Teaching Bravery and Empathy Through the Dramatic Arts

Teaching Bravery and Empathy Through the Dramatic Arts
Nov 28, 2023

Wolf Trap Teaching Artist Morgan Sendek Uses Her Theatrical Training to Help Early Childhood Educators Enhance Children’s Social-Emotional Skills Through Arts Integration

Morgan Sendek, a Teaching Artist with Wolf Trap Institute since 2016, is passionate about her dual career as an actor and arts educator. “My love for teaching deepens as I grow as a performer and acquire new skills,” she says, “and in turn, working with young students inspires and informs my acting.”

An Arlington, VA native, Morgan graduated from Catholic University in Washington, DC with a degree in musical theater. She went on to perform as a resident artist with DC’s 4615 Theatre Company. Now based in New York City, Morgan acts locally and regionally in theater and on camera as a member of the Actor’s Equity Association, while continuing to lead drama-based residencies and workshops as a teaching artist for Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts

Wolf Trap: Along your journey as a professional actor, what motivated you to pursue work with Wolf Trap Institute?

Morgan: I always knew I wanted to perform and started out in children’s theater when I was 10 years old. At age 14, I began working as an assistant at Encore Stage & Studio, and it opened my eyes to the world of teaching artistry. I watched preschoolers jump with joy at the sight of their favorite puppet characters, and I looked up to their experienced teachers.

As a student myself, I studied drama alongside some international students. I saw how rehearsing our scenes boosted my classmates’ confidence and agility in learning and speaking English, while still having so much fun. Later, in my summers home from college, I started teaching choreography for musical theater camps at Educational Theater Company, where I worked on expanding their arts integration STEAM program. This all sparked my interest in arts integration.

WT: Why is drama-based learning instrumental in young children’s development? And aside from drama, what other arts disciplines do you incorporate into your work?

Morgan: Drama is an active, integrated way of learning that stimulates the imagination. It encourages creativity, collaboration, and self-expression through our voices and bodies. Acting invites critical thinking and helps build our social-emotional learning skills. These are all meaningful experiences to introduce to children at a young age. I always include some form of music in my teaching as well, whether that be singing along to songs or playing simple instruments or body percussion.

WT: How have you adapted your teaching methods over the years to help teachers meet their educational goals?

Morgan: When I started out with Wolf Trap, I kept my focus narrow in order to appeal to all teachers’ goals. But now I love offering a variety of arts activities and strategies to help exceed the goals of each classroom. The teachers I work with are always looking for new, innovative ideas and experiences—that’s the request I hear a lot when I’m presenting different options. They often say, “I’ll take it all!” During the post-residency debrief, I always share with teachers how these experiences translate to developing other skills, and I point out places where they could expand the lessons further on their own. If they bring up specific ideas—like, “Here’s a children’s book I’m really enjoying, can we work this into the next class?”—I love to experiment with that. That’s what’s so great about the debrief time—I can check in with teachers on their students’ progress. Maybe the children need extra support, or they could use a review, or it’s time to transition to something new. I’m always willing to adapt and customize.

WT: Who influences you and your work as a teaching artist? 

Morgan: I’m most influenced by my fellow teaching artists. We’re all one big, inspiring family, and I really enjoy observing and learning from their distinct teaching styles. I’m a highly energetic teaching artist—I love to enter the room with a loud voice, move my body and make big gestures—and it’s so fun to collaborate with a teaching artist who’s a more calming presence in the room. There is no one way to teach or demonstrate the arts to children, and I think it’s beneficial for students to experience different approaches to the arts. That high energy/calming presence balance has so much value. 

WT: Tell us about how the DMV arts community has shaped your roots as a performer and educator.

Morgan: Growing up in Arlington, I saw lots of shows at Shakespeare Theatre, Signature Theatre and Wolf Trap. I participated in Signature’s high school apprentice program, and for many years, I was a core staff member at the Educational Theatre Company in Arlington. I found my place in DC’s supportive, tight-knit theater community by getting involved in the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival and Women’s Voices Theater Festival. I cherish the formative connections I’ve made in DC—I got to try my hand at everything and work within the same group of amazing actors several times. It’s so different from NYC’s spread-out theater scene: in DC, you go to shows and most of the time run into actors you’ve seen before. And you get to watch them perform a bunch of contrasting roles, which is always exciting.

WT: In your own words, how do you think the arts build resilience in children? 

Morgan: It takes bravery to get up in front of strangers and take on the role of a character or sing about the experience of another person, all while feeling a little nervous or silly. Drama builds empathy. We can be open about the times we’ve made mistakes and then moved on, which happens all the time in live art forms like drama. At my residency last week, I started singing and then realized I was singing the wrong song. So I shared that I made a mistake and then started over with the song that we’d been working on together. It’s great to be honest about our mistakes, and sometimes that can turn into something creative—maybe I’ll say, “Well, that’s not the song we’re singing together now, but I would love to teach you that song later.” 

WT: Any special memories or experiences with children or teachers you’ve worked with?

Morgan: I did a preschool residency in Falls Church where we were reading the book “Strictly No Elephants” (by Lisa Mantchev) and working on social-emotional skills. It’s a children’s story about a child with a pet elephant who’s not allowed in the pet club at school. We were working in class on how to communicate with each other about playing and how to make everyone feel included. And we were using puppets to illustrate this—our puppets would ask each other, “Can I play with you?” Through role-playing, students learned the importance of collaboration and inclusion and quickly applied this to real life. The day after our residency, their teacher wrote to me that during recess, one preschooler went up to other preschoolers who were playing by themselves and asked, “Would you like to play as a group?” She said this was a student who was having a difficult time interacting with their classmates, but the lesson from the puppetry class really sunk in. Goes to show that we can start so small and still make a difference!

WT: Do you have any advice for teachers who don’t have a strong artistic background and may feel hesitant about integrating the arts into their classrooms? And are there any fundamental drama-based techniques that teachers who don’t have support from a teaching artist can integrate on their own?

Morgan: You don’t need an artistic background to bring the arts to the classroom. Anyone can do it, and you can start small. It’s honestly best to keep things simple and fun for young kids. I suggest building off something you’re already doing in your class. For example, many teachers play videos with music for their students on the Smartboard; sometimes the videos involve movements or invite children to sing along. What if you led the class in a round of this song or dance without playing the video? If they can do so without the aid of the video, they’re already picking up those skills. How about when you’re reading a storybook out loud? Can you add some character voices? Some hand gestures? Maybe you already are, and so you can encourage students to imitate you or to invent their own.

To learn more about Wolf Trap Institute Learning Through the Arts and its work in the classroom, visit wolftrap.org/education/arts-integration-early-childhood