Artists in residence bring new sights, sounds to Ellicott City Head Start pupils

Kids find learning is an art

December 01, 2006|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,special to the sun

Miss Derry's Head Start class sits quietly on the carpet. The group of 3-to-5-year-olds is remarkably focused. All eyes are on one person - folk musician Slim Harrison.

Heads bob and hands clap in time with Harrison's fiddle playing. Through music, dance, and storytelling, Harrison teaches the children how Swedish families celebrate Christmas. His visit is part of Head StART in Art, a program at the Ellicott City Head Start Center.

The program is an annual artists-in-residence series sponsored by the Howard County Arts Council. Typically, two artists visit the preschool during a school year. But this spring, the arts council was awarded a $21,500 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts - enough money to hire eight visiting artists.

The arts series aims to support basic skills for the Head Start pupils. "It benefits the kids because ... it's a different level of learning than paper [worksheets]. It also encourages classroom participation. That motivates the children," said teacher Derry Hardnett.

Coleen West, executive director of the arts council, said Head Start's "curriculum goal and our artistic goals are really intertwined together. The artists go in and talk with the instructors" about their residencies, aligning their teaching with Head Start's academic instruction.

Head Start is a free program for children living at or below the poverty level, who would not typically attend private preschool.

The arts council has shared the old Rockland Elementary School with Ellicott City Head Start since 1989, but the two did not form a partnership until 2000. "We saw that as a void," West said. "Since we were already doing artist-in-education grant programs, [we thought] it would be really good to do a partnership."

Unlike most schools seeking grants, Head Start does not have to match arts council funding. The council arranges for artists who have experience working with preschoolers and covers their fees.

Head Start Director Jena Smith said of her pupils, "Their main employment is to play and to learn through that play ... to develop creativity and develop their imaginations. ... One of the best ways to do that is through the arts."

She said the residencies also build self-esteem. "The end product is theirs. They show a great amount of pride in their accomplishments," Smith said.

This spring, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Head StART in Art a Learning in the Arts for Children & Youth grant. The arts council used that money to expand the program. Howard County's Horizon Foundation is funding an evaluation of the program. The Maryland State Arts Council and private groups provide additional support.

The arts council hopes that Head StART in Art will become a countywide and national model for early-childhood education. Because these children are so young, arts education "is kind of a new area that hasn't been evaluated and tracked," West said.

The National Endowment for the Arts is "looking at this as a model program to inform the discussion that's happening right now in educational circles about the effect of arts in early-childhood programming," she said.

When Harrison visited this week, he taught the children about the Humel, a Swedish version of the dulcimer. For their "trip" to Sweden, Harrison gave each child a jingle bell, which he taught them to hold in their palms. Soon Hardnett's classroom was full of jingling, dancing children.

Preschooler Antonio Harrison said he enjoyed the lesson, "because of the jingle bells." The 4-year-old said the man they call "Mr. Slim" "shares his stuff. ... It's so fun when I look at" the instruments the musician brings.

"Kids are having fun, singing songs, learning new vocabulary through the song," Slim Harrison said. "They become the dancers. They become the band, and boy, they remember it."

This Head Start Center has seen an increase in parent involvement, particularly when the center hosts art exhibits and performances at the end of each residency. "The parents really do see it as a gift in knowing that their children are being provided with this additional enrichment," Smith said.

"The children are always looking at coming to school as a new experience," Smith said. " ... a chance to participate in something great."

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