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Teaching Core Academic Concepts Through Theater and Dance

PearlArts Studios & Turner Intermediate School implemenent deep-dive units to teach core academic concepts using theater & dance.

How often does a teacher tell their students to get out of their seats and dance around the classroom? That's exactly what students in grades 3-6 at Turner Intermediate School did to explore various topics from fractions and poetry to the rock cycle. The hope is that by addressing struggling students’ different learning modalities, long-term retention of often abstract concepts can be increased.


Information on this page is provided by the innovator and has not been evaluated by HundrED.






December 2018
There was a lot of give and take to make this work and I am thankful for the cooperation from my district's administration and willingness of the resident artists to step outside of their comfort zones. Despite the skepticism of many, by the end, we were successful in creating unique educational opportunities for this district's students.

About the innovation

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 are not relevant to students in more affluent communities. 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, teachers at Turner Intermediate co-planned lessons around topics they felt best matched with the kinesthetic modality used in dance and theater. Students learned a plethora of topics including magnets, verbs, fractions and ratios, biomes, types of sentences, the rock cycle, types of symbiotic relationships, the water cycle, and polygons, 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.

A typical lesson started with a brief video to grab students' attention. They then headed to the dance floor to warm up their bodies. This was followed by a brief discussion of the academic concepts for the lesson. No two lessons were ever the same. In some, students worked with a partner to create a gesture or brief dance that showed an understanding of the topic as when they were challenged to act out different types of sentences (imperative, declarative, interrogative or exclamatory) without words. As students performed their gesture or dance, the rest of the class tried to guess the sentence. Other lessons saw students work in large groups, as when they were challenged as a class to collaborate to determine factors and multiples using their bodies as manipulatives. Yet other lessons had the students learn a dance taught by the resident artist as when they first created dance moves for the different steps of the water cycle and then performed them in order. The only commonality from one lesson to the next was the ownership that students took in the unique works of art they created.

Although many students were, at first, reluctant to accept this unique approach to the STEAM "classroom", through the gentle guidance of various master instructors LaTrea Rembert, Jessica Marino, Sarah Janosky and C.J. Lee, they slowly began to enjoy the experience. By the end of each 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 program proves 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 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. This Artist Residency Project was supported, in part, by the Arts in Education Partnership of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. The Arts in Education Partner serving Allegheny, Beaver, Greene, and Washington counties is Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Implementation steps

Locate Local Arts Partner (optional)

You may find that you are already qualified to teach core academic concepts through theater and dance. However, if you are not comfortable with dance and/or theater and you do not have easy access to someone who is, you will need to locate a local arts partner. You may be lucky and have a local dance and/or theater company with an outreach program or you might need to contact a local university with a dance and/or theater department to help you. Creativity is essential as finding the right partner is critical to your program being successful.

Identify Academic Concepts to Be Taught

Not all topics are best taught using kinesthetic teaching methods. However, many are. Here are some of the topics that I have taught using this method. This list is not inclusive of all of the lessons my students received. Developing lessons only requires stepping out of your comfort zone and being creative!

1. The Rock Cycle - Students learn about the three types of rocks (sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic) and the processes that cause one type of rock to change to another. Students then work to act out either the environment in which these changes might occur or how the rocks themselves might behave as they change. For example, sedimentary rocks form in water, so the students may move their bodies like flowing water. Metamorphic rocks change through heat and pressure so how would you distort your body to show this? Depending on the level of students, they may be asked to create their own dances or the teacher may direct the students.

2. Four Types of Sentences - Students learn about Interrogative, Declarative, Exclamatory and Imperative sentences. They learn the types of punctuation used in each along with adjectives that might describe the person using these sentences. For example, a person using an imperative sentence (command) might be confident and bold whereas they would be energetic if using an exclamatory sentence. Students then develop a gesture to express the type of sentence they are assigned. Students can not use words and the audience tries to guess not only which type of sentence their gestures portray, but what the sentence might be.

3. Multiples, Factors and Fractions - Students are asked to work collaboratively to group themselves into different combinations representing multiples, factors or fractions. For example, the teacher might ask a group of 20 students to use their bodies to create a list of factors for the number 20. They might also be asked to find the least common multiple of two numbers, among other tasks. Students might even be asked to do simple division using their bodies as manipulatives.

4. Polygons and Shapes - Students are shown different shapes and types of polygons (circle, triangles, quadrilaterals, etc.). They are then asked simple questions to describe the shape such as "How many sides does your shape have?" or "Does your shape have any equal angles or equal sides?" They are then asked to work with a partner to create a simple gesture that incorporates their shape. For example, students who selected a square might draw a square with their hands as if drawing a picture frame around their face or they may do a simple square dance. The gestures can be literal such as drawing a circle or interpretive such as incorporating spinning into the dance. Audience members then need to guess the polygon or shape.

5. Reading Fluency - The teacher reads a text multiple different ways. The students are asked to determine if the reader's presentation matches the content of the text. Next, the teacher reads the text in a way the students agree matches the text while a dancer improvises a dance. Students are then engaged in a discussion about whether the dancer's movements matched the text. Finally, students are asked to work in groups to create their own dance using a brief text as inspiration.

6. The Water Cycle - Students are presented with the basic steps of the water cycle (Evaporation and Transpiration, Condensation, Precipitation, Collection (Accumulation)) and the order they occur in, recognizing that a cycle is an endless loop. They then discussed the 3 phases of water (solid, liquid, gas) and the phase change that may occur with each step of the Water Cycle. Finally, they discussed where they might occur. For example, evaporation usually occurs at ground level when liquid water turns into a gas that rises into the atmosphere whereas precipitation involves a level change from high in the atmosphere to the ground. Students are then placed with a partner and asked to create a simple dance that shows the steps of the water cycle in order. The remaining students act as the audience to determine whether they can identify how each part of the water cycle was represented in the dance.
Create Appropriate Schedule
In most schools, classes are 40-50 minutes long. In my school, they are 40 minutes. However, introducing each topic, warming up your bodies and getting into the "meat" of each lesson takes close to an hour. Each time the resident artists come to the school, they work with two different groups of students. To accommodate this, I needed to add 20 minutes to the beginning of the first lesson and 20 minutes to the end of the second lesson. Furthermore, this winter, the resident artists were only available in the morning yet I had the students that they were to work with in the afternoon! To accommodate this, I negotiated with my administration that I would flip my morning and afternoon schedules. Schedule changes can only be done if you have the support of your administration. However, once my administration saw a lesson in action, they quickly had "buy in".
Gather/Organize Media
Generally, each lesson utilizes a brief (2-4 minute) video from Youtube (or the like) to introduce the academic concept, along with a graphic or two that portrays the topic. In addition, it is important to have a playlist of music that can be used for the warmups along with any background music you want to play while the students work in the independent group portion of each lesson. This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce students to new artists along with different genres of music they may not be familiar with as, in reality, the most important part of the music is its beat. My playlist uses a lot of Motown as, unlike modern music, it was free of profanities and full of good vibes!
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Many students are awkward dancers and shy to show their lack of coordination to their peers. Students can be very mean to each other. Some of my students took a while to accept the arts integration lessons as legitimate STEAM classes. They wanted their iPads and laptops back! Throughout each class, I never force a student to actively participate. What I do instead is simply have them onstage to observe if they feel uncomfortable moving their body. By the end of each unit though, extremely few students refuse to engage and many students want more. You may be surprised, as I was, to see students who are disruptive in the regular classroom become leaders on the stage. You may be amazed, as I was, to find students who have hidden talents that would have never been discovered if they weren't put in an environment that allowed them to showcase these talents. Not every student does well in a traditional classroom. This program gave those students a place to learn.

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