BROCKTON — A group of kindergartners from Mary E. Baker Elementary School sat on a large navy blue rug, eagerly waiting for Catherine Piazza to hand them a brightly colored egg-shaped shaker.
As she waded through the young students’ pond, Piazza reached into a bag and pulled out the small musical instruments, passing them one by one.
Piazza returned to the front of the class and started the music – a folk song from Ghana sung in the Akan language. While the music played, some students shook their shakers as hard and fast as they could, while others shook them slowly in time with the music.
Piazza visited the class as part of ImagineARTS, a program created by the South Shore Conservatory to bring arts, music and dance instruction to Brockton’s kindergarten classrooms each week.
“It’s a 45-minute lesson that is fair, start to finish, completely steeped in the arts,” said program director Holly Jennings.
The program began 10 years ago with the goal of combining the arts with each school’s academic and literacy goals.
The aim of this lesson was to encourage improvisation and creativity while exposing children to music from different cultures. Earlier in class, the students listened to a song called Mbube, which means “lion” in Zulu, while banging wooden sticks to the steady beat of the music.
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Each ImagineARTS lesson is tailored to what the class is learning at that time. In this classroom, students are currently learning about rhymes and animals, so today’s entire ImagineARTS lesson centers around these topics.
Each week between October and May, a staff member from the Conservatoire de la Rive-Sud comes to class and gives a unique lesson incorporating their own artistic expertise. Piazza is the co-chair of the dance department at the conservatory, so she uses dance and movement throughout her lesson.
At the start of class, Piazza led the students through a dance to a Swahili song called Funga Alafia. One of the movements involved pushing their arms up and across their bodies, which Jennings says is an important movement for children this age to understand and practice their physical and motor development.
The class is not just any typical music or art class. In addition to these typical art classes, teachers incorporate activities from ImagineARTS classes while teaching regular subjects like science or math.
“We are focused on expanding their educational toolbox so they can use the arts in their kindergarten curriculum,” Jennings said.
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By combining the arts with academics, Jennings said it reaches students who might learn differently or struggle in a regular classroom. Many of the students they work with speak English as a second language, and the lessons are always easy for them to follow.
“You don’t have to understand English to understand how to shake a shaker or play rhythm sticks,” she said.
According to research conducted by the conservatory, ImagineARTS classes have 10% more student engagement than teachers during the rest of the school day. Even during the pandemic, when ImagineARTS continued virtually with schools, students were more engaged compared to a typical day.
“Regularly, we would hear from teachers that attendance was better on days when there were ImagineARTS,” Jennings said.
The program is entirely funded by donations and is free to participating schools.
On select days, guest musicians from the South Shore Conservatory faculty will bring their instruments to class, exposing students to unique types of music and sound.
“At the kindergarten level, students discover and experiment with instruments like the bassoon or percussion instruments outside of a simple drum kit,” Jennings said. “I’m a classically trained musician…and I didn’t see a bassoon until I got to college. And these kids are starting to see it in kindergarten.”
This school year marks the tenth anniversary of the program. Jennings has been with the program since its inception, first as a teacher in the classroom as Piazza before becoming principal.
The program even hosts family nights, where parents can come to school after school hours and attend an ImagineARTS lesson with their children, then they can take those activities and incorporate them into the home.
“We’ve also been really committed over the past few years to ensuring that the students we work with can see themselves represented in the story content we bring to the classroom,” Jennings said. “We really make sure that we take a holistic approach to the musical and artistic content that we incorporate into our courses.
Back in class, Piazza puts the small instruments in her bag while the students sing the chorus of “Nah, Nah, Hey, Hey” by Donna Summer: the weekly farewell song. The teacher takes the children back to their seats so they can get ready for lunch.
“These students have a richer, fuller human experience after being exposed to so many arts at the level they achieve,” Jennings said. “It just enriches their lives in such a huge way.”