Dancing and Doing Math Like No One is Watching

Yesterday’s Bozeman Daily Chronicle featured an article about how Hawthorne Elementary School in Bozeman, Montana is helping students succeed under the new Common Core standards by embracing an arts-integrated approach to learning. Hawthorne has been using the arts to teach for 22 years now. The principal, Casey Bertram, believes “robust 21st century teaching cannot happen without the arts.”  Amen to that!  Hawthorne is not the only school in Montana embracing a school-wide approach to the arts:  Jefferson Elementary in Helena has also adopted this approach under the leadership of their principal, Lona Carter-Scanlon, a passionate arts education advocate.

Examples of how arts learning is working to help students find greater success in school are all over Montana.  This week I was lucky to witness robust 21st century teaching in action when I visited Rattlesnake Elementary in Missoula to see the CoMotion Dance Project work with a classroom of second graders.  CoMotion Dance Project is led by University of Montana dance professor Karen Kaufmann and places teaching artists in schools to help teachers meet learning goals using dance and creative movement.  The Montana Arts Council funds CoMotion through its Artists in Schools and Communities grant program.  The day’s lesson was on place value.  The idea of place value had already been introduced by the classroom teacher in their regular math lessons, and teaching artist Jordan Dehline led a dance-based lesson that helped cement the concept, particularly for those students who were struggling with understanding.

comotion dance at Rattlesnake

Jordan began by leading the students in a high-energy warm-up called the Brain Dance, and then gave students time to explore two dance concepts:  shape and level.  She challenged the students to make more creative and interesting choices with their bodies as they moved across the classroom floor.  She then passed out cards to the students that had the place value on them of either 100, 10 or 1.  The 100s moved at a high level, the 10s at a medium and the 1s at a low level.  She then asked them to sort themselves into groups according to their place value by dancing to a specified spot, and then freezing in a shape that showed their place value.  Once they had all frozen, she asked them to tell her what number they were creating by adding up the 100s, the 10s and then the 1s.

At one point, the students became chatty and unfocused, as second graders sometimes do.  Jordan stopped the lesson and reminded them of the 1 to 4 scale they used to assess their dance work.  If they ranked themselves a 4 that meant that they danced the whole time the music was playing with their best focus.  Conversely, a 1 ranking meant they were not dancing when the music was playing, and they were not paying attention to their work.  After asking them to hold up their fingers to self-assess their own work, she started the music again.  The unfocused students jumped up from a 1 or 2 to a 4 immediately.  At no point did Jordan scold them or tell them they were doing the activity wrong–she simply asked them to reflect on their work as dancers and challenged them to improve.  Critics of arts integration often cite a lack of rigor in teaching the art form, believing that the art takes a backseat to the curriculum content.  Not so in this lesson, which was carefully and elegantly designed to challenge students with learning targets in both dance and math.

It was remarkable to see all the students, girls and boys, fully engaged in dance for an entire 45-minute class.  When asked afterwards if she felt the dance lesson helped reinforce place value for her students struggling with math, the classroom teacher, a 37-year veteran of the district, gave an emphatic yes.  This model lesson on place value created by Karen Kaufmann and Jordan Dehline is slated to be published in a 2014 book by Human Kinetics Publishers, the Art of Dance Integration:  Mathematics and Science. 

On my way out of Missoula I stopped at the Zootown Community Arts Center to visit the exhibit In this Light, featuring the photography and words of middle and high school students from Two Eagle River School in Pablo.  Photographer David Spear has been working with students there for many years in an artist residency called A VOICE, also supported by the Montana Arts Council.  The mostly black and white photography, paired with writing from many of the students, is a moving testimony and a peek into the lives of these students living on the Flathead Reservation.  It’s also another strong example of the power of art to give voice to young people who sometimes feel that nobody is listening.  The exhibit will be on display through November at ZACC, and was recently featured in the Missoulian.

Watching second grade boys dance like no one is watching; witnessing powerful images of teenagers expressing both the struggle and hope in their young lives–two reasons to keep advocating for the arts in schools.

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