Good teaching is good teaching, period.
Whenever I learn a good technique presented in one context, chances are pretty good it will apply to another area as well. Just recently, I had one of those serendipitous experiences where one training I attended helped address something I struggled with in another area. I love it when that happens, compare and contrast.
The “How We Express Ourselves” Lesson
I worked with some third graders, integrating their classroom unit “How We Express Ourselves” with musical theatre. For one lesson, I took a song from West Side Story and had the students watch the scene from the movie that presented the song. I asked the students to identify how many different kinds of artists had to work together to make it all happen. How many singers, composers, choreographers, camera operators, etc. all had to work as a team to bring it to life. Also, I also asked them to identify what they thought happened in the scene. Along with, what feeling or mood was created.
My students seemed to miss the playfulness in the song “America”. I was surprised all they got from it was the “fighting” of the characters over the positive and negative views of their experiences in the United States versus Puerto Rico. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next in order to help the students understand the spirit of the scene. Then, I attended a workshop about visual literacy, specifically using portraits to integrate art with other content areas.
What I didn’t know then was this workshop was going to inform the next step I would take with my musical theatre students.
Melanie Rick, the presenter of the workshop, modeled teaching with portraits having the students compare and contrast pictures to infer information about a story or a period in history. I found it interesting to not only observe the students as they compared and contrasted the pictures, but to have a chance to do it myself. In the process, I got the chance to rediscover how effective comparing and contrasting can be in engaging the learner and deepening learning. Learning this way is like unraveling a mystery or, like one student said, an adventure. And who doesn’t love a good mystery or adventure?!
An Epiphany: Compare and Contrast
Later, as I sat reflecting on what to do with my third graders, the answer came to me – compare and contrast. In order to hear the playfulness in the “fighting” of the characters in the song “America”, I would have them compare it to the music accompanying a real fight from the soundtrack. For all the classes, I selected 3 different songs to play for the students. I stripped away the visual so the students could focus on just how the composer used the various instruments and the elements of music to create a specific feeling or mood in each scene. I altered the sentence frame Melanie Rick had given the students to assist them in analyzing portraits from “I think _______ because I see ______” to “I think _______ because I hear ______”.
This sentence frame helped the students to remember to return to the text (portrait or song) to provide evidence for the conclusions they were making. After hearing the other selections, the students did hear the joy and the playfulness in the music of “America” and were able to identify how the composer created the difference using the elements of music. They were also highly engaged in the task. Success!
Looking back, I wish I had started this whole unit with my third graders listening to the three musical selections and having the students suggest what they thought was happening in the scene based on the music alone. How much more gratifying to view the actual scenes later to see the accompanying actions and choreography and hear the lyrics! A mystery. An adventure. If I ever do this particular unit again, I know where to start – compare and contrast.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.