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Feb. 25, 2010 Volume 31, No. 21

Taking the next steps

Musical mentor

As an education consultant to the television program Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps, music professor Wendy Sims works in almost every phase of producing the show. Young children learn best when what they are learning is meaningful to them and presented in several different ways, she says. Rob Hill photo

On-air education

Music professor takes curriculum to the airwaves

With her daughter, Rayna, MU’s Wendy Sims has welcomed another little lady into her life. She has large pink ears, a tail and a permanent tutu. Her name is Angelina Ballerina, the dancing mouse made famous by the children’s book series by author Katharine Holabird with illustrations by Helen Craig.

For the past two years, Sims has been working as an education consultant for the half-hour long TV show Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps, which follows the life of the 8-year-old dancing mouse who attends the performing arts school, Camembert Academy.  

Producers from HIT Entertainment called Sims, a professor of music education, after finding her published work online. What she thought was a conference call turned out to be an interview. The result?  “We were compatible in our approaches to early childhood education,” she says.

Since then, Sims has become integral in almost every phase of producing the show, from ideas through scripts through animation videos. She helps choose songs and offers advice on everything from how a character holds an instrument to what musical words are appropriate for the intended audiences, which are children ages 3 to 6.  In choosing songs, Sims looks for compositions that are famous and repetitive, like the “child-friendly” ballet, The Nutcracker.

“Young children learn best when what they are learning is meaningful to them and presented in several different ways,” she says.

For instance, in one episode a character uses the word “unison” to describe a Rockettes-style kick line. Because the characters were learning to sing together as a chorus, Sims made sure that “unison” was used more than once and in the correct context.

Similarly, when teaching children to compare pitches, “the tones have to be very far apart so that kids notice the contrasts,” she says.

The themes that surround the twirling mouse include music, dance and friendship. But the story, she says, is most important, and Sims helps fit the curriculum around it. One of those stories she wrote herself.

When Sims had an idea for an episode, the head writer told her that she should write it.  The recently aired episode is called “Angelina and the Dance-a-thon,” in which Angelina and her classmates plan a dance-a-thon fundraiser to raise money to plant trees. In their efforts to raise money, the class practices their recycling skills until one of the girls recycles the pledge sheets. The message, which is set to the tunes of Motown: “Recycling is good for the earth, but be sure to recycle things that should be recycled.”

Since the show’s first airing, Sims says she’s received positive feedback from friends’ children, mom-blogs and her own daughter. Sims watches the episodes with Rayna, who likes to watch her mother’s name scroll during the credits.

“Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps” is aired in many markets around the country and in Europe. — Claire Hanan