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News & AwardsPerforming Teachers Take the Arts to Preschoolers

June, 2001  |  San Diego Union-Tribune

The master’s degree from the University of Chicago, the piano study in Salzburg, Austria, and the lessons she developed for the Smithsonian give Marcia Daft the resume to come cross-country to teach preschoolers for a week.

Daft’s caterpillar imitation, in which she slithers across the carpet on her belly, is what captivated her 3- to 5-year-old students.

Daft and two other performing teacher-artists were at V.I.P. Village Preschool in Imperial Beach late last month. Preschool director Katy Roberson said they represent an artist-in-the-classroom strategy she wants to see adopted throughout the country. The artists who recently came to Roberson’s school are from the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, based in Vienna, Va. The TRW Foundation covered the costs for V.I.P., a state-funded preschool in the South Bay Union School District.

Roberson is seeking corporate philanthropists to fund artists in residence who can teach preschoolers about the arts for up to seven weeks. Joyce Montgomery, principal of Silver Strand Elementary School and director of its preschool, said she, Roberson and other preschool directors have talked about opening a mini-Wolf Trap Institute for San Diego County. “If we have a regional base here, then we can use the local artists we have here in San Diego, which is going to support the whole arts movement in Southern California,” Montgomery said.

In recognition of preschool’s academic importance, the California Department of Education last year issued standards for what children should learn before they enter kindergarten. “The performing arts give children the foundation for later learning,” Montgomery said. “Music is patterns, and familiarity with patterns helps with math. Drama develops language, which leads to storytelling, which helps in reading and comprehension.”

While the artists from Virginia were in Imperial Beach, they did not just put on an educational show for the children. They trained teachers to use the arts in their daily routine. They held workshops for parents on the importance of the arts in their children’s lives.

But the magic was in the classroom, where Daft, movement teacher Cynthia Word and drama teacher Sean Layne inscribe their visual, kinetic, auditory and tactile lessons on the closest thing they can get to tabula rasa in the classroom. Daft had the children in Room 8 spellbound with uninhibited slithering, Jim Carrey-like facial contortions, and the warmth and simplicity of Mister Rogers. And she did it in Spanish.

The arts’ universality makes for powerful teaching, said Marianne Putney, associate director of the Wolf Trap Institute. That seemed to be the case during Word’s lesson in Room 5. She had a roomful of children with autism, cerebral palsy and assorted developmental delays shrugging, stomping and twisting to the beat of her drum.

Most of the special education students, such as 4-year-old Felipe Penaloza, took to her cues with the help of aides who translated commands. Five-year-old Christian Leskell’s face burst into a smile when he picked up on the activity. “They’re having so much fun they almost don’t know they’re learning,” Putney said.

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