Saturday, June 22, 2013

Finishing a Project and Reflecting on Arts-based learning.

Our Pre-K children performed their version of Mozart's  Magic Flute yesterday morning. Mozart wouldn't have recognized much of it, nor would have the librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder. But I expect they would have enjoyed the enthusiasm, and comic proclivities of the children performing their Singspiel. Mozart and Schikaneder created this work, Mozart's only one in their native German, as a folk opera, one that would appeal to the average Austrian. The music, however, is anything but average. Thus it mesmerized many of children from the moment they heard it. Young children are born to love music of all genres and types. They are genetically predisposed to it., as Oliver Sacks says in his book Musicophilia. 

Doing an opera (however truncated and strangely nonsensical ours was) can be challenging in preschool. Since ours is a childcare program as well as preschool, our "events" aren't always planned in conjunction with parents'. Our Papageno (the boy who said he was interested in this rich, comic part) left for Lebanon with his parents along with his twin brother the Dragon. Our stately Queen of the Night found out she was going camping on a Thursday when our performance was Friday. So our Sarastro was promoted to Papageno, (I cut Sarastro. My husband, being a baritone with bass tendencies, was horrified.) My teaching partner, Sue, who had been in Florida the whole week of rehearsals, stepped in as the Queen of the Night, and I gleefully subbed in as the Dragon. One of the three ladies left for Iran to visit relatives before we performed. The two left declared themselves the "Two Ladies", which solved that casting problem. Children solve our difficulties more easily than we do, and with much less angst. 

But, oh, the hilarity and joy of it: Monostatos and his henchman going from a state of fierce depravity (chasing Pamina around the stage) to one of delighted dancing at the sound of Papageno's bells (toilet paper tubes taped together and strung with jingle bells). Tamino trying to kill the dragon (me) with his cardboard sword and then feigning a faint so that the Two Ladies could bend over him and say how handsome he was (a sturdy girl played the Prince--she jumped at the chance). Papageno dancing a Snoopy dance facing the parents and younger children like a trooper while I played his introductory music. Yes, we used music liberally. My only regret is that I am not more technically savvy so that I could line up a series of music files of just the right portions. A young staffer told me, too late, that it could be done. "Oh, Brave New World..."!

All of the props, from the magic flute itself, Papageno's pan pipes and magic bells, to the lock for Papageno's mouth, were made by the children during activity time over the course of two weeks. The sets were made by the children with design help from my partner, Sue. I "directed" and stage-managed but gave the cast as much freedom as I could to interpret their roles. The "Two Ladies" took it upon themselves to let me know when I had forgotten anything. The children too shy to talk onstage were happy to become the animals enchanted by Tamino's flute.

With the interest in the arts in early childhood growing, it is dispiriting to hear from my adult students about how impoverished many of our programs still are in this regard. How better to promote literacy, fine motor skills, long-term memory, and body/brain integration than to give them a story with music that they themselves are willing to do? How better to nurture design (cognitive/spatial abilities) than to ask them to come up with a prop created with cardboard, paper, straws, tape and buttons? Teacher scaffolding replaces teacher creating, teacher dictating. Children gain confidence in their own abilities. Along the way they hone all of their skills. How freeing this approach is! 

Yes, it is work. It is absolutely so much easier for teachers to follow set lesson plans year after year, using the usual themes and activities. Children will respond to these. They are generous souls. They don't know that there is a better way. 

Using the arts (and I mean art, not craft) as a road to learning motivates children to do their best and be proud of the results. And it doesn't require magic.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A little Reggio, a little Vygotsky: A snapshot of how to provide arts experiences for young children.

We discussed in "staff meeting", which is our version of the Reggio Emilia approach to teacher collaboration, how we wanted a new set of materials for our art shelf. This shelf is an array of materials children can use on their own to create art. We had sequins, buttons, pipe cleaners and paper out and decided we needed to go natural for a while. There was a lively discussion about how, using natural materials could end up being colorless, or at least multiple shades of brown. So it was decided that some paint would make it into the mix.

We brought a tray of paints and fat brushes outside. Children gathered thin sticks and brought them to the picnic table for painting. "That one's mine", one girl told me later. "I'm going to use it in my art". Luckily there were several deep blue sticks so that she ultimately could claim whichever one looked like "hers".

On the lowest shelf of the art center inside we placed small squares of corrugated cardboard. Above that are bowls with seeds saved from years past that never made it into the ground. Tiny shells and stones, some of which I brought from the Jersey Shore invite children to touch and examine them. I added non-toxic "Tacky glue" so that the heavier items would adhere. Children worked with intense concentration on constructing their art with some help from teachers. Here are several samples.
I am looking forward to seeing what the children do with these materials, and what else they decide to bring to the mix. Building upward isn't something they think of instinctively and my teaching partner, Sue, taught some of them to "go up". By the end of the month I know we'll have a collection of masterpieces. 

Art in preschool is always process art. I have written about the importance, though, of demonstrating  new ways to use materials so that they learn by example. Vygotsky wasn't against this approach. On the contrary, he said that children learn through social interaction. How they express themselves depends on the quality of the environment, and that includes the quality of interactions with more experienced children and adults. Adults can give children permission to explore and delve more deeply. Sometimes they need just that little push to go further than they thought they could. 

I don't recommend coercion or taking over, but the reason we as early childhood educators say, "Great job!" all the time is because we want children to feel good about their work, and fear discouraging them. But we have neglected the needs of children to be taken seriously. We give them encouragement to pursue their ideas at our center, and offer new and different ways of looking at things. Children will benefit to the degree with which they are developmentally ready. That's all we have the right to hope for!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Magic of Magic Flute

How does a caring, creative teaching team engage fours and fives in a unifying project that engages even the most "too cool for school"? Our boys, especially, are routinely engrossed in Ninjas and Ninjago. The girls are getting there in their own way, also. Curses! Teachers foiled again by the cultural garbage fed to the children by commercial interests! What stories compel, entrance, motivate? Those with great music, of course.

Last year our children were totally engrossed in Peter and the Wolf. You can read about that in this blog. By simply telling a story and playing the music the children dove in. This time the story, having a prince, a princess, evil Queen, a good "King", and comic characters ("I want to be Papageno!!!"), not to mention "men at arms", has something for everyone. The second picture here is of ladies crouched over the ailing Tamino and the dead dragon ("Dragon! I'll be the dragon!). Our dress-ups are put to good use. The "hollow blocks" provide a stage. My teaching partner, Sue, had allowed the children to build a stage before I arrived. They'd clamored for one.

We discussed all the possibilities in staff meeting. The girls and two boys want to put on a Magic Flute play. I want them to sing what they say. One little girl is already doing that with relish. But other boys aren't interested in performing. One is interested in the story. Could he be a stage-manager? Since we just closed down our repair shop in the dramatic play center, could the repair shop addicts build sets?  Already some were making props (pan pipes out of straws and tape, anyone?). If we made costumes for the men in arms would anyone be tempted to wear a breastplate and carry a spear? It might be tempting. Sue worried about some of the more adult parts of the opera. I'm charged with writing a script for the children that is kid-friendly. Wish me luck!

An explanation about media used in this project so far. I started with the CD Mozart's Magic Fantasy, which is a pastiche about the opera with little children and the dragon thrown in. My children loved it when they were little. This drew our preschoolers in. I also own a DVD of Bergman's Magic Flute, and showed them scenes from it. This gave them an understanding of how it is a theatrical production and not a drama or cartoon. Ingmar Bergman created this film with the intention of making it look like a nineteenth century stage production. It is charming, sweet, and loving. Also very funny. With all of the discussion in early childhood circles on not showing videos in school we miss the boat if we simply ban them. Videos can be like storybooks: Tools for learning, providers of materials for discussion, introductions to the world of art and music. So do use them when it is an integral part of a whole project. They can be very helpful.

I will tell you more as we proceed! This promises to be an adventure, and a growth experience for teachers as well!