A journey into the imagination

If you’d been peeking through the door of Latoya Myers’ class at Lakewood Preschool Cooperative the morning of April 19, you would have seen children acting like kings, fairies, leopards and old men. You would have watched them dance and sing. Most notably, you would witness their imaginations taking them to whole new worlds, leaving behind a smile on every face.

Thanks to the Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts Program, four Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and five child care centers with NC Pre-K classrooms have visiting performing artists come into the classrooms each week and engage the children in activities like dance, music and drama. This year, Wolf Trap has been in 44 classrooms in Mecklenburg County.

The national Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts was founded in 1969 in Vienna, Va., at the National Park for the Performing Arts. Their vision is to harness the power of performing arts to enrich and change lives by extending the Wolf Trap experience to millions of people worldwide.

North Carolina Wolf Trap is a program of the Arts & Science Council in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Wolf Trap Institute. CMS pre-kindergarten services and the NC Pre-K Program screen applicants for the program and choose classrooms with children that have demonstrated an educational need.

Kami Shalom is one of 10 teaching artists in the North Carolina program. She has been teaching with Wolf Trap since it came to the area in 2006. As a storyteller, she goes into five different preschools twice a week for seven weeks, engaging the children in imaginative and dramatic exercises.

“Imagination is the key to so many things in life,” Shalom said. “If we help them think in a new and innovative way, helping them to hone that skill of imagination and feel free to use it, how much better will they be at using it when they get to elementary, middle and high school? And even becoming adults who are thinkers – who don’t just regurgitate what they’re given but who can solve problems creatively on their own.”

Shalom explained that when she goes into the classroom, she challenges the children to use their imaginations and to feel free to express their own opinions. Teaching them to think independently and then validating those opinions is key to future success.

Supporting teachers

The teaching artists are not only there for the students but also for the teachers, said Nancy Beasley, Wolf Trap’s regional director.

“Kami meets with the teacher before the residency begins and they plan it together,” Beasley explained. “She is really there to model art integration strategies. She involves the teachers and toward the end of the sessions, they plan a lesson together, which the teacher leads while Kami supports. This way, when Kami leaves, the teacher has gained new knowledge.”

The teaching artist also confers with the classroom teacher after each session. Following a storytelling class, Shalom talked to Myers about using a similar lesson strategy to tell stories from other books. She also asked Myers what differences she saw in the children from the week before.

“I noticed that Jamari was very involved today,” Myers said. “He’s usually quieter and doesn’t really talk much, but he was answering questions and very involved.”

In fact, 5-year-old Jamari Person was one of the most enthusiastic students.

He said he loves Thursdays because that is when “Miss Kami” comes. He remembers a story from several weeks ago that he recalls as his favorite: “Cat’s Colorful Day.”

For that lesson, Shalom said, the children used imaginary buckets of paint to color things around them.

Sing, dance, act

On April 19, Shalom told Myers’ class a story about an old man named Anansi who had to catch a leopard, a fairy and a mosquito and bring them to the high king in exchange for a box of stories.

“What voice would an old man make?” Shalom asked the children.

They all worked to personify an old, gravelly voice. They also created a “big king voice,” a “high fairy voice” and “a growling leopard voice.”

Shalom incorporated easy-to-follow songs, dances and dramatic interpretation for the children to interact with the story.

During the storytelling, Shalom also paused to ask the children to predict certain outcomes. This encourages the problem-solving thinking that Wolf Trap hopes to foster for their futures.

“Personally, I have a son who was developmentally delayed,” Shalom said. “When I started working at Wolf Trap, I’d heard how arts programs could work for children like him. Using the program at home and seeing the effectiveness of it in my home with my own child has really been amazing to me.”

Shalom also finds satisfaction in the way Wolf Trap offers new inspiration for teachers.

“I love seeing the teachers’ eyes light up when we bring a new approach to an old lesson,” she said.

While there is no doubt that the classroom teachers appreciate the visiting artists’ insights and help, the students’ appreciation is far from subtle.

After singing their goodbye song, Shalom was encircled by dozens of little arms as they expressed their love and gratitude for the gift she gives them each week – a journey into the imagination.