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The City Journals

Elementary school musicals provide learning masked in fun

May 02, 2019 02:40PM ● By Julie Slama

At Park Lane Elementary, 42 fifth graders took part in “Aladdin Kids.” (Photo courtesy of Camilla Duncan)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

At Granite Elementary, first- and second-grade students look forward to being third graders just so they can perform “School House Rock.”

Stemming from the Emmy Award–winning 1970s Saturday morning cartoon series that taught history, grammar, math, science, social studies and more through clever catchy tunes, the kids’ musical is a tradition at Granite.

“It was something we immediately embraced,” third grade teacher Lisa Hekking said. “The students loved it, the parents were on board, the teachers remembered it. It’s students learning about conjunctions, about how a bill becomes a law, about space — all while singing, acting and having fun.”

Granite Elementary’s mid-March performances as well as Park Lane and Edgemont’s productions of “Seussical, Kids” have inspired students to learn as well as teachers to find enhanced avenues of teaching.

Granite third grade teacher Wendy Hamann said after decades of performing original plays written by former teacher Sarah Jenkins, their 2012 Beverley Taylor Sorensen drama specialist Karen Kidd suggested performing “School House Rock.”

“It was huge, but the kids were very excited about learning not only the songs, but the material in the songs,” she said, adding that now third grade teachers direct the show. “Everyone has a singing or speaking part. Everyone gets to be highlighted. Some kids may be shy or hidden, but they just blossom when they’re in this. It’s their time to shine.”

That meant dividing up larger parts, such as the character Tom, the main character. Every song or scene, there was another student taking on the role. 

Eight-year-old Spencer Schmidt was one of the many Toms.

“I was really excited to play Tom,” he said about his role in the song “Interplanet Janet.” “The best thing was being active during the whole song and going around the planets to learn about them.”

Hamann said by learning their lines as well as working together, students are learning cooperation as well as understanding that they’re part of a larger group. They also may be in their first-ever on-stage production.

“It helps them become a more well-rounded child and it may open another interest to them,” she said. “At the same time, they’re learning the core curriculum of speaking, listening, following directions, working together.”

The third graders also helped to integrate 11 students with special needs into the musical, even helping those who may need extra direction or assistance. They’re also breaking down stereotypical roles as this year, females were given roles as Elvis.

Third grader Chloe Bergen was one of those female Elvis impersonators.

“I like the part and I like singing,” she said. “It was really exciting and fun — Mrs. Hamann’s daughter came and helped us learn the dancing.”

Hekking said her favorite song this year was “Melting Pot,” which included nonverbal students signing and Spanish-speaking students speaking in their language.

“The musical moves them in a different way that nothing else can. You can see them moving, dancing, singing and it brings a whole different education to these students,” she said. “It’s always amazing to see what 8- and 9-year-olds can do.”

Third grader Emma Ganic said her favorite song was “Elbow Room” since she liked the actions, but she learned the most from “I’m Just a Bill.” 

“I learned that even if Congress discusses a bill, it may still die and not become a law,” she said about the lines that took her about two weeks to memorize looking in a mirror. “The best thing about ‘School House Rock’ is being with everyone, the entire group, singing and acting together.”

Her classmate, Cason Plott, said he would listen to the CD of songs teachers provided him in the car and learned all of them despite his Dad “helping” by singing the wrong lines.

“The first performance was kind of scary, but then it was exciting when there were lots of parents,” he said after the shows. “Now I’m sad. I want more performances.” 

Park Lane and Edgemont Elementary’s Beverley Taylor Sorensen drama specialist Camilla Duncan expected there to be huge crowds for the 42 fifth-grade students’ late March performance at Park Lane as well as at Edgemont 56 fourth- and fifth-grade cast members’ late April performance, based on the packed production students gave of “Seussical, Kids” last year. 

“They’re learning a lot, but it all comes together,” she said before the shows. “It’s an awesome experience for kids who already know the storyline, like the fun, colorful costumes and set, and are learning the challenging music. We start with practices every other week, but we increase it to weekly the month of the performance. It takes a lot of focus to know when to come on and how to perform, but that translates right back to the classroom on learning to focus on their assignments. They’re learning without even realizing it.” 

Duncan said it’s just not a chance to explore drama, but to learn other art forms in elementary school as well as learning new skills such as projection, keeping a beat, choreography, memorization and even new vocabulary in the songs they sing. 

“I love to see kids step up and put their heart into it,” she said. “Maybe there’s shy or nervous students who get up there to do their lines and they come into their own. This helps them gain confidence. Some kids have special talents and it’s awesome to see those who dance and sing or draw and paint help with the set design. This is a chance to have their skills flourish.”