The value of the arts to pre-K education

Categories: ASC, Blog, Education

By Caitlin James
ASC Davidson College Impact Fellow

Merry Oaks pre-K teacher Lisa Hix (center) has fun with one of her students during an ASC NC Wolf Trap program in her classroom.
Merry Oaks pre-K teacher Lisa Hix (center) has fun with one of her students during an ASC NC Wolf Trap program in her classroom.

Preparing preschool kids to enter kindergarten is Lisa Hix’s job.

It’s why she was excited to have the Arts & Science Council’s (ASC) North Carolina Wolf Trap program in her classroom this year.

The arts-based instruction the program provides helps engage students “who may not be confident enough to talk, but can draw answers with incredible detail,” said Hix, who teaches at Merry Oaks Elementary in Charlotte.

“You can reach that student who may not be able to sit still, but can use their body to problem solve a math problem faster than anyone can with pencil and paper. You can reach that student who says they don’t know anything, but the minute they get a chance to act in a play, they can remember and deliver lines with confidence and understanding of how the parts of a story or history might affect people involved.

“You can even reach that kid who says “I’m not good at art” but can turn a beat into a reflection of the conflict and resolution of a complicated story.”

ASC’s NC Wolf Trap is one of nearly 20 national sites of the acclaimed Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts program. The local program started in the 2006-07 school year and provides teaching artists for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Bright Beginnings classes and More-at-Four classes in Mecklenburg County.

The seven-week residencies partner professional artists with early childhood educators to provide arts-based instruction to help ensure children under the age of six are ready to enter school.

NC Wolf Trap works with CMS to determine which sites receive the program, which stays at selected schools and centers for three consecutive years to ensure each classroom teacher works with artists in drama, music and dance disciplines.

Its goals include improving student learning through drama, music and dance, providing professional development for teachers and making the arts a part of the daily interaction between students and their parents and teachers.

“My view of the arts is that there is something for everyone when it comes to using them as a teaching tool,” Hix said. “We talk all the time in the teaching world about individualizing our lessons to reach as many students as possible, and what better way than by showing them that you can use the same book and the same concepts, and you can act, sing, draw, paint, build, sculpt, and interpret them and still make educational progress in the best way for you?”

We had the opportunity to hear from Hix at length about her NC Wolf Trap experience. Here’s what she had to say. Responses edited for brevity/clarity.

Q: What were your expectations for having Wolf Trap visit your classroom?
I was expecting to see some kinesthetics beyond the same old movements and fingerplays I was used to seeing acted out in a pre-K classroom. I also hoped to gain clever ways to incorporate drama into children’s books to make them even more memorable and meaningful to my students. Finally, I wanted to be an active part of the process, so that I could not only give the artist advice on how to approach certain students, but also be able to individualize aspects of their lessons and adapt them to my classroom.

Q: Do any particular memories continue to resonate for you?
The first artist I had was… so great at really understanding where a lot of my students came from. The whole idea that we were working with a population of students who speak little to no English at the beginning of the year and who were hesitant to really participate at first did not phase Jesse at all. She used a combination of simple rhythmic beats and large, great muscle movements to get the students interested in what she was doing, and then introduced easy and simple repetitive phrases for them to build their comfort and enthusiasm.

Q: What were the challenges for you or your students?
The only challenges we face are the fact that our students are dual language learners, and may not be able or willing to participate 100-percent at first. It takes them a little extra time to get comfortable enough to really participate fully. Luckily, we are fortunate enough to have very patient artists come into our room.

Q: How have you continued to integrate this professional development experience into your teaching?

A: We have started adding more simple props and allowing the students to decide how they might want to use them as we read stories. I have been doing more active listening readings and instead of reading the book verbatim, I am taking concepts from the book and using them to act out important ideas with my class. I am allowing myself to see how there are such simple ways to take more from a picture book than the author and my teacher manual might take from it. I am challenging my students to do the same on their own levels and I am seeing my students really trying to stretch their way of thinking when answering questions I pose to them about what we read.

Q: Why do we need the arts in classrooms?
A: When students can start being exposed to this in pre-K and then can see that they have their own talents and that those talents can continue to be supported, encouraged, and even incorporated into their classrooms as they get older, the enthusiasm and confidence to continue with school can only be increased monumentally. When kids see that they have a hand in how their education is shaped, they take ownership of it, they take responsibility for it, and they take joy in sharing it with those around them.