Light Bulb Moments: Impact and Expansion in Early Arts Learning

Have you ever heard an autistic, mute, 4-year old speak for the very first time? Neither have I, but our Wolf Trap Teaching Artists frequently work these miracles in Pre-K classrooms. So what’s the secret? How do these light bulb moments happen for children of diverse backgrounds? The answer is simple: arts-infused learning.

Let me first explain the wonders of Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning through the Arts. The Arts & Science Council is a state affiliate that administers a program developed by the “mothership” up in Vienna, Virginia. The program places professional teaching artists in partnership with classroom teachers in Pre-K and Kindergarten classrooms for 7-week arts residencies. The professional development program gives these classroom teachers performing arts skills that help to ignite creativity in their students and spark an interest in learning – the fun way.

I’ve had the great pleasure of witnessing the joy, smiles, and authentic excitement for learning that this program awakens within Pre-K students. A typical classroom in CMS can include many non-English speaking students, students with a range of learning disabilities, and students that are living at or below the poverty line. Wolf Trap uses the arts to create a more equitable learning environment for these students.

This program is not a flouncy add-on to what teachers must accomplish in a school year. No, Wolf Trap uses the arts as a vehicle to enhance the literacy, math, or science learning that’s already taking place. Take, for example, a math residency in music. Did you know that a young person’s memory span can only handle seven items of information at a time? Defying these limitations, music works to string together three or four times the amount of information by using a melody that is much more easily recalled. In the case of a Pre-K math lesson, students learn songs about shapes that are easily recalled because the information is attached to a catchy tune.

North Carolina Wolf Trap is rapidly expanding and bringing more educational equity to students and schools across the state. What once was a one-county residency program ten years ago now has the capacity to offer over 85 residencies in five counties. The ESL (English as a Second Language) and LSES (Low Socioeconomic Status) students in classrooms with Wolf Trap now have a more equal opportunity to be successful in school due to the solid foundations Wolf Trap lessons provide. These arts residencies allow more students to read on reading level by the time they get to third grade.

Did you know that the number of newly constructed prison cells each year is based on the number of students that cannot read in third grade? Let that ruminate in your brain for a moment….

I feel exceptionally lucky to work at a place like ASC that prioritizes programs that move the dial on important issues in our education system.

Nature Matters… and Advocacy Does Too

My time at the Arts & Science Council (ASC) has been spent doing things I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do in a professional setting. So far these things have included hiking, promoting a documentary, observing teaching artists in Pre-K classrooms, managing a professional web designer, event planning, and learning how to code. These four months on the job have been a whirlwind of excitement and growth. To state it simply, I’m feeling an immense amount of gratitude for these diverse experiences and the DIF program overall.

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The DIF position at ASC is situated in the Education Department. Our team of seven is split between two locations due to our offsite, out-of-school program called Studio 345 which offers free classes for high school students in music, screen printing, mixed media, photography, and film. It takes everything in my power to stay away from that place (read: you can find me there most afternoons). During the summer, Studio 345 offers the Journeys Program which is also free to students but relies on an application process to select its participants.

I was fortunate enough to participate in this program as a mentor to fifteen deserving, creative, extraordinary high school students from Charlotte. Our local hikes to Crowders Mountain, the RibbonWalk Nature Preserve, kayaking on the Catawba River, and a weekend spent at Appalachian State University prepared the students for a week spent at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. There, the students were immersed in outdoor education sessions where they tested water quality, practiced orienteering, participated in a University of Tennessee citizen science research initiative on Salamanders, spoke with Park Rangers, all while developing a newfound relationship with the outdoors. The lack of cell service forced students to turn to alternate sources of entertainment. Most nights I found the whole group playing a rowdy game of Uno or singing loudly, accompanied by our resident troubadour Ukulele player.

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Over the course of one summer spent in nature, these teenagers transformed. I saw it with my own eyes. From a lifestyle devoid of walking and with much of their time spent buried in their phones, these young city people have now experienced the wonder of a quiet forest and the serenity of a mountain stream. Many of them now hope to attend Appalachian State University after having spent time in a college dorm room. Most of them have created art inspired by these trips that they’ve shared with family and the greater community. Most notably, one of our students wrote her college application essay about the things she experienced while on the Journeys Program this summer. Here is a quote from her essay:

“[Over the summer] I learned that I desire to be an outdoor educator just like ones we met at Tremont. I learned that I want to take others out into nature and give them the experiences that the wonderful Tremont staff gave to us. Before entering Studio 345, I had no idea that my life would take a completely different turn. I transformed from a misplaced person to a focused individual in a single summer. This is all thanks to the summer I spent with the Studio 345 Journeys Program.”

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Last year’s Journeys Program spent their culminating week at Yellowstone National Park and took a film crew along. The students’ transformative experiences are documented in ASC’s second advocacy documentary entitled Nature Matters. I was proud to organize the film’s premiere just two weeks ago where it was viewed by a sold-out crowd. I’d encourage everyone to attend an upcoming screening in order to witness the benefits of exposing a nature-deficient generation to the wonder of the great outdoors. For more information and to see the trailer, visit NatureMattersFilm.com.

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