Mateo’s Story: Love of Learning Is in the Bag

It is mid-autumn at an elementary school in Washington, DC’s Ward 8, but today feels more like a summer day. The school’s bright, yellow walls mirror the warmth and cheer of the balmy weather outside. Later this morning, the school will host performances that mark the end of Inner City-Inner Child’s Dancing With Books program in two of its pre-kindergarten classrooms. Dancing With Books is a five- to 10-week classroom residency in which teaching artists use music, dance, drumming, and art to teach literacy, math, and other skills to preschool children in low-income neighborhoods in DC.

Across the city, preparations for today’s performances are taking place. Inner City-Inner Child staff members are putting colorful backpacks into a small truck and driving to the school through morning rush hour traffic. Two master teaching artists with decades of experience performing with children are loading an acoustic guitar and art supplies into their car, and are also heading to the school. Meanwhile, two teachers are re-arranging the furniture in their classroom to accommodate guests, parents are adjusting their morning schedules, and some excited pre-K students are looking forward to hosting their parents at school on this special day. One of those students is four year-old Mateo, whose radiant, brown eyes and happy spirit make every day feel special.

Mateo’s sunny classroom is abuzz with anticipation. He and some of his classmates look eagerly at the door, and their heads fill with questions: Is Mommy coming? Will she see me? Is Daddy here? Will he sing with me? Mateo can barely contain his excitement when his mother arrives. Although she is there to watch him perform, he turns several times to watch her. But that doesn’t stop him from showing his mother what he has learned from Dancing With Books.

It’s show time! Mateo finds his spot on the classroom’s circle line and performs a lively mélange of original songs and choreography that ICIC’s master teaching artists have created to bring Eric Carle’s From Head to Toe picture book to life. While a guitar strums beautifully in the background, he and the other students turn their heads like penguins, bend their necks like giraffes, and raise their shoulders like buffaloes, encouraged by the book’s irresistible invitation: “Can you do it? I can do it!”

Manya Stojic’s picture book, Rain, is next, for which Mateo and his classmates students don imaginary zebra stripes, rhinoceros horns, and lion claws. They use expressive sign language and sing the unforgettable chorus that the teaching artists have created to tell this suspenseful story about the cycles of rain and drought on an African savannah:

The r-a-a-a-a-a-i-n is coming!
The r-a-a-a-a-a-i-n is coming!
The r-a-a-a-a-a-i-n is coming!
Can you smell [see/hear/feel/taste] the rain?

At the end of the performance, Mateo and each of his classmates receives a backpack full of books to take home, including From Head to Toe and Rain. For some of the students, these may be the first books they have ever owned. Before Mateo’s mother and the other parents leave, the students enthusiastically agree to continue singing, dancing, and reading with their parents at home.

It is now time for other classroom activities, and Mateo’s teacher instructs him and the other students to put their backpacks in their cubbies. Amid the chatter at the cubbies, one child’s voice rises above the others and declares, “I love my new books!” The Dancing With Books residency in Mateo’s classroom is over, but what the students, teachers, and parents gain from the experience will endure long after today’s performance. When Mateo goes home today, picture books won’t be the only thing in his bag. A love of books and learning will be there, too.

To learn more about how our programs help children like Mateo develop lifelong love of learning, click here

For more than two decades, Inner City-Inner Child (ICIC) has supported early childhood education in Washington, DC through arts education programs and early childhood development training. We provide quality arts integration and early childhood development programs that serve low-income families in DC. ICIC also provides arts-focused professional development programs for teachers who work in early childhood centers and school-based early childhood education programs in DC. In addition, we engage low-income DC parents in child development activities that help them create learning experiences at home.