage students in story time. At the end of the class, each teacher was tasked with writing and presenting a lesson seed in each art form for when the class reassembled in May.
“It was very evident from their participation on the first day and their reflections on the second day that teachers were excited about these arts strategies and implemented them immediately,” explained Kristina Berdan, YA’s Education Director. “Having strong backgrounds in social and emotional learning, they were able to quickly experience and understand the impact that the arts can have on this kind of growth in young people. Most of them tap into the arts regularly through chants and songs, yet these professional development opportunities allowed them to learn deeper, more meaningful strategies in and through the arts. The ‘ah-ha’s and feelings of excitement were palpable!”
For some, wariness about the role arts could play in the classroom had been replaced with a newfound willingness to incorporate them into their lesson plans. Through the introduction of dramatic play and puppetry, for example, students had a greater understanding of the stories they read in class than they did before the professional development course. One Head Start teacher, Jessica Wiley, summed up her experience in YA’s Professional Development class this way, “The ideas and suggestions were practical, applicable, and personalized. I love how Young Audiences was able to address our questions, challenges and concerns very well.”
The teachers ended the day completing sentences on sticky notes that began, “Now I think…” Their statements showed how their opinions about using the arts as a tool for learning had evolved from hesitancy to a feeling of openness and anticipation, writing, “you can use music in all areas of teaching,” and “dance can be a calming technique,” or “movement in story time is helpful to keep children engaged.”
For Maryland’s youngest students, the new strategies will be especially impactful. “Head Start supports our nation’s most vulnerable children by offering a comprehensive, high quality early-learning experience that prepares them for kindergarten and strengthens family participation in their children’s learning,” said Yasmina S. Vinci, executive director, National Head Start Association.
Like any successful renovation, the before-and-after sticky notes showed what can be created when you effectively blend harmonious elements – education and the arts – to capture a child’s natural desire to learn.