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Setting the Stage, by Katherine Pierpont, Senior Editor

Setting the Stage

Second graders writing, designing and performing their own opera? Thanks to Mary Ruth McGinn and Ellen Levine, it's a sold-out show

It looked like your average second grade classroom on a humdrum Tuesday morning. Kids milled around from desk to desk, chatting with their friends as they polished off the dregs of their in-school breakfast. Co-teachers Mary Ruth McGinn and Ellen Levine grabbed a quick moment to consult with one another before getting swept up in the day's events. When the crackle of the morning announcements eventually broke up the din, the kids alternated between listening intently and good-naturedly shooting their breakfast clutter at one another.

Mary Ruth McGinn and Ellen Levine

Mary Ruth and Ellen captivate their students with the story of Porgy and Bess.

As soon as the Pledge of Allegiance was over, Mary Ruth clapped her hands together, "All right, everybody get rid of your garbage and let's sing our song for Family Learning Night!" At once, the kids were on their feet and cleaning up. They started to snap their fingers and groove along with their teachers and Sister Sledge, "We are family. I got all my sisters with me!"

"I don't hear you!" shouted Mary Ruth as she weaved in and out of the circle of kids, "Let 'em hear you upstairs!"

One little girl lifted her head and cupped her hands over her mouth as she shouted the song at the ceiling, "We are family. Get up everybody and sing!"

On the surface, this looked like a fun little morning exercise to get these second graders at New Hampshire Estates Elementary in Silver Spring, MD, focused and ready to start the day. But in fact, it was something much more – under the direction of these two extraordinary teachers, this second grade class, also known as the Shining Diamonds Kids Opera Company, was preparing to write, compose, design, produce and perform their very own opera.

Students retelling Porgy and Bess

During the retelling of Porgy and Bess, the students gave their opinion as to what the title of the story might be. "They're really learning how to analyze, it's incredible," said Mary Ruth.

A bright idea.
Mary Ruth McGinn had an ebullient, almost pixie-ish air about her as she flitted from kid to kid, nudging them to join her in belting out the song. Ellen Levine was reassuring and watchful toward the students as she calmly guided some of the more enthusiastic of her charges back into the circle and held out a hand to bring the shyer kids in a step closer. Although it is Ellen who is the more reserved of the two, it was she who brought the idea of teaching in the context of an opera to the table. Mary Ruth and Ellen have both taught at New Hampshire Estates now for 15 years. Ellen had a short break in her tenure at the school when she was sent to another school in Maryland that just happened to have an opera program (there are eight schools in their district that participate in the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Creating Original Opera Program). She was amazed by what she saw there and when she returned to New Hampshire Estates, she couldn't seem to get the idea of incorporating an opera program out of her mind. She had told Mary Ruth about the COO program and when they went back to see Ellen's former school's year-end performance, they knew this was the answer to reaching students who were struggling with school.

Getting off the ground.
It took a while for Mary Ruth and Ellen to get the opera program at New Hampshire Estates in place. When Ellen first returned, she was working as a reading support teacher and with increased pressure on the school to raise test scores, they faced difficulties with getting the program approved. Mary Ruth and Ellen would also be two of three teachers participating in the COO program who would be incorporating it at the second grade level; the other schools in the district participated in it with their third and fourth graders. They agreed to co-teach a larger than normal second grade class and set aside two classes a week for opera – it would be up to them to then connect opera throughout the rest of their curriculum. "We do as much as we can," said Ellen. "Language arts tends to be the best bet, but we also create math problems that are authentic to what we need when we're measuring for scenery or lights."


"Are you ready for a challenge?" Mary Ruth asked. "YEAH!" the kids answered. "How do we work best as a team?" "Communicate!" Ellen and Mary Ruth encouraged the kids to find a way to connect that included everyone. There were some minor squabbles and a few natural leaders emerged, but in the end, every member of the company was involved.

"Basically, it's taking the skills and the objectives that they've already learned in math and applying them to the problem," added Mary Ruth. "If we need to figure something out for the opera, we present it to the whole class so it becomes a math problem and a focus."

First day on the job.
On the day we visited Mary Ruth and Ellen's classroom, the company was in the midst of learning about some of the jobs they'd be undertaking during the school year. Mary Ruth and Ellen's expressions were grave when they explained to the kids that this wasn't playing at being part of a company – these jobs were for real and there would be logical consequences. If the students did not pay attention and learn how to do their job well, it could possibly affect the entire company's performance throughout the year.

"Can the kids actually get fired?" we asked.

"Oh, yes," Mary Ruth and Ellen answered together. If a child is acting up during the day or bothering another child, he or she will not take part in the opera class for that day. Eventually, the child will be "rehired" and they then have a better understanding of their responsibilities to their team.

Students reading

"It's amazing to me how these little second graders get the adult relationships in something like Porgy and Bess, but they really do," said Ellen.

Ellen pulled various items out of a paper bag while Mary Ruth recorded on an easel the kids' guesses about the job. Ellen had shown the kids a tape measure, screw, light bulb, protective glasses and a saw.

After seeing that the kids were having a hard time coming up with the exact name of the job, Ellen asked for a drumroll and revealed that the job in question was an electrician. "Why would an electrician need light bulbs and screws for our opera?" she asked.

A boy shyly ventured a guess, "To turn on the stage lights?"

"That's right!" Ellen said. After explaining about the house and stage lights and how to make sure a spotlight on a character works, the kids started to get excited about the prospect of being one of the company's electricians.

"This really levels the playing field. A lot of times when kids are in a class, they know exactly who are the highest readers and who are the highest math kids," Mary Ruth explained. "With this, that's not what they think about! They are all experts in their own jobs – so no one feels like they can't do it. It's great."

Students preparing to listen to a school play

Before listening to a continuation of the story of Porgy and Bess, kids get ready to be good listeners by shaking out their hands and giving themselves an "ear massage."

This just in.
Mary Ruth and Ellen don't sugarcoat what they've accomplished in the classroom – this is tough and arduous work. In addition to planning for a regular teaching day and tying the opera into their curriculum, there's work to do with the school's music teachers, Larry Joynes and Emily Hines, grant applications to fill out, field trips to be coordinated and class visits from actors, makeup artists, costume and set designers and other people in the field to be arranged. They also contend with trying to never miss out on a teachable moment.

And while Mary Ruth and Ellen assured us that, while they don't exactly have any major divas on their hands just quite yet, their productions aren't your standard second grade fare. Past operas have centered on themes like new hopes and legacy and the teachers try to encourage the kids to think deeply about the things they care about.

During the writing of this story, we received a press release from the public relations officers of the Shining Diamonds Kids Opera Company that announced that the company has decided on their theme – empathy. We learned that part of their inspiration behind the choice was Rosa Parks.

Making a change.
Now that they are partnered with the Washington National Opera, Mary Ruth and Ellen are able to bring their students to the opera house for a "look in," which equates to an hour-long excerpt from a real opera. Afterwards, the kids are able to ask the actors questions and make a deeper connection to aspects of character traits, setting and story – all important things to have on hand when they sit down to write their own opera. This year, the Washington National Opera is performing Porgy and Bess and for the past two days, Mary Ruth had been telling her students the story. When it came time for her to begin from where she left off the day before, the kids were absolutely entranced.

Mary Ruth McGinn

The many faces of Mary Ruth – "We really are constantly bringing in new metaphors and building that kind of thinking," she said.

While they've received numerous accolades, awards and standing ovations, to Mary Ruth McGinn and Ellen Levine there is no greater prize than the smile on a child's face when they've realized they're part of something really special. "What we're really trying to do is change how people view public education," Mary Ruth said. "That's what we're all about."

For more information about the Metropolitan Opera's Creating Original Opera program, go to www.operaed.org.

Katherine Pierpont, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.

Language Arts