Family Arts: Arts education endeavors in Utah schools

Published: Saturday, Jan. 14 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Utah Opera resident artist John Buffett entertains children during an education outreach assembly at Gearld L. Wright Elementary School in West Valley City Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This article is second in a three-part series examining the issue of exposing children to the arts and what’s being done to provide both arts education in schools and opportunity for arts experiences for children and families. You can read the first part here.

Paula Fowler, director of education and community outreach for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, managed to precisely sum up the huge wealth of opportunity for arts exposure among Utah students.

“Our students throughout the state get introduced to Shakespearean theater, to modern dance, to traditional ballet, to opera and to symphonic music and to visual arts,” she said.

According to an arts education survey conducted during the 2009-2010 school year, 80 percent of Utah’s schools participated in visiting performing group’s programs, compared to Idaho’s 65 percent, Wyoming’s 70 percent and Montana’s 51 percent.

Go to the Web site of nearly any professional arts organization in Utah and it will likely have some kind of link or tab for education.

It’s thanks to so many arts education endeavors that so many students get to brush shoulders with professional artists.

“They’re lucky, lucky children because lots of states don’t offer this type of programming in the arts, if any,” said Vanessa Ballam, director of education and performer at Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater, while discussing UFOMT’s Opera By Children program. “And I think our kids are really blessed to have it in their lives.”

Beverly Hawkins, symphony education manager for USUO, related her experiences in various conventions and meetings for the League of American Orchestras. Many fellow attendees expressed jealousy over the ample education programs Utah has.

“If we’re not the only ones doing that, it’s really rare that we’re able to provide all of these services,” she said.

The Professional Outreach Program in the School collaborates with both schools and the Utah State Board of Education to enhance the state’s fine arts core curriculum with visits from professional artists— free of charge.

One of the main goals of the POPS organization is to give students a chance to experience art, a completely new experience for many of them.

At Gearld Wright Elementary in West Valley at the end of November, Utah Opera’s four resident artists performed for a group of students from kindergarten to third grade, a presentation called, “Who Wants to Be an Opera Star?” — fine art under the guise of a game show reminiscent of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” or “American Idol.”

When goofy soprano Jennie Lister, whom the young audience quickly picked as a favorite to root for, first opened her mouth to sing, the crowd of kids giggled at first.

“It’s a little different from what you hear on the radio, isn’t it?” baritone John Buffett said.

From patient explanations to jokes about Santa Claus, the singers managed to put on a performance that, for many children, was their first ever experience with songs from opera classics like “The Magic Flute.” And judging by the happy singing and cheering, it appeared to be a positive experience at that.

Other members of POPS utilize access to the state core curriculum in order to develop cross-curricular activities.

During an outreach visit at Pleasant Green in Magna, Repertory Dance Theatre Director of Education Lynne Larson asked fourth-graders if they had been learning about the water cycle. She asked them to dance what rain was like.

Sliding, rolling, hopping and clapping, the kids fused the classroom learning the dancing basics of rhythm, level and shape.

Larson related a story of a little boy improving his spelling scores through movement.

“It’s a different way to absorb the information and also help remember it,” she said, adding that a lot of kids are physical learners.

Other programs come into classrooms and transform the students into artists.

Ballam detailed UFOMT’s Opera by Children program — Utah Opera runs a similar program as well — in which young students actually write and perform an opera.

Impossible? Not at all.

“Instead of going in and performing for them, which you can absolutely learn from …we’re teaching (the students) the skills, and we’re teaching the teachers the skills so that this program can continue to grow exponentially,” Ballam said.

UFOMT educator Pam Gee made a visit to a third-grade class at the Alianza Academy in Magna in late November. The purpose of that particular visit was to write the libretto, or text, of their opera.

The children pulled out opera journals and reviewed the story they’d come up with during the last visit. There’s an earthquake in the south island of New Zealand, they said. The characters of the opera are families, airline workers and army men. The plot involves a rescue, a rebuilding and a heaping helping of chocolate bars and pizza.

Gee asked them to act out what they do in earthquakes, to act like they were in the army, to describe how they would feel in certain situations. They’d write simple sentences and tap them out to a rhythm, deciding if they’d make a plausible libretto.

Whether it’s a performance by professionals to inspire or simply introduce an art form, or an in-depth program or artist residency, each outreach program aims to have a broad impact on the artistic culture in Utah as a whole.

During a “Gallery Experience” presentation, part of the outreach program by the Springville Museum of Art at Riverview Elementary in Saratoga Springs in December, outreach coordinator Rachel Stratford stood in front of a class of 3rd-graders, along with a set of easels displaying 15 different works of art from the museum.

Students raised their hands to pick a piece. Stratford asked them to tell her what they saw. The discussion quickly turned from basic cloud-shape interpretations to the extraction of surprisingly deep meanings. The kids stared at the pieces and soaked them in.

“I know our program specifically focuses on Utah art and artists, encouraging students to see what has come from our culture and past and hopefully inspiring them to contribute art to that same legacy.”

In another outreach program the museum does, students do what they call “gesture drawing": quick self-portraits or pictures of a partner. When they’re done, Stratford strives to make a lasting impression, encouraging kids to keep drawing.

“I often will say to kids, ‘Just because I’m leaving today doesn’t mean it’s over,’” she said.

Each arts education specialist had a story or two or 10 to offer about how arts education helped a student blossom in other school subjects, how such-and-such student became a singer, how this teacher or that teacher was able to continue artistic ideas in the classroom, or how a former high school humanities student wound up a season-ticket holder for the opera.

“There isn’t a way to track that in the universe,” Fowler said. “But we get those occasional testimonials.”

Ballam had an especially personal experience to add.

“I would not be the person that I am today if it weren’t for the arts programs that were in my life as a young child,” she said. “I don’t know that I would’ve been interested in (art) despite the fact that my father (Michael Ballam) was an opera singer. Being able to do it yourself as a child and plant those seeds, nothing can replace that.”

“We do have a really special arrangement in our state and a special devotion to the arts and to introducing students to professional art-making,” Fowler said.

Ballam, Hawkins, Fowler, Larson and Stratford all expressed particular gratitude for the support of the legislature and Utah State Board of Education. Because of constant support from an already artistically rich culture, they’re able to make many things happen.

Programs listed in this article alone only scratch the surface of the education programs put on not only by POPS organizations, but also by other private and community arts organizations across the state. With a little digging, it’s possible to find myriad education programs for children, teachers and other adults in multiple art forms.

Not every school can participate in POPS programs and the POPS programs do not necessarily fill the gap left by a cut arts curriculum in schools, explained Cathy Jensen, state fine arts specialist and head of POPS.

Funding is a definite driving force behind education opportunities like these, and, as Jensen said, “things have been tight at the legislature for the past few years.”

Getting the needed funding will always be a work in progress for these arts educators, as will raising awareness of just how much is available to teachers, schools and students at no cost to them.

“Our biggest challenge is letting people know what we’re already doing,” Hawkins said. She added that teachers, education board members, parents and others often approach her to present an idea for the symphony education department to do.

“We’re able to smile and say, ‘We’re already doing that.’”

Next week: What’s being offered in the arts for families and why parents should consider making the arts a family affair.

Members of POPS

Ballet West, www.balletwest.org

Children’s Dance Theatre, www.tannerdance.utah.edu

Repertory Dance Theatre, www.rdtutah.org

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, www.ririewoodbury.com

Springville Museum of Art, www.sma.nebo.edu

Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, www.ufomt.org

Utah Museum of Fine Arts, umfa.utah.edu

Utah Shakespeare Festival, www.bard.org

Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, www.usuoeducation.org

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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