Sunday, February 12, 2012

Project learning: Peter and the Wolf

Posted by PicasaThank goodness I work in a center that values children's inherent passion for and interest in learning through the arts! Where would I be if I didn't? I would be creating lessons to make seasonal crafts each month, Jack-O-Lanterns in October, Turkeys in November, Christmas trees and Menorahs in December.  Instead we watched the opera Hansel and Gretel in December, and began a unit on music and sound exploration after Christmas that is still going strong.

We began with exploration of sounds, including jars of varying amounts of water that the children tapped to hear similarities and differences in pitch and timbre. Musical instruments were mixed with boxes, Boomwackers, and paper plates on an exploration table. My teaching partner brought in real band instruments for the children to try, and my director brought her collection of world instruments and made a presentation. Parents and siblings came to share their own instrumental talents. I contacted the local high school band director and asked if we could bring sixteen four/five year olds to observe a band rehearsal. Soon we were walking to the high school with parent helpers, and watching a musical education program created just for us! The children were enraptured. They already knew so much, and displayed their knowledge when asked questions by the band director. This experience helped the children own and consolidate their new knowledge, which led to the next phase: Peter and the Wolf.

While I had some misgivings about the length of the piece, the children scuttled those quickly. Listening to the story, moving to the music, they were fully present to the work. They created simple headbands that served as costume designations and began spontaneously rehearsing this half-hour drama every morning before morning meeting, during activity time. All I had to do was put on the CD. There were arguments about blocking and characterization, and settling of differences through more rehearsal. My partner and I knew then that we had a "hit" and went further with the children. We planned a staged version of Peter and the Wolf to perform for the younger children, the threes and fours.

I can't say that everything went smoothly. Having been in opera and concert work before getting into education, I didn't expect it. There were the ego crises we solved, for instance. How to put on Peter and the Wolf, a play with six major parts and an indeterminate number of hunters. We solved our problems by asking each child who wanted to play a popular character (Peter, for instance) to share the role, dividing up the program into sections. Surprisingly, because, I believe, we included the children in the ongoing trouble-shooting, they easily accepted solutions that gave them a chance to be who they wanted to be. We created a tree from paper and indoor climbing equipment. The bird could climb up and be away from the wolf's jaws. We used blue paper for the duck pond. Our scene design sufficed for the children to imagine themselves in the play. My partner and I debated how to do some of the "stage business". I wanted to mime the part where Peter attaches the rope to the wolf's tail, but Sue won out, using a rope and clips to make that part of the play more real to the children. It worked well.

What especially impressed me was not only the self-assurance the children demonstrated, but also the attentiveness and sensitivity they displayed for the changing moods of the music and narrator's words. The bird flapped, the duck quacked, Peter skipped and danced, each to their own musical themes. When they music changed, their bodies reflected each cadence and tempo. We did not tell them to do anything specific, in keeping with our philosophy of education that insists on creative authenticity for our children.
What did these children learn? Did we "do" math, Language Arts, Science, Social Studies? Not in the traditional method of separating skills and inventing activities to target them. These areas were naturally embedded in the project. They learned and practiced such math concepts as seriation, patterns, and one-to-one correspondence. Language Arts became part of the mix through speaking, listening, reading (the book about the story) and writing (captions of pictures they drew of their favorite scenes. Science came into it when the scenery fell and we problem-solved how to keep it up! Our children displayed inventiveness in all stages of the project along with a strong motivation to master the necessary skills. In early childhood education how can we as teachers offer anything less?

As for the younger children who served as the audience, after the show they asked their teachers, "When can we do a play?"