chad m. weisman
“Every Child is an Artist.”
This is the mantra that adorns the wall above the classroom in the Sheldon Hall of Education, where the 6s, the oldest age group at Chautauqua Institution’s Children’s School, receive guidance from a staff of experienced teachers.
The learning begins on the bus, where every weekday morning Bijou Miller gets to ride around the grounds with many of the school’s students.
“It’s the best job in Chautauqua,” Miller said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Miller is an actress and singer who also teaches voice and drama in New York City. At the Children’s School, her job is to make the kids feel comfortable from the first minute of their first day.
After singing “Wheels on the Bus” for 14 seasons, Miller must be doing something right.
“I have kids that insist on sitting together,” she said. “They didn’t know each other the first morning, and suddenly they want to be on the bus together. There are great conversations on that bus. It’s really fun to see.”
From the bus to the classroom, the seed from which the Institution took root remains a foundation of the Children’s School: raising young children. After all, Chautauqua was originally a camp for Sunday School teachers.
Kit Trapasso, the director of the Children’s School, is cognizant of his organization’s place in the Institution’s tradition of lifelong education.
“Chautauqua was a forerunner of ideas and thoughts on how to be better-trained kindergarten teachers,” Trapasso said in a 2011 promotional video for the Children’s School. “We try to give [the children] a well-rounded sense of what this community is about, so that hopefully, we’re setting the tone for the next generation of Chautauquans.”
This effort begins by setting a comfortable tone for each student on each day of each week of the season.
“Every week, we’re getting brand-new kids,” said teacher Bobbi Savage. “We know how to prepare. We have buttons for the kids, cubbies, activities.”
Savage’s daughter Clarissa also teaches at the school.
“We’re not a school in the way that we have to meet goals and teach them certain things,” Clarissa said. “This is all about exploring and getting them to try new things.”
Children’s School teachers retain keen awareness of their students’ affinities.
“It’s fun for us to see how many different kinds of things we can do throughout the day,” Clarissa said. “What’s really fun, though, is finding out what’s going to engage which children. Maybe one child doesn’t want to play with blocks, but they want to create an art project later in the day. It’s what triggers them and gets them engaged. That’s what’s really exciting.”
The staff members of the Children’s School remain unanimous in their core purpose, which teacher Hugh Ottaway expressed most clearly: “For the kids to have fun; to do as much as we can.”
“It’s a great place to bring your children to start the education process,” said Laura Giberson, a music teacher for the Children’s School. “It’s a very flexible and welcoming environment, and while there is structure, there is a lot of room to be creative.”
Giberson, a graduate of the music education program at the State University of New York at Fredonia, loves exposing kids to music, though she is not alone in her efforts.
“It’s a very collaborative place to work,” she said. “If I have extra time, I’ll go with another group and help out, just to be with the kids.”
The Children’s School also collaborates with groups across the grounds.
“There are fabulous preschools across the country,” Trapasso said, “but we have the availability of opera, theater, arts, music; every Friday morning, we have members of the [Music School Festival Orchestra] come [to the classroom], and we introduce a section of the symphony.”
“We try to align the program with the theme weeks that are happening at the Institution as much as we can,” said Joann Borg, a teacher for the school’s 3-year-olds. “This is something we’ve been doing for the last couple years. We’ve tried to select themes that correspond with what the parents are learning in … the lectures, so kids can come home and talk about what they learned.”
Borg, a first-grade teacher in Newport Beach, Calif., is ceaseless in her devotion to educating children.
“Most of my colleagues think I’m crazy, because every summer I get out of school and [the Chautauqua] season starts the next day,” she said. “There’s absolutely no downtime. At the end of every season, I leave and start school again a week later. It’s a commitment.”
Her energy carries over into the next generation. Just as Bobbi Savage’s daughter Clarissa teaches by her side, Borg’s daughter Annika and son Danny also work at the school.
“My favorite thing about Children’s School,” Danny said, “is that we get to witness this freedom to be creative, and to dance, to just do whatever they want to do at any moment. … It’s so interesting to watch these kids have this absolute and total freedom, which we try to talk about and achieve and get to all the time. It’s inspiring.”