I recently sat down with Sadie Mayes, head of Park’s Music Department, to hear her perspective on the ways performing arts enrich and challenge students as they progress through a Park education.
Sadie’s enthusiasm is infectious. She’s excited about all of the opportunities that currently exist for students to perform for an audience. In the Lower Division, more structured group performances occur at school-wide events such as Grandparents’ & Special Friends’ Day and Yule Festival. Later, in the Middle and Upper Divisions, students also perform at Yule Festival, but branch out to engage in more organic, self-directed public speaking — for example, leading Morning Meetings and addressing their fellow students during Student Council elections.
Looking forward, Sadie hopes Park can expand this realm of learning even further. “While these organic opportunities are fabulous and shouldn’t go away, what I’m hoping for as well is a little bit more of an intentional curriculum that has a scope and sequence, and building points that scaffold learning at all grade levels.” She noted this could involve interpretational dance and movement, expanded opportunities for younger students in instrumental and vocal ensembles, and more wide-ranging and robust cooperation between academic departments and the performing arts.
I shared with Sadie my feeling that an interdisciplinary approach to performance and public speaking resonates with the “whole child” philosophy overall; just as Park teachers work to engage children emotionally, academically, and physically, so students themselves can make rich connections between different areas of learning — compartmentalizing their thinking less and flowing more from idea to idea. “We have to encourage improvisation,” she agreed. “We have to be willing to let the students guide the learning sometimes; if children feel that their creativity is in any way squelched or hampered or stopped…that to me just deflates the passion that kids naturally have. I think it’s something we should talk about as a faculty, to make sure we’re being mindful of those moments when the kids are taking us somewhere that we may see as a tangent but is actually a very creative path…”
My own kindergarten-age son is no stranger to improvisation. He’s by nature very uninhibited, and I’ve realized that one of my main goals as a parent is to nurture that innate exuberance. At the same time, I know well that many other children are much more introspective by nature. It seems vital for Park to provide an environment that encourages children all along this spectrum. Sadie offered some strategies for engaging students who bring different levels of comfort with performance:
- Provide as many varied performance opportunities as possible, at all grade levels.
- While actively encouraging participation, allow younger children to become accustomed to performance incrementally (even if it means simply sitting with Sadie on her piano bench to start!)
- Prompt students to measure the quality of their performances — and their improvement over time — against their own starting points, as opposed to the proficiency levels of fellow students.
- And, along the same lines: prioritize self-critique.
Sadie has found that a good way to deescalate stage fright and performance anxiety is to “involve students in the process of self-evaluation and fine-tuning, which reduces the stress of ‘I’m not meeting the teacher’s standard.’ Instead, the student’s focus is: ‘I want to meet MY OWN standard.’” When that happens, Sadie explains, “the student usually sets the bar higher than if the teacher were setting it for them. They set it for themselves and they rise to the occasion.”
A Parent’s Perspective by Young Ju Rhee
Throughout my three children’s years at Park, I’ve had countless conversations with fellow parents about public speaking or performance opportunities for our kids – whether it was sharing our excitement to see our Kindergarteners perform in the West Gym on Grandparents’ Day, or delivering last minute missing props to our fifth graders for Book Character Day.
Each grade and division is sprinkled with memorable performance and public speaking opportunities, although the ongoing work of strong communication skills is really embedded throughout the whole curriculum. When presenting to their peers – or the larger Park community – the children learn to combine analytical and critical thinking in careful preparation of their materials with finding their voice and becoming effective communicators. For instance, when one of my children was much younger, we noticed that he was having to use the bathroom a lot. This became enough of a concern that we reached out to Dr. Olivia Moorehead Slaughter (Park’s psychologist), worried that it might have something to do with adjusting to his new class. Instead, it turns out that he was anxious about Yule Festival. Dr. O offered to sit with him during the Yule Fest performance, in case he needed to use the restroom. Sure enough, he went so often I lost count. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to get in front of a crowd and perform, it was that he wanted everything to go without a hiccup. He was not only anxious about his own class performance going perfectly, but he didn’t want the other classes to make any mistakes either.
Ultimately, through my son’s years at Park, whether he was assuming the role of Dionysus for Greek Studies in Grade IV, or putting himself forward to run for Student Council as a sixth grader, he rose to the occasion. More importantly, he did make mistakes and fumbles in front of a crowd – his own Park community – and he felt okay about it! This shows me how important the many performance and public speaking opportunities have been to his learning, and how encouraged he was by his teachers and peers. I think this also speaks to the value of belonging to a community in which you are well known, providing the perfect platform to learn to perform, express, and communicate effectively – all valuable life-long skills.