Wolf Trap program integrates STEM, arts

Published 9:29 pm Thursday, December 5, 2019

The students in Shaunda DeRon’s kindergarten class at Florence Bowser Elementary School didn’t know it, but they were getting a STEM-based integrated lesson.

What they did know is they were having a lot of fun.

Valerie Bayne Carroll, a teaching artist with the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, kept up a steady beat for the 22 children in the class Thursday while they acted out the Jan Brett book, “The Mitten.”

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She incorporated role play and imaginary play, music and even something known as coffee can theater — a strategy for sharing stories in which the teller uses small props to represent characters and setting elements.

In just over 20 minutes, the children picked up STEM concepts such as sets, patterns, comparison — greater and less than, more and fewer — numbers and force. They also, likely unknowingly to them, gained social and emotional learning skills to include empathy, self-regulation and labeling their emotions.

Language and literacy skills were part of the lesson, as the children got to describe and narrate what was happening, remember and sequence things, and predict and imagine the scene in front of them.

Suffolk Public Schools contracted with Wolf Trap, based in Vienna, to bring these lessons to students and teach the teachers how to blend the concepts into their daily teaching. Last school year, there were 39 five-session Early STEM/Arts Classroom Residencies in the early start/pre-K and kindergarten classrooms. This school year, due to a grant increase from the Virginia Department of Education, Wolf Trap is providing one, five-session Early STEM/Arts Classroom Residency in every early start and kindergarten classroom in the school division.

Wolf Trap brought its week-long version of the program to all of the city’s public elementary schools this week, and on Wednesday, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni got an up-close look at the program.

Qarni noted that Gov. Ralph Northam would be releasing an early childhood education proposal in the next few days, and next year would be studying ways to revamp professional development for teachers. He said programs like Wolf Trap’s are ones he likes to see.

Akua Kouyate-Tate, the vice president of education for the Wolf Trap Foundation, said that while its program serves only pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, it hopes to expand it to first-graders in the near future.

“Many of our partners have told us that, definitely, they want to do the STEM work, but they also know that the social-emotional development is critical,” Kouyate-Tate said. “We want to include that as well as the language and literacy. We know that those are the primary areas, along with STEM, that are so critical for young children to be able to have those skills as they continue through their education trajectory.”

Shalise Taylor, SPS supervisor of science instruction, said the division was looking for engagement for all stakeholders — engaging the community and its partners, as well as students and teachers. The division wants to increase interest in STEM and fine arts, and she said it was a perfect fit of integrating STEM and fine arts.

“What I love the program and how it fits into what we’re doing in the division is that really, it’s about imagination,” Taylor said. ”It’s about how students learn best in the natural sense, because students learn best when they’re the most comfortable, and that program really teaches teachers how to create a comfortable learning environment where they can incorporate imagination and play, and it’s not intimidating for the students.”

At the end of the lesson, Carroll and the students were singing together and acting out the song, but not before having a little fun in the process.

“Now it’s time to say goodbye, say goodbye, now it’s time to say goodbye, say goodbye my friend,” Carroll and DeRon’s students sang. “Now it’s time to wave goodbye, wave goodbye, wave goodbye. Now it’s time to wave goodbye, wave goodbye my friend.”

“Now I’m going to surprise you,” Carroll said.

She began the song, “Now it’s time, ah-choo, goodbye.”

The children followed along, with louder ah-choo’s and giggles.

The students got out of it what Wolf Trap and the division wants to see — engagement from everyone.

“I’ve seen that no matter what setting it’s in, no matter the school, no matter the student’s background, no matter what geographic location we’re in in the division, every child is engaged,” Taylor said. “Every child loves it. Every child can be a part of it. And I think that’s what’s most beneficial about it. And that’s really what we’re looking for. We’re looking for how we can engage all students.”