Becoming students, again

Program allows teachers from around the state to hone their skills

Posted: Thursday, August 04, 2005

Days don't begin quietly for a group of teachers visiting Juneau to hone their classroom skills.

The clapping and singing get the blood flowing to the brain, said Cristine Crooks, a former Juneau teacher and administrator coordinating the Alaska Arts Education Collaboration Project at the University of Alaska Southeast, now in its second summer. The program is part of a three-year federal grant.

Many teachers find success at working the arts into their lessons, Crooks said.

"We've made it sound like it's a bad thing to have fun in school," she said.

Twenty-six teachers from seven school districts around the state, from as far away as Bering Strait and the North Slope, are playing the roles of students to learn what the arts can do to improve how children learn. The two-week program will wrap up Friday.

The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall in New York donated plastic recorders for participants to play and will provide them for teachers to use with their students, Crooks said. Participants also are learning how to integrate visual arts and dramatic arts into the regular curriculum.

Two Alaska Native elders have discussed Native culture from northern Alaska and the Southeast as well.

"It's not all about Picasso," Crooks said.

Ryan Conarro, a theater artist who has worked in Juneau schools, used Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" to bring the dramatic process into the classroom.

Veteran teacher Jan Whalen, wearing a paper toga over her clothes for Conarro's session, said she is eager to use what she has learned during the last two weeks.

"This is going to be such a kick in the pants," Whalen said. At her school in Valdez, she will teach the fourth grade in the fall with the same third-graders she taught last year, and she knows they're going to love it, she said.

"With this, (teachers) can come out with a tool kit," Conarro said.

Lessons are built around scenes of the play. Participants interpret the characters and the emotions involved, and the same dramatic process can be applied to science, he said.

An intermediate teacher covering the water cycle, for example, could have students demonstrate the effects of water on people.

It's all about bringing education alive and providing different ways for students to understand what they are learning, said Annie Calkins, who evaluates the program.

"Not all kids learn the same way," she said.

Whalen sees the dramatic process bringing out more from the quieter, bookish students and the more extroverted students that a traditional lesson might miss.

The evaluation of last year's summer program showed that teachers developed lessons integrating arts into subjects as diverse as fairy tales to the Civil War.

The results have been well-received, partly because it's more enjoyable for the kids, Calkins said.

"They're more motivated to learn," she said. "They're more motivated about being in school."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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