Getting elementary school kids engaged in the arts while competing against social media and online gaming is a huge challenge for teachers in 2020. Cynthia Quehl combats those modern distractions with two of the oldest traditions we have: music and musical theater.
“The music program at Kenwood—where we sing, dance, play instruments, and learn how to listen to music—offers students so many different ways to find their musicianship,” says Quehl, who’s been the community school’s music teacher for the past 14 years. “I am very proud of that.”
Quehl also co-directs (with Kathleen Bloom) an annual play put on by their fourth- and fifth-grade students, a beloved production she took over five years ago. They emphasize an all-inclusive environment where every student who auditions gets a role, fostering a strong sense of artistic community among the students. Everyone feels a sense of ownership in the show.
“We usually have a cast of 70 students, plus those who work behind the scenes,” says Quehl, making theirs more than double the size of an average school musical. And finding parts, costumes, and props for that many students—not to mention teaching them the staging and choreography, or even just fitting them on a tiny stage—is tough.
But in an era where extracurricular art and music activities are typically the first things to be cut from school budgets, Kenwood prioritizes their after-school arts programs, realizing how those experiences enrich and enhance students’ lives.
“Kenwood kids are surrounded by an amazing community that supports the arts and performing in ways that reach far beyond the annual play,” says Quehl. Students rise to expectations, gain confidence, and see the value in what they do. What’s more, they start to imagine new possibilities. “Teaching in a community that values regular and consistent contact with the arts makes the school come alive, and that is very rewarding.”
“Involvement in music and theater helps bring these young students out of their protective shells while encouraging them to discover talents they didn’t know they had,” Quehl adds. “The biggest gratification for me is the excitement the students feel when they take their bows. They practically levitate.”
The lessons will have lasting benefits for students, as they continue to find their own unique voice and distinctive means of expressing themselves. All these qualities are nurtured and encouraged by Quehl.
“I love it when a student takes a risk and surprises us at an audition by showing a singing voice or a sense of drama that they had never shared before,” says Quehl. “The opportunity to perform builds confidence in students in a way that can’t be replicated. Students also benefit socially and emotionally working as a part of team and learning to understand their own emotions as well as those of their characters. These qualities seem so important and necessary in the otherwise data-driven, right-or-wrong school day of a child.”
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