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Arts and Mental Health Initiative

In Partnership with Helena Public Schools

The Myrna Loy and Helena Public Schools, together with local teaching artists, are bringing immersive art experiences to all grade levels K-5 in the Helena School District. These workshops intentionally support students’ mental health by integrating the arts with age-appropriate social/emotional learning.

We currently have a Shadow Puppetry Workshop for kindergarteners and a fourth grade Rhythm and Movement Workshop. Our goal is to develop a unique arts experience for every grade level (K-5) over the next three years.

Helena School District teachers also have the opportunity to participate in interactive after-school arts workshops that elicit joy, nourishment, and creativity, while gaining arts integration ideas and tools to bring back to their classrooms.

Kindergarten - The Hedgehog and The Bear

Developed and performed by teaching artists Kevin Casey and Ilgaz Ulusoy Casey, The Hedgehog and The Bear is a shadow puppet show that tells the story of two friends, Hedgehog and Bear, who enjoy meeting up to share a special jar of jelly. Students watch in awe as Hedgehog navigates a variety of emotions on her journey to meet Bear.

Ilgaz and Kevin then guide students in an interactive workshop-style reenactment of the story, wherein students explore emotion and character and become puppeteers themselves. Through this integration of shadow puppetry and social/emotional learning, students practice identifying, naming, and expressing different emotions through role play, voice, movement, and discussion while also gaining an understanding of basic puppetry skills.

During the 2023/24 school year, roughly 490 kindergarten students were impacted by this experience! Here’s what teachers had to say about the power of this workshop:

  • “I loved it all! My class loved that they got to discuss and “act out” the different emotions that the hedgehog felt during the puppet show.”
  • “My students talked about this story, reenacted it, and made puppets for days!”
  • “Kevin & Ilgaz were so engaging for little ones! The children watched with rapt attention and were quick to smile and laugh together. They delighted in the rich experience and many emotional, literacy, and art experiences followed.”
  • “This workshop was incredible! It was very engaging and made my students laugh.”

Fourth Grade - Rhythm and Movement

Fourth grade students explore emotion and physical expression in our Rhythm and Movement Workshop led by teaching artists Brandon Taylor and Retta Leaphart.  Brandon kicks off the experience with an inspiring tap-dancing demo. Students then explore using different parts of the body to create a rhythmic sequence, which leads into interactive group work where students develop small performances that use rhythm and movement to communicate specific emotions.

Through this experience, students practice collaboration and creative movement; they also develop the skills of observing and giving language to how our bodies feel when holding different emotions and how movement can be used to positively channel extra energy.

Approximately 350 fourth graders enjoyed this workshop during the 2023/24 school year! Here’s what teachers had to say about the impact of this experience…

  • “The activity gave us some great talking points afterwards on how we can express ourselves during class time.  My class loved this experience!”
  • “This was a great opportunity for the students to practice using their bodies in a different way than they normally would. I loved how they got to focus on emotions too.”
  • “My current group of students really struggles with self-regulation, so we’ve been working a lot on trying to understand how we can express ourselves without constantly blurting out.  Movement is a tool to help us regulate, understand, and share emotions.”
  • “My students LOVED this activity! They appreciated being given the creative freedom to generate their own movement sequences. They also enjoyed getting to see professional dancers in action.”

Special Workshop - Taiko Drumming with Unit Souzou

4th and 5th grade students at Smith Elementary and high schoolers at Project for Alternative Learning (PAL) had the amazing opportunity to work with Japanese Taiko artists Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, of Unit Souzou. This dynamic duo taught basic Taiko principles and how to play on the first day of their residency, and day two found them focusing on self-expression and storytelling through the drum.

Students sequenced rhythms and manipulated sound volume to express different aspects of emotion and character. Students said that playing Taiko made them feel powerful, excited, special, confident and amazing. In the words of one student, “Playing loud or soft can help you learn how to deal with your anger, and doing kara (a taiko rhythm) can make you feel power.”

Teacher Workshops

These professional development workshops are designed to benefit teachers across all grades and subject areas by providing them with collaborative and uplifting experiences that allow them to release some of the stress of the classroom while also inspiring them professionally to take some of this new learning – be it social/emotional or curricular – back into their classrooms.

During the 2023/24 school year, teachers had the opportunity to participate in a Shadow Mask Workshop with teaching artists Retta Leaphart and Kevin Casey. Participants explored the art of shadow masks and self-expression and spent the evening creating, laughing, and collaborating with one another as they played with shadow and light and built masks that expressed some part of their inner landscape.

Educators also had the chance to participate in a Japanese Taiko Workshop when Taiko artists Michelle Fuji and Toru Watanabe came for their school residency. Teachers exuberantly expressed their gratitude for these two experiences…

  • “It meant a lot to me to attend this workshop because I don’t often have a chance to express myself through art.”
  • “I feel rejuvenated to go back to my classroom… knowing I possess this innate creativity and light. Thank you!”
  • “I will do this activity with my students. We are always coming up with new ways to process and share experiences and this is a powerful way to express internal landscapes.
  • “I am going home feeling better about my job and my place in this world.”


We’re already gearing up for next school year with a Mask Theater Workshop for 2nd grade that we’ll be rolling out in the fall. Expanding our teacher workshop programming is in full swing, too, and workshops for 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades are in the brainstorming phase. Stay tuned!

Special Thanks to our Sponsor!

This Arts and Mental Health initiative is made possible by the generous support of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. Thank you!

Photo Credit: Retta Leaphart

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