Engaging Students with Story and Song in Uncertain Times

Even when the pandemic closed Clark County School District (CCSD), teacher Elizabeth Steffen knew she could still connect with students through music.

She wasted no time organizing virtual classes, where she leads students and families through their favorite educational songs - giving them a dose of creativity and fun in uncertain times.

“They look forward to the music, participation and familiar routine,” Steffen says. “Music connects us no matter how far away we are from each other.”

Steffen often uses music to excite her students about learning, she says — all thanks to participating in The Smith Center’s Southern Nevada Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts (SNWT) program.

Through the SNWT initiative, one of the center’s professional teaching artists — artists who apply their skills in an educational setting — conducted a multi-week residency in Steffen’s classroom.

The artist demonstrated how to incorporate artforms into teaching any subject, including singing and drumming.

Steffen witnessed an immediate change in students’ behavior.

“The main impact on my students was increased motivation to join in and participate,” Steffen says. “Students who were shy and not very talkative were able to participate with movement, sound and instruments.”

Teaching Creative Joy

As a nonprofit, The Smith Center has provided this experience for 1,478 early childhood educators.

The center offers this initiative as an affiliate of the international Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts™.

“This program provides teachers with tools to bring the joy of creativity into any subject,” says Candy Schneider, vice president of Education and Outreach at The Smith Center. “Teachers have seen students blossom in the classroom when artforms like storytelling, puppets and drumming are introduced. This offers a whole new path to make learning exciting and accessible.”

Learning to the Beat

Many teachers describe their classrooms as rich with music and movement, after participating in the SNWT program.

Wendi Schipani, a preschool teacher at Pat Diskin Elementary in Las Vegas, recalls her amazement at how eagerly her students collaborated when a Smith Center teaching artist incorporated puppetry, dancing and acting into lessons.

“The bond the kids formed was truly inspiring,” Schipani says.

She went on to use these artforms in her class daily, even with reading and math lessons.

“Myself, the students and parents will remember the Southern Nevada Wolf Trap residency for the rest of our lives,” she says.

As a Smith Center teaching artist, professional drummer Steve Clark finds that students follow along closely and memorize quickly when he leads them through drumming exercises.

Students definitely become energized when instruments enter the classroom, he adds.

“They jump up and dance, and they learn the different elements of what they hear,” he says.

Entering the Virtual Classroom

While the closure of CCSD schools put the SNWT program temporarily on hold, The Smith Center looks forward to providing this initiative again for early childhood educators in the future.

“We continue to explore how best to move forward with this program, as the school district navigates the many details of reopening schools in accordance with public health and safety guidelines,” Schneider says.

In the meantime, The Smith Center encourages families to enjoy a taste of SNWT at home.

The center will share ongoing content from the Wolf Trap Institute on its social media channels, such as videos of teaching artists demonstrating arts experiences to pursue at home.

Appropriate for all ages, these activities will include corresponding educational handouts.

These also complement ongoing arts videos featuring The Smith Center’s own teaching artists.

“Trying these arts activities at home can help families bond during these unusual times, and remind kids that learning can be social and fun,” Schneider says. “We look forward to the day our teaching artists can work in the classroom with students again.”

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