Acting, dancing, drawing, and constructing their way to understanding

Nowhere in the city is the practice of arts integration on more vivid display than at the K-8 Creative Arts Charter school, a parent-run school founded in 1994. Katie Clay, a Creative Arts elementary school teacher and dance instructor, provides a good example of the school’s teaching approach in action. It’s Friday afternoon, and she and about 20 fifth graders are talking about the kinds of activities that prospectors engaged in as they searched for gold. Clay is trying to elicit a list of action verbs from the students, which she then compiles into several columns on the whiteboard. After a while, the list includes verbs like: “vibrating”, “throwing”, “‘shaking”, “swinging” and “rippling.” Clay and the kids aren’t in a typical-looking classroom—they’re in the school’s dance studio. The fifth graders are learning about the Gold Rush with their regular grade teacher, but that exploration isn’t limited to the whiteboard and textbooks. They’re exploring the theme through their arts classes as well.

In Clay’s class, they’re engaging with the subject matter by creating dance movements to illustrate what they’re learning. Over a period of several weeks or months, depending on the project, Clay and her students will create full-on modern dance performances based on these methodical, weekly, explorations of their academic studies. The dances can revolve around any theme. Second graders, for example, are spending the year with a unit called “From Farm to Face.” Clay will coach her students to create a dance that will explore the roles of the workers engaged in the process of food production. Last year, another grade created a dance that illustrated the human digestive system.

“It starts with a series of essential questions, and those questions are answered by the end of a 6- to 8-week study. And it’s answered through all of these entry points: dance, visual arts, music, field trips, and writing ,” explains Brooke Nagel, a lower school administrator who works on the school’s curriculum. The school administration has adopted a teaching framework called “‘Teaching for Understanding.” an approach championed by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Teachers pick a theme, and then work with colleagues in the different arts disciplines to help students explore them. The grade school teachers themselves use the projects to teach math, geography, social studies, and English. Download full article here

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