Teachers dance their way into integrating arts

Teachers from across Alaska have spent the last two weeks in Juneau learning how to integrate art into their curriculums to help students learn better.


The program, “Basic Arts Institute — An Interdisciplinary Continuum: Storytelling from Ancient Traditions to Modern Tools,” has been going on for eight years here and is organized by the Alaska Arts Education Consortium.

The program encourages rural Alaskan teachers to participate, and more scholarships go to those teachers, but teachers from Juneau and Fairbanks also participate.

Thirty-three teachers, young and old, could be seen dancing around a classroom at University of Alaska Southeast, sometimes forming simple math equations, other times going through waltz moves. They also spent time learning about Eskimo dancing, stitching hackey sacks and beaded fur zipper pulls, picking and stripping devil’s club, creating digital stories and a variety of visual arts projects.

This is the first year the institute has offered digital arts — showing teachers how to create video projects for digital storytelling.

They also created lesson plans that integrated arts into what teachers already are doing.

The intensive two weeks left many of the teachers exhausted, but full of ideas on what to bring back to their classrooms.

Debbie Lorence, from Glennallen (Copper River School District), teaches mostly junior high math, but also language arts and social studies and a couple of high school courses.

She was interested in the program because a few teachers in her district did it last year, and she’s taught art recently.

“I taught high school art last year and was looking for more ideas on how to teach it well,” Lorence said. “I definitely will incorporate more movement in my class. I gained a lot of ideas for materials and techniques. I had good conversations with other teachers and what they do in their rooms.”

The institute also focuses on brain theory — recent research that shows how people learn differently and why it’s important to incorporate learning styles from both the left and right side of the brain.

Shelley Toon Hight, visual arts teacher at the institute, and Suzie Gaffney, dance/movement and brain theory teacher at the institute, said they reference several books on brain theory but particularly focus on Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind.”

Toon Hight said Pink explains the U.S. went from an agrarian society (farmers), to an industrial society, and is now a society of innovation.

“We’ve moved into an era of ideals and thought and innovation,” she explained. “We have to educate children who are innovators and the arts are a natural way to do that. He focuses on the senses and we focused on each of these six senses: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.”

Gaffney explained the six senses Pink refers to: he believes everyone should be a designer — from designing art to designing businesses; story is “what we’re made of,” it’s our history — everyone’s ears perk up when someone is about to tell a story, but they tend to shut down when it becomes a lecture; empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of others; play, “how we truly learn,” or as Albert Einstein was quoted, “Games are the most elevated form of investigation,”; symphony “takes bits and pieces of the whole,” or, conversely takes the whole and morphs it into an ideal (taking what you know and applying it); meaning is what really makes us do things, enjoy things.

“We forget how much we learn when we’re playing,” Gaffney said.

Gaffney said Pink isn’t against linear teaching and thinking, but he believes education systems focus too heavily on them.

She said more research also has been done about the cerebellum, which has long been associated with movement. But recent research, she said, shows that movement connects cognitive skills as well.

“It’s how our brain records things,” she said.

Toon Hight believes it’s important to for teachers to integrate arts.

“We’re trying to help them develop creative thinkers,” she said. “It’s inquiry based learning so it all begins with a question. If you think of it compared to a scientific method. It’s experiential learning.”

She also referenced Howard Gardner’s book, “Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” which she explained as there are multiple ways people learn and how different people benefit more from specific styles of teaching.

“Typically our (school) systems set up for the logical, mathematical learning,” Toon Hight said. “There are ways of teaching that will appeal to a broader student base. It really is centered around the arts, that’s the key.”

Gaffney said they used the research as a template, but integrating movement was also important.

“It becomes a game,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they would never translate it to paper-pencil. Some of the learning, some of the teaching, some of the brain breaks are done with more physical activity. Integration of movement and cognitive skills, that helps cement it. It sends it to different parts of the brain.”

Lorence said she plans on incorporating movement in her classes and believes students will get more out of the classes.

“I think that people have an inborn need to create,” she said. “I think it’s important to have a chance to create. So do something everyday in your life to be creative. I’ve really enjoyed the movement things we’ve done because it’s not something I get to do at home on my own.”

Danny Hodge, from Tununak (Lower Kuskokwim School District), was interested in the program because of the cultural arts. What he enjoyed the most was the digital storytelling, being able to create a video that explained from his brother’s death in a plane crash, he changed from wanting to go into ministry to teaching.

“I already have plans to do some of the visual arts with my students,” Hodge said. “I’m really excited about using the movement to enhance what the students are already learning. Well, for language arts I’m going to have the students actually make journals with an embossing technique. That will be their journal for the year. With movement, we’ll actually create movements with the different processes like the water cycle.”

Marcella Wickland, also from Tununak, has been to all the arts-related in-services her district has offered and wanted to be able to integrate arts more.

“It gives student ownership and it helps with self discovery,” she said. “I think art can boost confidence levels and help students express what they can’t say. A lot of our students are so young or have been through traumatic experiences they can’t say through words. I think art can be that form of expression as well as motivation to be a positive influence.”

Mary Huntington, one of the institute’s cultural arts teachers, said it’s also important to integrate culture into the classroom.

“It brings a closer tie to how students, whether they recognize it or not, how students learn naturally,” she said. “It validates the importance of the cultures. That it also has its own rigor and own standards and there are lots of skills that it involves. They are not simply lesser skills.”

Betsy Brenneman, institute coordinator, said they also held a session in Kenai for the first year and had its third year in Fairbanks. Normally the institute also is held in Anchorage, but was not this year.

For more information on the Alaska Arts Education Consortium see: www.akartsed.org.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.


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