Pre-K Teachers Foster Budding Artists

O.K., I need everyone to go in a circle and say your name. But do it theatrically… and give me your signature pose while you do it.

These words were not heard in a classroom, but during a recent NYC Pre-K Create Teacher Professional Learning Session at the Harlem School of the Arts. Teacher after teacher flashed huge smiles as they twisted, turned, and followed instructions to kick off this theater-focused workshop.

The session was led by New Victory Theater – New York City’s first and only full-time performing arts theater for kids, their families, and classmates. A partner in the DOE’s collaborative efforts to integrate the arts into foundational learning for our earliest learners, the New Victory Theater team engaged teachers in the use of their bodies and gestures to communicate, discussed student engagement techniques, and stressed the importance of dramatization in early childhood settings.

Incorporating theater and other art forms, such as music, dance and visual arts, into the classroom experience provides meaningful opportunities for children to develop curiosity, persistence and creativity by providing skills children can use to express themselves. By studying full-bodied, age-appropriate exploration of theater, movement, and thematic connections to young children's real experiences, pre-K teachers learn how to help their students develop increased self-awareness, kinesthetic understanding, problem-solving strategies, social skills, and the joyful expression of their imagination.

Pre-K Create is one of four professional learning tracks under NYC’s Pre-K for All Initiative, and is devoted to building educator skills and techniques grounded in visual arts, dance, music, and theater. This year, Create aimed to reach approximately 240 sites, training around 1,000 teachers and site leaders to work with about 9,000 four-year olds across all five boroughs. Create is a two year track with a second cohort beginning next year. The other Pre-K for All professional learning tracks include Pre-K Thrive and Pre-K Inspire, as well as Pre-K Explore, which is math based and, like Create, is also supported by private funding. As of the first day of school this year, 70,430 children registered for NYC’s district and community-based pre-K programs. According to recently released “Pre-K Quality Snapshots,” more than 84% of sites were determined to have had a positive effect on students, and 94% of parents have a positive view of their child’s pre-K program.

While the mood at the Harlem School of the Arts was purposely playful, every pre-K teacher in attendance took the professional learning seriously and talked about its significance.

During the breakout sessions, the theater facilitators asked some important questions. How might something like this be engaging for your students? What modifications can be made to this game for pre-K? How would you use this activity in your classroom.

Stella Hariprashad, a pre-K teacher from P.S. 45 in Queens, explained how integrating artistic expression into her classroom has played a big part in the way her pupils learn. “My kids are all good singers, dancers and actors. I find that when I implement a movement experience into my lesson plan, the children are more focused and are able to grasp material much better.”

By the end of the breakout sessions, teachers were expected to be able to facilitate theater-based activities that explore an NYC DOE Pre-K unit of study topic, use puppetry to address essential questions of a unit of study, and strengthen their practice in using theater as an art form in the classroom.

Courtney J. Boddie, Director of Education/School Engagement for The New Victory Theater, gave us her perspective on the value of this experience for pre-K teachers. “Being a part of this allows us to have an effect not only on 1000 pre-K educators but how the arts impact their students. Being able to help teachers who are not necessarily trained in the arts is great. We love seeing teachers really ready to implement activities or ideas that they can integrate into any unit. The teachers seem to care so much about their students that they jump right in and they’re ready to play… that’s just a joy for us.”            

Arts partnerships like the one with New Victory and the other arts partners like Studio in a School, Third Street Music Settlement and 92nd St Y Dance Laboratory, are critical to this work, and would not be possible without funding from FPS supporters. Each of these arts partners planned and designed years’ worth of professional learning sessions in collaboration with the DOE’s Office of Early Childhood Education and Office of Arts and Special Projects. Harnessing the power of these partnerships, Pre-K Create is committed to actively and confidently engaging teachers in play as a means of exploration and learning, with the ultimate goal of developing learning across all domains for our young children, including their creativity, social emotional skills and imagination.

Sound like a fun a way to teach our children critical skills for the future? Consider joining our ever-growing list of generous funders who support NYC’s future leaders.

Matt Darian