I am the supposed expert on dance when I go to a classroom as a teaching artist modeling an arts integrated lesson plan with dance. Recently I had an experience with an exceptional classroom teacher who made me a better teacher and a better teaching artist.
I was working with fifth graders on systems of the body, specifically circulatory and digestive. The first two weeks of our three week dance study we spent time talking about each of those body systems and learning dance sequences designed to express certain facets of each system. The students were also introduced to the dance terminology as well as science terms related to both body systems. All the dance movements needed for the third lesson were learned as well as the accompanying chants. I spent some time on the technique of the movements but not as much as I would have liked. Time often feels like my enemy when I have just these precious 50 minute sessions.
So, when I walked in for the culminating third lesson, I expected to merely review what we had done previously, assign the roles to each dancer and then have the students perform the dances and chants. All of those things did happen but something else rather magical happened as well. The teacher completely took ownership of the lesson and helped the students understand that this lesson was not just about science but about dance too. One might think that was my job but I just stood back and watched a master at work.
It might just sound like good teaching artist (which it was) but it was the very fact that this classroom teacher believed in the importance of the dance objectives as much as the science objectives that really hit the lesson home for the students. She explained to them that there is a VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) grading area on their report cards and that she was watching their dance technique as well as level of participation and demonstration of science understanding. When I demonstrated the movement for them she made observations on my technique and what she expected to see from them. I was incredibly impressed with how well she “got it.”
I realize, of course, that because I am merely present for a series of three lessons and have a limited relationship with these students, I don’t have the same level of influence and my words don’t carry the same weight as those coming from the classroom teacher. However, watching this dedicated teacher who sincerely values the arts reminded me that I can expect more of the students with whom I work and that if I do, the students will likely rise to the challenge. I noticed that not only did their level of engagement increase but the energy in the room changed as well. Those students were smiling more and showing better technique with each repetition.
I have two take-aways from this experience. The first, as I just mentioned, is that I need to make sure I am keeping my expectations high so the students have something to which they can aspire. The second is that I need to remember the classroom teachers are my students as well. I need to remind the teachers how much influence they have with their students and that if they make clear that something is important, the students will get the message. If I can help the teachers understand and clearly communicate how valuable both the dance and the science objectives are to the students everyone is apt to take more away from the experience and I will have done my job well.