Ensembles of elves and lots of leprechauns
In an animated mass of controlled chaos, the toddlers of Soaring Wings Montessori School took to the stage in Santy Auditorium holding white sparkling star props above their heads.
Their teachers encouraged them to dance which some did. However, many students took dancing even further, running around to all corners of the stage. While others stood still, absorbed in the sparkles on the stars they held.
The students were rehearsing for Soaring Wings’ annual winter celebration, in which all three grade levels (toddler: ages one-and-a-half to three, early childhood: ages three to six, and elementary: grades first to third) perform in the play "Do You Believe in Magic" written by Soaring Wings’ Executive Director Duna Strachan.
"For me, the most fun part of the play," Strachan said, "is that everyone helps to put it together." She said students, teachers, even parents come to her with ideas for the play throughout the school year.
After a teacher’s conference, the idea emerged to have the play be about a conference of fairies, elves, munchkins and leprechauns performed by first through third graders who have come together because children don’t believe in magic anymore.
"The elementary students always take on a huge role as leaders in the musicals," Strachan said.
First-grader Shaye Henderson, who plays a munchkin, said her favorite part of the play is the finale when they all sing "The Closing of the Year." "It’s fun," she said about performing, "you can say stuff and sing. I don’t know why I like it so much, but I do."
Henderson reached her small hands around a large flattened cardboard box lying across a table in her classroom. "We’re making posters," she said, pulling the box flap away to reveal drawings of elves, fairies, munchkins and leprechauns, "We painted these and outlined them in Sharpie. We’re going to hang them up for the play."
Other props and costumes were handmade by students and parents as well. "It’s one of my favorite things when the whole school children, teachers and parents get together. There’s just a really wonderful feeling of community."
Strachan said there are specific criteria that make a play good for kids this age, and there is a certain way she introduces and rehearses plays with students to be sure they can adjust to the change in their school schedule and to being on stage.
"You have to keep the kids moving," she said about how to write and design a play for students of these age groups. She also makes sure the kids are always going on and off stage in the same direction, and that the play only runs for about a half an hour.
The students began working on "Do You Believe in Magic" after thanksgiving, but it was quite a process from introducing the idea of performance to rehearsing onstage. "We always start out by watching a film or clip to help them understand what they’ll be doing," Strachan said.
This year, the student’s watched the movie "Toy Story." From there, she said, they visualize and talk about what they were going to do, and then they rehearsed first in a classroom together before going onto the big stage in Santy Auditorium.
This rehearsing process is a reflection of how Soaring Wings introduces students to lessons every day. "We always go through a really logical progression to show them what they already know about a subject," Strachan said. She continued on to say that they then go through the different ways of learning about or doing an activity.
Toddler teacher Leah Linebarger said that this method is really helpful in getting the students to relax onstage. She said the most rewarding part of the whole performance is "when you see their smiling faces and you can tell they finally feel comfortable."
Ironically for Linebarger, one of the hardest parts about the play is the rehearsing. She said waiting to go on while other students perform is tough because the toddler students need to be moving around a lot and the rehearsals last longer than the actually performance does.
Assistant toddler teacher Sarah Merkely said the most difficult part for the students is that practicing for the play breaks their normal routine. "They don’t get what’s going on at first," she said. "But they figure it out pretty fast. For toddlers, they’re really good. You just have to set rules like for how to sit in the flippy auditorium chairs."
Three-year-old Ali Aldous said getting to sing "’Tis a Gift To Be Simple," is her favorite part. Aldous’ early childhood class is doing a song and dance about gift giving, while the other two early childhood classes are performing songs and dances to "Winter Wonderland," and "Jingle Bell Rock."
"I like to sing," she said, "and it’s our class’s song." Aldous waved at a classmate coming off stage. She ran over to give him a hug.
Early childhood teacher Lina King said part of what makes plays like this one great is that the children are exposed to art and culture. She also thinks being in the spotlight is beneficial for them.
"It’s good to get them in front of a crowd for the first time at three years old instead of in college," King said. "Most of these children were on stage when they were toddlers." She said you could tell the ones that didn’t get to perform as toddlers because they are more likely to be resistant and to cry.
This transformation from their performances as toddlers to their acting abilities as elementary students is what really impresses Strachan. "It’s amazing to watch the whole process. When toddlers hear the cue, some will just stand there, some will cry," she said. "But by the time they are in elementary school, they start to develop a stage presence.
"I had one child that started out by crying across the stage with her binky, and now she’s in elementary, and she’s singing and dancing like crazy."
For King, there’s an overwhelming sense of pride seeing that kind of growth in students. "Now they’re on stage with their lines, and they love doing it," she said.
Not only are the elementary students dancing and singing in this play, they come on doing acrobatics.
From each side of the stage students do cartwheels and round offs, lining up in a row for their first song of the performance, "Rainbow Connection," which they sing with Kermit’s voice in the background.
"The students came up with their own hand movements for that song," elementary teacher Michelle Aldrich said.
Watching from the audience, elementary student Bella Plummer sings softly along with her classmates, "Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me." She knows all the words and hand motions. She’s not on stage because she’s going to be out of town for the holidays.
While Plummer may be gone to experience her own traditions in another state, Linebarger said Soaring Wings’ winter performance is a way to help establish rituals for students for celebrating the holidays. "They learn about ways to celebrate the holidays," she said. "It gives them a foundation for the rest of their lives."
Soaring Wings’ "Do You Believe in Magic," play was performed on Friday, Dec. 21 at 11 a.m. Afterward, the students, teachers, family and friends came together for a cast party.
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