CEDAR RAPIDS — An actor, a dancer, a musician and a storyteller walked into a room Saturday, welding their artistry to make story sparks fly.
All were selected to launch a Playtime Poppy online storytelling initiative for Cedar Rapids elementary classrooms, financed through a recent $5,000 Iowa Arts Council Virtual Arts Experience Grant. The longtime Children’s Theatre of Cedar Rapids is partnering with the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library to create four different four-part virtual arts-integrated lessons, designed by actor Katie Colletta of Fairfax, dancer Lovar Davis Kidd of Cedar Rapids, storyteller Darrin Crow of Cedar Rapids and musician Blake Shaw of Iowa City.
They gathered in the museum’s spacious WFLA/ZCBJ Heritage Hall for a day of physically distanced arts integration training, led by Christina Farrell and Beau Kenyon of the local Throughline Arts training and networking organization.
During a series of six workshops, Farrell and Kenyon will guide the participants not only through arts activities, but also through how to create lesson plans that meet state curriculum guidelines.
In the end, the artists will create their own “Story Sparks” virtual lessons, reflecting “Stories of Freedom, Identity, Family and Community.” Two lessons will be on video, and two will be virtual Zoom-type interactions between the artist and the classroom. Each teaching artist will work with two classrooms, which Poppy’s managing director, Lynn Jensen, 62, of Cedar Rapids, already has lineup up for the spring.
“They also will work on one of our other education initiatives for kindergarten and first grade, called Book Adventures,” Jensen said. “Those will also be videos, and we will hold those as a library available to teachers when they’re needed.”
The final workshop, slated for May 2, will offer the teaching artists a time to evaluate and share their completed residency experiences.
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Farrell, 45, of Cedar Rapids, who brings 20 years of teaching to the mix, chose artists who had previous educational experience.
“These artists are already working in educational environments,” she said. “I wanted artists that are committed to education as part of their creative practice, and (who) bring leadership qualities. So I wanted to start with four artists that I felt could really change our community.
“They all work with different populations, different areas of the community, and I love that, and I think that they are comfortable with a wide age range of students,” she added. “They bring different artistic practices, different areas of interest in terms of what they’re passionate about, so I hope this morning we’re going to create a positive force in our community — that they can enrich our community in so many ways.”
During Saturday’s morning session, Farrell took one subject — Japanese taiko drumming — and had the artists explore ways to enhance this history lesson by adding activities elementary students can grasp.
Starting with basic body percussion like claps and snaps, they built up layers by listening for different musical pitches and tones, then added movement, played with different percussion instruments and looked for ways pieces of art on a wall could evoke various moods that could be echoed with percussion.
“Having gone through this (in the) morning, we’re now going to spend the next couple hours identifying the way that we invite children into a safe space to be creative, whether we’re doing that in the visual arts, dance or theater,” Farrell said. “How do you scaffold a lesson and build it up so that you start with something really simple and personal and gradually get a little bit more complex and build upon the knowledge and skills that children already have — and continue to embed context into the lesson until they’ve created something themselves.
“And that’s really the unique skill of a teaching artist — not to direct, but to invite the creativity of the students.”
So in the afternoon, they focused on identifying Capacities for Imaginative Learning and crafting lesson designs aligning not only with Iowa’s core and fine arts educational standards, but also with 21st century skills in critical thinking, communicating, collaborating and creating.
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During their morning break, all four artists said they were especially excited to explore the strengths they each bring to the sessions.
“It’s really fun to work with other folks who are not strictly theater folks, and just hear how other people’s brains work and interpret these ideas,” said Colletta, 29.
“I love the idea of being able to use other types of artistic disciplines to explore a different piece of art. For example, we did an exercise with visual art and then interpreting it with music, and that is something that I haven’t really dabbled in a whole ton. More so, it’s just a fun new toolbox to play with.”
“I like the roundabout ways that we’re taking with everything, adding the instruments and sound painting and being direct to the point,” said Shaw, 31. “We don’t spend enough time on the ‘play’ things, and that will make a lasting effect that kids will do for a long time.”
“This morning has been great (for) tapping into other sides of art,” said Kidd, 41, “and how to look at it from the standpoint of a kid who may not have the previous knowledge that adults have, and approaching it from the standpoint of openness and a learner’s spirit — being able to hear, understand process outside of the preconceived notions you might have as an adult. …
“I’m really looking forward to the social justice piece of this, as well,” he added.
“I’ve been playing in classrooms for the last 20 years and I forget that sometimes,” noted Crow, 48. “As a storyteller, it’s exciting to see how you can take one simple concept — a story, the origin of taiko drumming — and suddenly explore and apply across all kinds of disciplines, and it expands my world.
“Adding percussion is something that can be played with more — bringing in outside elements to add more to just one person and their voice. There’s so much more you can play with, and that’s exciting.”
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Playtime Poppy is all about fostering collaboration, said Jensen, who retired in June 2019, after teaching at LaSalle High School for 15 years, followed by 21 years as drama director at Jefferson High School. The next month, she stepped into her current Playtime Poppy role.
“Plenty of us are artists, but we’re not teachers. Some of us are teachers, and we’re not artists. Not all of us are both,” she said, adding that Playtime Poppy’s role is “to build the bridge — the part of the component that brings Poppy into the classroom.”
Corridor Virtual Arts Experience Grants
Here are the other area winners among the 14 groups sharing in $81,708 the Iowa Arts Council awarded through its Virtual Arts Experience Grants.
• Eastern Iowa Arts Academy, Cedar Rapids: $3,078 to present virtual art classes for high school students in Washington High School’s autism program.
• National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library, Cedar Rapids: $10,000 to offer 15 virtual music performances by local artists for K-12 music classrooms and aging adults in care centers. Participating students and aging adults will engage in a virtual pen pal program. Students will submit music-related questions to adult learners who will record their responses with the help of care center staff.
• Englert Theatre, Iowa City: $10,000 to promote writers of color through a weekly podcast.
• FilmScene, Iowa City: $1,500 to create “Black Lives on Screen” and “FilmScene 101: The Black Image in Comics.” Both programs will explore the diversity of the Black American experience as portrayed on screen and envisioned by filmmakers of color.
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