October 8, 2008


This past weekend my colleagues and I gave a presentation at the Performing the World conference in Manhattan, which brought together educators, artists, therapists, scholars and activists from dozens of countries who are interested in using performance and drama in a variety of ways. Our presentation was on the role of the arts and performance at our school and how it complements and expands the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IBPYP), an enriched curriculum that we have been using in our classrooms.

The IBPYP model is based on inquiry, participation in the process of learning, and exploration. It is learner-driven, not-teacher dominated. Teachers act as facilitators in the learning process and children’s questions and interests are at the center of the classroom. The program originates with the International Baccalaureate Organization, founded in 1968 and based in Geneva, Switzerland. Thousands of schools around the world have adopted IB frameworks.??For the children at our school, some of whom face difficult issues at home — poverty, isolation, domestic violence, trauma and stress, to name a few — learning that emphasizes performance, inquiry, and artistic exploration is vital. That is why on any given day at I.C.S., you will see a multitude of creative projects going on: storytelling, puppetry, drama, dance, music, movement, role-playing, book clubs, chess, painting, cooking, yoga, writing, gardening, and active inquiries all around. In the current national climate of testing, we have to make time for creative expression. It is urgent. Children need some constructive form of release.

In our classrooms, inquiry comes alive through performance. This week in our kindergarten we are starting a unit called “We are Peacemakers.” In this unit, the children learn about sharing, cooperation, conflict resolution, expressing feelings, and building community. We start the unit by asking the children what they know about peace and being a peacemaker. We then use their questions and interests to guide the inquiry process.

During this unit, activities are designed to be both physically and mentally engaging. The arts and performance are perfect tools for exploration. Children learn about solving problems and resolving conflict by role-playing situations, participating in storytelling or using puppets to express emotions. They explore these concepts in a safe setting so they are free to try out new roles and ideas. This is open-ended; there is no one-size-fits-all in developing a peaceful classroom community. There is observation by teachers, but no testing. There are no “right” answers; the activities are more about exploring who we are as a group, getting along with each other, and doing what we need to do together to improve. The children take charge through their interests and ideas. Children’s literature, poetry, and songs are incorporated throughout to guide the inquiry.

In our peacemaking unit, some examples of activities that involve performance are adapted from curriculum designed by the organization Educators for Social Responsibility. We might start with a simple question like, “What is conflict?” This will generate a discussion that can go in various directions. From the students’ interests and comments, activities are designed to explore how to resolve conflict. We will role play situations and try to come up with solutions together. We will use puppets, music, song, and dance to explore our emotions. We will also play a series of games designed to build friendships and develop community. Role-playing has many benefits. The children are able to take a step outside themselves and explore possibilities they might not have ever considered.

Games and play are important tools as well. An example of a simple activity that we do is called “mirroring.” Each student has a partner. As they face each other, one of the partners has to copy the movements of the other. By mirroring each other, the students learn to be attentive and observant of their partners. Another one I like to use is called Changes 1,2,3,4. The students pair up again. They have to take a good look at their partners and then turn around. One student in the pair has to do something to change their appearance — pull up their socks, take off their glasses or switch a bracelet to the other hand. When they turn back around, the other student has to figure out what has changed. This helps the children develop observation skills.

Children express their creativity and intelligence in a variety of ways. By allowing students to safely explore beyond their typical boundaries, we are encouraging them to express themselves in unique ways in a positive, safe, non-judgmental environment. Performance and open-ended inquiry help us move beyond traditional models of education. The arts, performance, and inquiry are small steps we take to help our students regain ownership of their learning.

I will be publishing future education-related posts on my personal blog.