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Taking pointers from a 'Princess'
Times photo: Brenda Steurer Parkside students Tyler Faust, Brandon Hendrickson, Trace Ermey, and James Rugg wait to watch the movie The Princess and the Frog Tuesday at the Goetz Theater, Monroe. The entire elementary school enjoyed the movie in lieu of a holiday gift exchange. The schools PTO helped underwrite the cost of the tickets, treats and transportation for the kids.
MONROE - Parkside Elementary School students got an early Christmas treat Tuesday - a dose of New Orleans-style jazz in the form of Disney's latest feature-length animated film.

The entire school, some 360 students, boarded buses to see "The Princess and the Frog" at the Goetz Theater downtown. Children paid $5 to see the movie, which included popcorn and a soft drink. The school's PTO helped cover the remainder of the ticket price, treats and bus transportation.

While the student body enjoyed the opportunity to see a popular, first-run Disney movie, they were also learning something about a uniquely American musical art form - jazz.

The new Disney animated feature, released earlier this month, is described as a fairy tale about Princess Tiana and a frog prince who desperately wants to be human again. The storyline is classic Disney fare, but the setting has a twist: jazz-age era New Orleans. The movie also features Disney's first African-American "princess," joining the ranks of Cinderella, Snow White and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast."

Music teacher Jill Leuzinger arranged the field trip for the school. Her interest in the movie was two-fold.

First, it helped teach a hard subject in a way that students can understand.

"Jazz is a really difficult thing to teach young kids," she said. "Jazz is not predictable, it's ever changing."

It's also less commonly heard by many people - in fact, it may have been the first time some children have heard jazz.

"It's not music that kids are exposed to very often," Leuzinger said.

Jazz developed around the turn of the 20th century, evolving in the deep South, particularly in New Orleans. It developed largely from African-American music traditions. While the term "jazz" can encompass everything from Ragtime to modern jazz pieces, one common thread to all jazz is the improvisation.

That improvisation can be uncomfortable for adults, but not for kids, Leuzinger said. In preparation for the movie, Leuzinger introduced jazz - and the art of improvising music - to students.

To do that, students listened to jazz music and tried improvising some of their own. For third- through fifth-graders, that meant making up a song centered on the subject of what would happen if a tornado hit Green County. Younger elementary students were allowed to play instruments however they wished in their own "jam" sessions, creating their own music.

The movie helped reinforce the lesson in a fun, familiar context.

"They get to listen to the technique while watching a kid-oriented movie," Leuzinger.

And the timing of the movie couldn't have been better. The school has wanted to get away from the traditional gift exchange for awhile, Leuzinger said. The gift exchange causes problems because some children forget to bring a gift and some families cannot afford the extra gift.

Instead, the school wanted to do something as an entire school to celebrate the season. With the ability to combine a classroom connection, a trip to see "The Princess and the Frog" seemed perfect for the occasion.

Some kids have never been to a movie theater, so that alone will be a good experience for students, Leuzinger said.

"We want this to be a really positive experience," Leuzinger said.