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The Artist Residency in a Preschool Classroom

By Miriam Flaherty, Director, Wolf Trap Institute

This morning, like many others, Marcia Daft prepares for one of her most important engagements.  A classically trained pianist, she has recently worked in Greece and England doing a similar program to the one that occupies her thoughts today.

Marcia parks next to the temporary trailer behind a school in North East Washington, DC and enters through the door decorated with the Head Start logo—a pile of blocks with an arrow pointing upward. This morning’s routine is being repeated, with variations upon this theme, by dancers, musicians, actors, puppeteers and other performing arts professionals.  They are Wolf Trap Artists.  This cadre of 180 teaching artists are trained by Wolf Trap to connect the performing arts to  early childhood approaches, goals and curriculum.  In over 1000 classrooms annually throughout the United States and key foreign locations, the artists work under posters proclaiming, “We Are a Wolf Trap Class!”

As she enters the classroom, Marcia carries only a stack of large index cards, a coffee can filled with puffs of cotton, vinyl grass, a cow and assorted other figures. The children jump up with delight when they see what she is carrying; they know what’s really in the can—a story!  Although she recently performed at the Smithsonian, today “Miss Marcia’ conducts children ages 3-5 through the sounds of an Africa plain that emerges from her Coffee Can Theatre, a Wolf Trap strategy created by Michael Littman.  The container holds small items representing characters, plot elements and the setting of a story.  The storyteller sets a tone of expectation and wonder as she pulls a simple prop from the can at just the right moment in the story.  The effect on the children never fails:  they focus intently on the narrative waiting for the cue that will produce the next prop; the items placed on the “stage” before them serve as very tangible reminders of story elements.  The activity ends just as it begins with each item returning to the can in turn, usually assisted by the children as part of recall and reflection activities.  With the characters, props and setting put away and the lid closed, the story waits in the Coffee Can Theatre for its next retelling.  Marcia, like most Wolf Trap Artists and their teacher-partners, has adapted the basic technique to many books and curriculum topics as well as integrating music, creative movement and roleplay.

Marcia and her partnering teacher agreed to focus several lessons from the 14 day residency on the book Bringing the Rains to Kapiti Plain.  Approaches and strategies to same book in the hands of other artists and teachers would change the lesson’s focus. Wolf Trap Artists shape arts-based lessons targeting specific objectives for individual classes while simultaneously challenging the teachers to re-think teaching approaches. Marcia Daft says that this dual goal requires her to identify a daily objective for what the children will learn and another objective for what performing arts based skills and strategies the teacher will be able to incorporate into her ongoing teaching.   Today, she sees and hears early numeracy and emergent literacy in the repetitive language of the book and uses the session to broaden the applications a favorite Wolf Trap technique, Coffee Can Theatre. 

The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts is a program of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, an internationally renowned cultural organization located in Vienna Virginia that is recognized for its performances presented at Wolf Trap Farm Park, America’s National Park for the Performing Arts.  As its premiere education program, the Institute does not rely on performances but rather on the simple brilliance and quiet intensity of the performing arts to influence the education of our youngest learners.

In 1981, Head Start approached Wolf Trap to develop a classroom-based professional development program for teachers in the Washington DC area.  Project staff and local artists quickly learned that what they knew about students in the early grades mattered little in the face of 20 squirming preschoolers.  The artists knew their craft, but in order to make the arts accessible and meaningful to the children, the teachers taught the artists how to connect and reach children in their own environment.  Then, as now, the teacher sets the objectives and priorities for each 7 week Wolf Trap classroom residency conducted through the Institute’s 13 regional programs.  Each artist translates these goals into performing arts based lessons that incorporate the teachers in increasing levels of leadership.  The scaffold and fade structure allows the teacher to gain familiarity and confidence before designing and implementing her own Wolf Trap lesson with the artist assisting and often cheering her on. In the course of a 1990-94 program evaluation, Harvard Project Zero found that the residency design had the impact of an in-service course based in the teachers’ own classrooms.

Today, Marcia extends the Coffee Can Theatre strategy as the children “read” the sounds of Kapiti Plain which are represented as simple shapes and squiggles on Marcia’s index cards.  The children utilize music and creative movement to decode symbols and reinforce elements within the narrative.  Following Marcia’s lead, the teacher elicits other sounds or images from the children that they then turn into symbolic representations (images and gestures) for the group to read and perform.

Tomorrow, the children will find the Coffee Can Theatre and the cards in the independent play area of the classroom.  Individually and in small groups, they may retell the story often including dialogue directly from the book.  The children may combine the cards in sequences and patterns to form their own “musical” compositions.

The performing arts lift the story from the page and bring the children into its telling. Within the artist’s lesson, ritual and repetition inherent in the narrative and its recreation build the children’s language and literacy skills.  Working side-by-side with the artist and children, the teacher experiences a “rehearsal” period with this book, learning not book-specific activities, but rather strategies with applications for other books and curricular areas.  Next week, the teacher may choose Where The Wild Things Are as the focus of a Coffee Can Theatre she will create.  The children’s success and enthusiasm often give the teachers the added incentive to keep on incorporating the arts:  “My children will no longer let me just read a book—we have to dance it!”

To respond to both the interest and the need for meaningful arts lessons and  experiences for the very young, the Arts Education Partnership formed the Task Force on Children’s Learning and the Arts:  Birth to Age Eight.  The report Young Children and the Arts  Making Creative Connections issued guiding principles for program development that focused on uniting the child, the arts experience, the learning environment and adult interactions.  In practice, quality child-centered, developmentally appropriate arts experiences must be created and implemented in partnerships comprised of teachers/caregivers working in concert with arts professionals and arts education specialists. Wolf Trap and its teaching artists continually return to this lesson:  its value, challenges and rewards keep the artists coming back to the learning stages in the early childhood community.