Arts council brings music and more to Head Start students

Slim Harrison visits Howard County's Tubman Head Start Center with musical instruments that many preschoolers have never seen, and he brings tales and songs many have never heard.

He takes the children on imaginary journeys to where the instruments, stories and music originated — Latin America, Asia, Africa — keeping in mind, as he put it, "In preschool, you can't get much into that yet, because they don't even know what country we live in."

Harrison is a traditional American folk musician, storyteller and dance caller, and for the past year he has visited the Tubman Center courtesy of the Howard County Arts Council's Head Start in Art program, which provides hands-on experiences in the arts for the county's low-income families.

The program began in 2000 in conjunction with the Ellicott City Head Start Center and expanded to the Tubman Center last year.

Harrison, a member of the Maryland State Arts Council who has performed at schools and festivals for more than 40 years, is among about a half-dozen artists-in-residence who conduct classes for the Head Start in Art program. Others engage students in arts projects that include quilting, story theater and dance.

Two years ago, the arts council's Ellicott City Head Start in Art program was honored by the nonprofit National Community Action Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for programs that assist low-income families and individuals.

Officials of the Howard County Arts Council note that Head Start in Art has been cited as a model early arts education program by the National Endowment for the Arts, and has provided the county with a way to bring arts to students in Head Start, a federally funded program that was established in 1965 to assist impoverished preschool-age children.

Coleen West, executive director of the Arts Council, said the program serves more than 200 students and has helped build social and cognitive skills, creativity and self-confidence.

The Howard County Arts Council is housed in the same building as the Ellicott City Head Start Center, and students from the center would often spend time looking at Arts Council exhibits. That interest prompted staff to consider creating hands-on programs.

"We saw an opportunity to bring some creativity to their classrooms," West said. "Preschool teachers have to teach everything from art to ABCs, math and all of that, so for them it's a real boost for their classroom to bring in a professional teaching artist. Those teachers retain those skills in the classroom as well, so they can bring up some things and use them in their career development."

Harrison, who teaches classes of up to about 17 students at the Tubman Center, said teachers "pretty much let me go as long as I want to, as long as the kids are focused."

Harrison, who lives in Frederick County, teaches children about the roots of American folk culture using such instruments as the fiddle, the banjo, the slide guitar and the mountain dulcimer. He has been working with the students since November, and his residency concludes next week.

He said he begins by playing songs that most preschoolers are familiar with, such as "The Wheels on the Bus" and "Old McDonald," then adds children's folks songs such as "Oh Susanna" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."

West said that Harrison is also popular with the students because he creates instruments out of household objects.

He said youngsters haven't changed much in the decades he's been teaching folk culture.

"Basically, kids are kids, especially when you're talking about preschool," Harrison said. "They like to try new things out and explore. That's what's fun about preschool. Everything is new to them. They've never seen a banjo before.

"They're a fun bunch to work with," he said of the Tubman Center preschoolers. "I can go a little more independent with the kids and give them more hands-on experience. They can come up and strum on the banjo or the guitar."

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