This morning, like many others, Marcia Daft, prepares for one of her most important engagements. A classically trained pianist, she has recently worked in Greece and England doing a similar program to the one that occupies her thoughts today.
Marcia parks next to the temporary trailer behind a school in North East Washington, DC and enters through the door decorated with the Head Start logo—a pile of blocks with an arrow pointing upward. This morning’s routine is being repeated, with variations upon this theme, by dancers, musicians, actors, puppeteers and other performing arts professionals. They are Wolf Trap Artists. This cadre of 180 teaching artists are trained by Wolf Trap to connect the performing arts to early childhood approaches, goals and curriculum. In over 1000 classrooms annually throughout the United States and key foreign locations, the artists work under posters proclaiming, “We Are a Wolf Trap Class!”
As she enters the classroom, Marcia carries only a stack of large index cards, a coffee can filled with puffs of cotton, vinyl grass, a cow and assorted other figures. The children jump up with delight when they see what she is carrying; they know what’s really in the can—a story!
Although she recently performed at the Smithsonian, today “Miss Marcia’ conducts children ages 3-5 through the sounds of an Africa plain that emerges from her Coffee Can Theatre, a Wolf Trap strategy created by Michael Littman. The container holds small items representing characters, plot elements and the setting of a story. The storyteller sets a tone of expectation and wonder as she pulls a simple prop from the can at just the right moment in the story. The effect on the children never fails: they focus intently on the narrative waiting for the cue that will produce the next prop; the items placed on the “stage” before them serve as very tangible reminders of story elements. The activity ends just as it begins with each item returning to the can in turn, usually assisted by the children as part of recall and reflection activities. With the characters, props and setting put away and the lid closed, the story waits in the Coffee Can Theatre for its next retelling. Marcia, like most Wolf Trap Artists and their teacher-partners, has adapted the basic technique to many books and curriculum topics as well as integrating music, creative movement and roleplay.
Marcia and her partnering teacher agreed to focus several lessons from the 14-day residency on the book Bringing the Rains to Kapiti Plain. Wolf Trap Artists shape arts-based lessons targeting specific objectives for individual classes while simultaneously challenging the teachers to re-think teaching approaches. Marcia Daft says that this dual goal requires her to identify a daily objective for what the children will learn and another objective for what performing arts skills and strategies the teacher will be able to incorporate into her ongoing teaching. Today, she sees and hears early numeracy and emergent literacy in the repetitive language of the book and uses the session to broaden the applications this favorite Wolf Trap technique, Coffee Can Theatre.