Whatever Happened To ... opera in elementary school?
The lessons learned in a Silver Spring second-grade classroom have traveled to Spain.
Five years ago, The Washington Post Magazine followed New Hampshire Estates Elementary students, most of them children of immigrants, as they wrote and staged an opera about orphan eaglets who lived at the National Zoo. Through the music and drama, they learned reading, writing and responsibility.
A year after the story appeared, teacher Mary Ruth McGinn won a Fulbright fellowship to Madrid to train educators to integrate opera into their lesson plans. At first, McGinn says, she struggled there. She didn't speak the language, and she wasn't used to teaching adults. Many of the Spanish teachers openly doubted the project: How could young children appreciate opera? Wouldn't this take time away from test prep?
But at the end of McGinn's two-year stay, three classes performed their operas. One antisocial fifth-grader was so moved by the student-written songs about empathy that he put his arm around a classmate. "It was such a powerful experience for all of us," says McGinn, 45. Now 13 schoolsin Spain are doing opera.
McGinn is back in Silver Spring, helping another second-grade class create an opera, this time at Jackson Road Elementary. She keeps in touch with the teachers in Spain and continues to develop training materials for schools there. This past summer, Deborah Moreira, a former student who had been the notebook-toting production manager for the eaglet opera, helped out by reading Spanish translations of children's writing for a training tape.
Deborah, now 12, has shed the ponytails she wore in second grade. The experience of the class, though, has stayed with her. "Before I went to that class, I wasn't as talkative; I was kind of in my own little space," says the Eastern Middle School seventh-grader. "I learned how to speak up."
Some of the students from that class have moved away. Others are with Deborah at Eastern, and they sometimes reminisce about their opera class. "We say, 'Wasn't it so fun in second grade when we had to go onstage,' " Deborah says. "Showing yourself onstage, it makes you feel so important."