South Jordan Elementary students write, perform operas
South Jordan Elementary second-grade students write, compose and perform an opera about pirates and people fishing needing to share the ocean. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
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South Jordan second-grader Maycee Johnson likes being nice, so when parts were divided up for performing the opera her class wrote, she asked to be a “fisher person because it was a nice part.”
Two second-grade classes performed their operas May 18, while two other classes were slated to take the stage in June. The students spent the year first learning about operas, then writing and composing the music on their own. They also created their own backdrops and costumes.
“We voted on our idea at the beginning of the school year and worked on it all year,” Maycee said. “Before that, I didn’t know what an opera was.”
Her mother, Heather, who was in the audience, supported the project.
“It’s pretty amazing at what they’ve been able to accomplish and exciting that they learned something new,” she said.
This opera’s storyline had a fight over the fish in the ocean between the pirates and those who fished. In the end, they decided to share the ocean.
In the second opera, students returned from recess on the first day of school to find their teacher and principal missing. They decided to call their community helpers — firefighters and police officers — to help them solve the mystery. Through a surveillance video, the missing faculty was found at a candy factory purchasing treats for a class party.
Second-grader Braden Kartchner’s grandmother, Carol Kartchner, was there to support him.
“He’s told me they wrote the words and set them to music and has been busy working on the scenery,” she said about her grandson being a firefighter. “He’s learned a lot of words and learned to appreciate music more. They’re learning how to be organized to accomplish creating this opera.”
This was the first year that both teachers Alan LaFleur and Lois Mortensen had their classes create operas with the help of Utah State University. They were inspired by two other South Jordan Elementary teachers, Carolyn Richards and Scott Knight, who had taken the course before and have had students performing their own operas in recent years.
“We participated in a professional development opera for children, and then a mentor, Shae Bunker, came to coach us through the process,” Mortensen said.
The first step was teaching students what an opera is and teaching them the three rules of the program: Nobody gets hurt, everyone participates and students do the work.
Then, Mortensen passed out opera journals to the students where they would sketch ideas, write sentences, brainstorm themes, draw staging pictures and reflected about the performance.
The process began with the students brainstorming ideas for creating their own opera.
“Our class we went from aliens to butterflies before narrowing down the theme to community helpers,” Mortensen said.
From there, they wrote simple sentences. By the end of October, their libretto was completed.
“We talked about what expressions the characters would have and tried to include those in our libretto,” Mortensen said.
The next step was putting it to music. In November, the class was divided into groups, and each group was assigned a section of the libretto. With the help of a USU music coach, they sang the words and recorded it. Then, the coach entered the recordings into a computer software program and gave them a score for the music which Mortensen played at the performance.
“Every time we had time, we’d talk about our opera or practice singing,” she said. “The kids were so excited to learn it through active learning.”
In the spring, with the help of a scenery coach, they created their backdrops and props.
“We learned the techniques mixing colors, painting with sponges on cardboard, learning about shapes and how to make things pop out and how to make cardboard stand up and not warp,” Mortensen said. “It was a big process, but the kids did all the work.”
Since other classes were using the multi-purpose room, much of the staging was done in their own classroom.
“We only had one dress rehearsal on stage before our performance, but the kids were focused and excited about putting this all together,” she said.
Mortensen admits it’s a big time commitment.
“It took a lot of work, but it’s the best things for kids I’ve ever done in my 28 years of teaching,” she said. “I’ve seen such growth. The kids practiced their reading and writing. They learned about music, and that helped them both with reading and memorizing. They learned math and measurement. They passed their benchmarks in progress, but they also learned to work together as a class and support one another. It really has boosted their self-esteem, and what they’ve learned will help them in every aspect of life.”