New Americans Bring Folk Songs and Joy into Classrooms

Monday Apr 22nd, 2024

Erie Arts and Culture has been awarded a Folk and Traditional Arts Community Project Grant from Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation for a unique initiative titled "Use the Groove." This program supports professional development for teachers, provides weekly classroom coaching sessions by folk singers, and includes a family event at the Erie Art Museum.

UTG 2023 song coaches

Kelly Armor, EAC's Folklorist-in-Residence, shared, "This project focuses on work songs, which have eased labor and fostered camaraderie for millennia. In modern times, singing has often been seen exclusively as a professional endeavor. Many preschool teachers, trained primarily in performance music, are not familiar with using songs as practical tools. This program introduced dynamic New American artists into preschools to help teachers use songs for organizing activities like lining up, cleaning, and handwashing, turning potentially stressful times into joyful experiences."

During the fall, five folk singers—Clarisse Amani and David Kambowa from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mustafa Albalkhi from Syria, Nibal Abd El Karim from Palestine, and Victoria Angelo from South Sudan—collaborated with childcare centers across Meadville and Erie. Participating centers included YMCA childcare in Meadville and St. Martin Early Learning Center, ABC Childcare, and the Learning Ladder in Erie.

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Forty teachers learned at least three songs from their song coaches' traditions. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive: 96% of teachers reported that they sang more frequently, and 86% used the songs to facilitate classroom transitions. One teacher noted, "I absolutely loved learning directly from the New Americans. They boosted my confidence in singing in other languages." Another teacher found the program "educative, encouraging, and soul lifting. It broadened my class's learning."

David Kambowa, a song coach and African gospel singer, reflected on his experience, saying, "This was my first time working with very young children in America. I've developed skills in engaging toddlers and maintaining their attention. Now, I'm comfortable working with any age group; I can connect with them effortlessly." Mustafa Albalkhi also found joy in working with young children, observing, "The students embraced the songs, learning about body parts and orderly handwashing. While I taught them songs, they taught us about love and tenderness. Their innocence was truly touching."

Mustafa working in infant classroom

Chuck Lytle, Provider Quality Manager at the Early Learning Resource Center, which oversees childcare services in Northwestern PA, praised the program: "This was one of the best professional development programs I've ever seen! Teachers learned multicultural songs from inspiring artists, addressed their hesitations about singing, and received ongoing support to integrate more music into their teaching."

Due to the program's success, the Early Learning Resource Center is funding a second iteration of "Use the Groove'' this spring. New sessions will include collaborations with Handled with Care in downtown Erie, the Brown Family Childcare in Franklin, and Zion Education Center in Farrell.

Victoria leads dance at EAM

This project was supported by a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

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