Timothy Weinstein, STEAM teacher at Turner Intermediate School (Wilkinsburg Borough School District)
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Teaching Core Academic Concepts Through Theater and Dance
A Novel Approach in STEAM to Integrating Arts and Academics
Turner Intermediate School is one of two schools that comprise the Wilkinsburg Borough School
District. As an inner-city community, Wilkinsburg's students often
struggle to learn in the face of poverty and other obstacles that
students in more affluent communities do not. The district itself recently emerged triumphantly from a period of
intense problems that saw itself placed on the state's Financial Watch List, ultimately leading to the closing of its middle
and high schools, among other things.
As part of its reorganization, it created a STEAM program and in the summer of 2017, one of two newly assigned STEAM teachers, Timothy Weinstein, attended a summer program to learn about integrating arts into the STEAM classroom. While many people are familiar with STEM, incorporating the A for Arts requires somewhat of a paradigm shift. As he sat in the workshops, he was inspired by a comment made by one of the administrators urging teachers to "throw out the standardized test prep books that districts buy and pay an artist instead". He wondered how he could infuse the concepts of STEAM, not just in his classroom, but throughout the entire school. While the school already had music and visual arts teachers to teach those subjects, it did not have dance and theater professionals, let alone ones capable of using those art forms to teach core academic subjects! With this in mind, Mr. Weinstein contacted Staycee Pearl at PearlArts Studios, a local dance company with experience in teaching dance classes to inner-city students to propose his innovative teaching idea.
Working with Genna Styles, Director of Education and Outreach for PearlArts Studios, 4th and 6th grade teachers co-planned lessons around topics they felt best matched with the kinesthetic modality used in dance and theater. 4th grade students learned about magnets, verbs, fractions, biomes and symbiosis, among other topics while 6th grade students studied types of sentences, fractions, the rock cycle, types of symbiotic relationships, and ratios, among others. In addition to this academic focus, students were introduced to basic dance and theater techniques along with activities that presented a variety of musical and dance genres as they attempted to instill an overall appreciation for the fine arts.
Although many students were, at first, reluctant to accept this unique approach to the STEAM "classroom", through the gentle guidance of master instructors LaTrea Rembert and Jessica Marino, they slowly began to enjoy the experience. By the end of the unit, not only had many students learned to appreciate new forms of art, they also learned a few new dance moves, and most importantly, some core academic concepts in preparation for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests!
This pilot program proved that through deliberate collaboration, even seemingly disparate concepts such as poetry, science and modern dance can be effectively melded to create a unique educational experience for not just struggling students, but for all students. Who ever thought that they would see a group of students create a dance that accurately shows the components of the rock cycle or a marine biome?
We are very grateful to Mary Brenholts from the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts for its generous financial support of this initiative and the numerous foundations (including the Grable and Benedum Foundations along with Remake Learning) for helping to establish the STEAM program at Wilkinsburg Borough School District.