Breaking the Mold at Bennington Heights Elementary School
Partnerships, teamwork, sharing—we
teach these concepts to students from an
early age, constantly emphasizing their
importance. Partnerships build strength, confidence,
and skills for both parties, creating a
mutually beneficial arrangement. This is as
true for adults as it is for students, and there are
numerous ways that artistic partnerships can
benefit your classroom.
One way is to bring outside artists into your classroom through a local arts organization, introducing your students to art forms they may not have encountered in their life outside of school. Arts organizations across the country are available to help, with a wealth of programming for schools and teachers. Some of these organizations have started to create partnerships amongst themselves for an even greater variety of programming and advocacy for arts education, through larger organizations such as PAONE (Professional Arts Organization Network for Education).
An example of this is the Canadian Opera Company’s Opera Creation Program, which brings multiple artists (including composers, designers and opera singers) into the classroom. These artists work with students and teachers to create an original opera, unique to their school, imparting valuable lessons about their craft along the way.
Grade 5 and 6 students at Bennington Heights Elementary School in Toronto are currently experiencing this creative combination first-hand. Grade 5 teacher Stephanie Bloomberg is a strong believer in arts education. “It is through the arts that [students] receive some of the most relevant experiences of their lives. Exposure to dance, music, drama and visual arts allows children to see movement, sound, colours, shapes and textures all come to life, and it always leaves quite an impression on children’s minds. I believe it unlocks the door to several forms of creativity they probably never knew they had.” Though Stephanie already puts a strong emphasis on the visual arts in her classroom, she knew she needed a little outside help when it came to introducing her students to opera.
“My opera expertise is virtually zilch. That is why I jumped at the chance to work with the COC. It is a fantastic learning experience, not just for my students but for me as well. I love the fact that most people wouldn’t normally associate opera with children, but there’s nothing more exciting than breaking the mold of what is expected and shining a light on something new and unexpected. As I told my students, ‘Opera isn’t just for old people anymore!’”
Over the course of nine weeks, the students will work with three artist educators—Dean Burry, composer and librettist; Andy Miller, designer; and Markus Howard, vocal coach and director—all of whom are practising professionals as well as experienced educators adept at sharing their talents with children. The students have just completed their work with Dean and will soon move on to designing their opera. Even though it’s early into the program, it’s easy to tell that these visiting artists have left their mark. “I think the students are quite excited to work with professional artists like Dean,” says Stephanie. “When they weren’t working on the libretto [the opera’s text] they bombarded him with questions. They were fascinated by what he does for a living. There’s nothing better than being able to bring professionals into a classroom for extended periods of time. It allows the students to appreciate the expertise of these artists and to form bonds with them that go beyond a typical field trip.”
Past teachers who have partnered with the COC agree that there is great value in bringing these artists into the classroom. “This program exposes our students to something they would not normally see and/or do. Many of the skills they learned support educational expectations,” says Charles Offor, a teacher at Lescon Public School in North York. During Lescon’s Opera Creation Program, different classes received visits from different artist educators, and each class contributed to the piece as a whole. One class learned the important elements of plot by writing the opera’s libretto, while the school’s youngest students worked with a designer to create the backdrop, learning about shapes and colours along the way.
At Howard Park Public School in Toronto, students frequently attend performances in their community, but visiting artists in the classroom bring their art experiences to another level. In a COC program last year, students in Kindergarten through grade six worked with artist educators to explore opera through movement. Music teacher Wendy Spademan prepared the students in advance by watching selected operas on DVD and talking about the music in class. The artist educators then worked with each class to further explore the characters and plot through movement, satisfying elements of the dance curriculum. “It’s great because, in addition to the kids learning something new that they haven’t learned from me before, when I’m watching the visiting artists I can learn as well,” she says. “Next year, when we don’t have the program, I’ll have a few tools that I can use with kids who haven’t had the opportunity to go through these workshops.”
Learning new tools for your own classroom practice is one of the key benefits of programs like these, and partnering with an arts organization can give you teaching tools and ideas for your whole career. “I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE exposing my students to supplementary arts programs,” Stephanie says. “It’s not only a wonderful eye-opening experience and education for the children, but I learn a great deal as well. I think the students really enjoy it when the teachers are also learning along side them. It becomes a unique experience that we can share together.”
Though they’re just beginning their journey, the excitement among both students and staff at Bennington Heights is palpable. In a few short weeks, they’ll perform an opera they wrote, in costumes they’ve made, on a set they’ve created, telling a story they’ve created together. Stephanie and her students love the experience. “Anyone can read or listen to an opera, but how many children can actually say, ‘We’ve not only written and performed our own opera but we were able to work with a real opera company!’”