At a Congressional Briefing about the national dissemination of Wolf Trap’s Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts (Early STEM/Arts) project—now in the third year of a U.S. Department of Education Arts in Education—Model Development and Dissemination grant—a District of Columbia Public Schools classroom teacher who had participated in an Early STEM/Arts residency approached me.
The teacher talked excitedly about one parent who came to her in tears of joy as she shared how her four-year-old explained to her that the sun does not rise and fall, but stays still while the earth orbits around the sun. The teacher also described how her children spent time in the dramatic play area of the classroom taking turns being the sun while directing their playmates and teachers to “orbit” around them.
What happened in that Wolf Trap residency that had such a strong impact on that classroom? I was able to see it myself a week earlier, when I’d visited the teacher’s classroom during an Early STEM/Arts session. This is what I witnessed:
Through the drama techniques of imaginary journey and utilizing sensory experiences, a classroom of four-year-old preschoolers prepares to embark on an outer space expedition. Before they leave, they put on their imaginary space suits, like the one that is projected on the big screen/smart board.
Wolf Trap Teaching Artist Valerie Bayne Carroll and her partner classroom teacher pass out the special cameras (cardboard cutout props) and two sets of “goggles” (yellow and blue cellophane strips, which are used to help imagine the temperature extremes of hot and cold) that the children will need in order to visit the planets Mercury and Neptune. A picture of the shuttle and rocket boosters is the next projected image.
In preparation for the journey, the teacher leads the students in a song that describes the solar system. A recording of orchestral music is then played in the background, further setting the environment for the adventure.
The children, with the Teaching Artist (TA) and classroom teacher, start their countdown from ten as they move from a low level squat to a high level stretch upright, ending in blastoff! (If you were teaching in this classroom, how do you think you would use this moment as an opportunity to assess math skill development?)
New images are projected on the screen: the sky, then night stars. The children shift their bodies in various directions as they hold their imaginary navigational sticks with both hands to guide their shuttles. As a rocket booster is released, the children make sound effects for it.
The teacher asks, “What do you see?” One child says, “I see the sun,” and another says, “There’s the asteroid belt!” (The classroom teacher later communicates her amazement that the child remembered content that she learned in an earlier session and included it in her imaginary journey observation.)
The TA asks the children what planets they see on their journey from Earth to Mercury. As a visual aid, there is a large poster on an easel that shows how the planets are aligned in relation to the sun, so the children can see that they’re only passing one planet on this part of the trip. The TA starts a hot air dryer and as the air blows on the children, one exclaims, “It’s getting hotter! We are getting closer to the sun!”
The journey continues with the children landing on Mercury, putting on yellow goggles, and taking pictures as they describe what they see on the surface by observing the image of the planet on the screen. They take off again, the music changes, and their adventure continues as the children guide their shuttles past Earth in the opposite direction, farther away from the sun.
The TA and teacher ask lots of questions: what planets and how many are they passing? What planet that they are visiting is closest to or furthest from to the sun? The children enthusiastically shout out their responses as they continue taking pictures with their space cameras and describing what they see. (In addition to science content, can you see the other skills that the children are developing through this process? How do you think this partnership approach impacts the teacher’s professional development?)
A new image is projected as another orchestral interlude changes the mood. The children land their shuttles on the planet Neptune, put on their blue goggles, and feel cool air blowing on them as they also touch the ice pack that the TA passes to them.
Their journey comes to an end when they return to Earth and then their classrooms, and finally remove their space gear. The classroom teacher asks the children to describe what happened on their journey, and the classroom erupts with discussion about what they did or saw on their space flight.
Through this partnership between the Wolf Trap Teaching Artist and a classroom teacher, the children experiencing this Early STEM/Arts classroom residency have embodied the content and concepts related to their science and math studies about the universe and planets through drama and music experiences. For these young children, this knowledge empowers them, allowing them to actively engage in multi-sensory learning as they take on the characters of space travelers.
In addition to the science and math content and the drama strategies (perform a character, interact within a setting or environment, use a prop–real or imaginary), what other learning has occurred? The use of the performing arts enabled the classroom teacher to readily assess other skills development that she witnessed in her children: vocabulary/language development, collaboration, cooperation, creative representation.
After the residency, the teacher told her Teaching Artist how she is continuing to use the drama strategies on her own using imaginary journey, sensory experiences, and music together with factual information and images. Her Wolf Trap experience has given her tools to help her children learn and experience other science concepts while developing social, emotional, literacy, and arts skills—tools she’ll use for the rest of her career.