What gets you in the holiday spirit? At Lynn Road Elementary School, Yvette Lewis and the annual opera residency she leads for first graders as part of the Artists in Schools program does it. Like all Artists in Schools programs, Lewis’ residency is a partnership between the United Arts Council and the school’s PTA.
“We get so excited for this every year,” said Principal Kim Grant. “It’s amazing what Ms. Lewis can teach the first graders in just a few days.”
And the children may be even more enthusiastic about their special opera experience than their supportive principal.
Lewis was stationed in an extra classroom at Lynn Road Elementary as each first grade class came to visit her there. When a new class entered the room, they ran and hugged her like she was a favorite aunt; yet this was only her second day in the classroom!
“I love you; I like this; I’m so glad you’re here,” they offered without any hesitancy.
The connection the students felt with Lewis was palpable. They were captivated by Lewis, her amazing, gentle voice and the delightful opera that she wrote and brought to share with them.
Each first grade class visits Lewis for each of the four days she is at Lynn Road Elementary. On the fourth day, the first graders perform together for the school and for parents in the evening.
Opera often carries the stigma of being unfamiliar to students or far removed from their lives. But Lewis easily removes that stigma so students can learn and experience a new art form. Her Artists in Schools program is appropriately named, “So This Is Opera.”
“Opera is a story,” Ms. Lewis explained to the class.
And, in this opera, the story was one the children could relate to and understand. It took familiar tales (Three Little Bears) and images (Gingerbread man) and tied it to themes relevant to them, like bullying and friendship and family.
“Wrap your arms around yourselves and give yourselves a hug,” Lewis instructed the students after they sang “Three Little Bears.” “You did so well, and we just learned that song yesterday!”
The students came ready to sing and listen.
According to the classroom teacher, “the students begged me to let them sing [The Gingerbread Man song] yesterday at dismissal!”
Classroom teachers play an important role in the opera residency, as well. Not only do the teachers join in with the students as they work with Lewis, the songs and themes the students work on with her are carried over into the study of literacy, science and math in the classroom. The week before Lewis's visit, the first grade classes read different versions of the Gingerbread Man (Gingerbread Man, Gingerbread Girl, Gingerbread Pirates, Gingerbread Bear, Gingerbread Baby) with a focus on the main character of each book. The students complete character trait maps, compare and contrast the adventures of the characters, create gingerbread decorations for the opera performance and write a persuasive letter to the fox to change his mind about eating the gingerbread man. To complement their study of non-standard units of measurement in science, first graders complete activities using paper gingerbread men to measure objects around the room and each other. In math, they have story problems involving gingerbread men and have sometimes made real gingerbread cookies using a recipe.
Like all good arts education, Lewis’ workshop engaged the children on many levels. There was never a need in this session for a teacher to remind the students to pay attention. The students didn’t want to miss any of the words, songs or stories. Lewis did give them instructions on ways to improve. She reminded them a few times, “Use your hands; it will help you remember the words.” Her opera tied hand movement, body movement, music and story together closely.
There were also opportunities for conversation. “Does anyone know what a bully is?” Ms. Lewis asked the class. Hands went up all around.
“Someone who is mean to you.”
“Has anyone in here ever been bullied?”
Again, hands went up.
“I am very sad to hear that,” Ms. Lewis said.
“How does that make you feel when you are bullied?”
The conversation flowed back into the opera as the storyline developed.
Now the bears decided, “let’s be friends because that’s more fun.”
The students proceeded to learn and practice their newest lines and accompanying movements.
As adults, we may hold a few strong memories from early elementary school. It is very likely that years from now, these children will recall moments spent with Lewis in her opera residency. They might recall the dancing or the singing or hugging their new friend and teacher. They might recall the chance they had to perform the opera for their family and friends. They may also have a reason to recall the lesson she taught with care about bullying.
But, chances are, they will recall one of these special moments. And that is reason enough for holiday spirit to be felt by all around Lynn Road Elementary.
—Karla Heinen, communications coordinator