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Learning Takes Center Stage In Second Grade Opera Company


When Ellen Levine saw firsthand the benefits of having students create, stage, and perform an original opera, she was convinced that it was the perfect approach for her good friend and colleague, Mary Ruth McGinn. She couldn't have known that the two experienced educators would become a dynamic teaching team in a classroom that has opera at its center. Included: Opera resources for classroom teachers.

"In our first opera class, one boy refused to write," recalls Mary Ruth McGinn. "He was a second language learner, and he offered every possible excuse to avoid writing. Our students usually experience so much in the opera class that they want to write -- they just have to get it down! Not him."

Jobs are tailored to students' needs and skills so everyone has a chance to succeed.

Then, one day that student came in from the playground and sat down. It was a time of day usually reserved for free writing. "To our amazement, he immediately began to write," McGinn continued. "Peering over his shoulder, we discovered that he had written 'I have overcome my fear of writing, just like Tamino in The Magic Flute.'"

McGinn's student became the "public relations officer" for the class's opera company. In the opera-filled classroom she shares with her team-teaching partner Ellen Levine, stories like that one happen every day.

"Although it's difficult to fit everything into our school days, including preparing our students to perform well on county and state assessments, we are 100 percent sure that our students learn deeply and think at a higher level as a direct result of opera integration," Levine told Education World. "It makes almost everything we do more purposeful, meaningful and motivating, because they are learning for an authentic purpose."


Levine discovered opera as a teaching tool during a short tenure as a third grade teacher at Farmland Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland. There, she watched as one classroom teacher and a music instructor used it with a combined class of third and fourth graders.

"I was excited about what I saw and absolutely loved the opera performance in late May of that school year," recalled Levine. "But what really blew me away was when I went back to Farmland the following year and saw some of my former students doing their jobs in the opera company as fourth graders. Because I knew those students so well, I knew about their social and academic needs. I saw them be successful in roles that had pushed them well beyond their comfort level and made them blossom."

"So much of what we must teach, especially in reading and writing, can be taught through the process of creating our opera."

Already convinced that the opera program was very valuable for kids, Levine knew after that visit that she had to persuade McGinn, her friend and colleague at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, to try it with her class. She never dreamed that she would be sharing the experience!

McGinn always had been interested in art and arts education, and students in her classroom already had created and performed plays. "I believe that for kids to learn well, they need to be given as much responsibility for their own learning as possible," said McGinn. "As a teacher, learning to let go and give them that responsibility is very hard." When Levine described the opera program, McGinn realized that it epitomized the total release of responsibility to the kids.

"She thought it was a great idea for me, though, not her!" laughed McGinn. "Our administrator suggested that we team teach. Today, we see that everything can be taught through this approach. Our students learn more than academics. Their social skills flourish, and they even learn how to be good people. Teaching through opera has literally changed my life."

"So much of what we must teach, especially in reading and writing, can be taught through the process of creating our opera."


Students play supportive roles in costuming, etc.

Levine and McGinn have received training from the Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York. Like other classes that take part in the Creating Original Opera program, their second graders have specific opera class periods each week, in which they do the actual work of creating an opera. And, in this company, the kids do it all -- from generating the script to giving the performance.

Students work with tools under the guidance of volunteers.

Each incoming class votes on its company name, which describes and defines it as a group. This year, the students' collective title is "Shining Diamonds Kids Opera Company." Within the company, each student is part of a specialized job group. There are scriptwriters, production managers, stage managers, electricians, and more. Fulfilling a role in a company is especially effective with the New Hampshire Estates Elementary students, many of whom come from low-income homes and face language barriers.

"Kids who come in with poverty start out with less," McGinn observed. "Their parents often are not there and are not talking with them. That brings about many learning issues. We give our students authentic purposes for their learning through a hands-on approach. They assume jobs in the company and have responsibilities as experts in their fields. We consider their needs and styles and cater to them."

Creating Opera Hits the Right Notes

Second grade teacher Ellen Levine explains that three components make the teaching of opera work in the classroom she shares with Mary Ruth McGinn: authentic learning, student responsibility (holding a "job"), and the incorporation of the arts to touch students emotionally.

"Creating an opera helps us coordinate all three of those components," she says. "However, I believe any project with [those components] could provide the same benefits."

McGinn and Levine hold opera class periods twice weekly for an hour and a half, but because they feel so strongly that authentic learning is the best way to truly reach and teach kids, they also use opera as a vehicle for learning in every aspect of the curriculum.

"So much of what we must teach, especially in reading and writing, can be taught through the process of creating our opera," Levine stated. "For example, we must determine the theme for our opera, the setting, characters, problem, solution, and so on. Because we are learning about those elements of a story for the purpose of creating our opera that will convey an important message to our audience, students feel motivated. All our lessons become more purposeful and meaningful."


Levine and McGinn constantly are impressed by the depth of knowledge their students gain through the opera experience. The vocabulary and concepts that they begin to incorporate into their activities often exceed expectations for even high school students -- and for most of these second graders, English is a second language!

The opera company poses with such tools of the trade as markers, mirrors, hats, and screwdrivers.

"This year, our students voted for empathy as the theme for our opera," said Levine. "And our thesis statement is, 'When you understand how someone else feels, that's how you change the world.' They now refer to empathy on a regular basis. Last year, our students referred to the concept of legacy in the same way. The year before, students spoke about freedom. They know that 'with freedom comes responsibility.' And there's more! The social skills these kids develop as a result of their independence and interdependence as members of a company are priceless -- and they're only seven and eight years old!"

Both Levine and McGinn invite teachers who are interested in learning more about teaching with opera to contact them. They are eager to share their experience. "It is a mission," adds McGinn.


Classroom Materials
The San Francisco Opera offers instructional materials about careers in opera, and guides to the Barber of Seville, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, and Pirates of Penzance in Microsoft Word and PDF formats.

Creating an Original Opera
This lesson for grades 4-6 provides a structure for having students create an original opera in about ten days.

Photos were provided by Mary Ruth McGinn.