Optimistic Voices…Engaging Young Hearts and Minds through Musicals

GracieIn musical theater, we use the term “triple threat” to describe a performer who is equally talented at singing, acting and dancing. TMTP’s education program Kids Love Musicals! supplies another triple threat: engagement, empathy and empowerment.

Last year TMTP served nearly 10,000 students in kindergarten through third grade at 60 Northeast Ohio schools and community organizations. Executive director Heather Meeker recently sat down with Jodi Maile Kirk, Kids Love Musicals! curriculum writer and arts education consultant, to talk about the growing success of the program.

HEATHER: Jodi, tell us a little about KLM! and what makes it distinctive compared to other arts enrichment experiences.

JodiJODI: In our program, kids love the unique way musical theater tells a story, and they love the classic musicals they explore together: Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz and The Jungle Book. Students encounter the characters and their situations in new ways because they’re using music, lyrics and movement to tell a story. Songs and movement reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings. A musical takes storytelling to an entirely new place in our heads and hearts.

HEATHER: We know teachers are working each day to make sure that every student in their classroom is successful. How does TMTP support that goal?

JODI: Exploring a musical engages and empowers every part of a student, and what’s so exciting is that we encounter all sorts of learners with many different learning styles. By design, KLM! offers numerous access points for each student—and on top of that, the program has the structure of song and movement, which can be adapted to address individual needs. Kids Love Musicals! meets the kids where they are at any given moment.

HEATHER: You recently revised and enhanced the KLM! curriculum to ensure that it supports not only the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, but also the new National Core Arts Standards. As you continue to develop KLM’s curriculum, what are your priorities?

JODI: We want to help students encounter the musical from lots of perspectives. So instead of simply teaching and presenting a song or a dance, we ask the kids to embody the story. It’s a process of discovery! And by empathizing—identifying with and caring about the lives of the characters—students make a meaningful personal connection with their own lives. They get the chance to build an ensemble—a “chorus” that works together—which is such a strong way to achieve the social and emotional learning now stressed in core standards.

HEATHER: What is the responsibility of the teaching artist at TMTP?

JODI: The core of any great arts education program lies in the heart of the teaching artist. In our theater-based program it is her job to model an actor’s process, so that the students can engage in the musical in creative, sophisticated and theatrical ways in a short period of time. Musical theater gives us the chance to connect to our own spirit, our soul. The biggest gift a teaching artist can give is to bring herself fully and completely into the classroom—so she shares in the students’ creative process and helps them share part of themselves. In other words, when she goes into a classroom, she learns as much as she teaches. It’s that reciprocity that brings a story to life and gives it personal meaning.

HEATHER: You and I recently made a presentation at a Kennedy Center conference in Washington, DC, about your adaptation of KLM! for children in special education settings. How do you think this program is positioned among other arts enrichment programs nationally?

JODI: Our experience at the conference—which brought artists and educators together to talk about special education and the arts—was exhilarating. Clearly KLM! is in the forefront of a national discussion about how to use the arts to connect with students with varying disabilities. Musical theater provides a tool for making abstract ideas more tangible and real: What makes a good friend? How do our feelings affect our actions? How do we prepare for the next steps in our journey, just like the characters in our musicals? Special education students often struggle with these concepts, and we use The Wizard of Oz as a gateway for them.

HEATHER: Can you explain what you mean by “gateway”?

JODI: Because the students are succeeding in very difficult tasks— learning a song, using choreography and embodying characters—they take ownership of the story in ways that go beyond witnessing a performance. KLM! provides gateway experiences that are essential to special education outcomes. Students become aware of characters’ thoughts and feelings— and that awareness leads to empathetic learning. They’re telling the story, which encourages social interaction. There’s also a visceral connection in movement, which aids in sensory processing. Sometimes the breakthroughs are small, but we can never know how that success might open the gate for the next big step in learning and in life.

HEATHER: Of all the curricular “moments” that you have developed for the KLM! residencies, what is your favorite?

JODI: Wow, that’s hard! We created a new Jungle Book residency last year, and watching it come alive was so much fun. One of the opportunities in Jungle Book is to teach and explore jazz concepts through characterization. There is scat, harmony, syncopated rhythms and improvisation, and the most exciting part is that all these ideas are being shared with students as equal collaborators. That really is the essence of every Kids Love Musicals! residency. Once teachers, administrators and parents are aware of how transformative musical theater can be, I hope they will insist that it be in their kids’ classrooms!