It is so interesting for me to observe students learning geometry in the elementary classroom simply because it is so different than other math concepts. Students who struggle with math sometimes shine when learning geometry since it is so visual. This can help to change a fixed math mindset and give a student the confidence boost he needs to believe in his math abilities. In turn, some students who love calculating can be somewhat turned off by the many vocabulary words that accompany this topic. For both perspectives, bringing movement and dance into the math classroom is a fantastic way to help the vocabulary stick, which gives students a bank of background knowledge to access when they are required to do more advanced geometric activities.
In my curriculum, our most difficult tasks are to classify triangles according to angles and to classify quadrilaterals based on common attributes. For this, students really need to fully understand the following words:
- line segment
- parallel, intersecting, perpendicular sets of lines
- right angles, acute angles, and obtuse angles
- quadrilaterals: parallelogram, trapezoid, rectangle, rhombus, square
- Other polygons: triangle, pentagon, hexagon, octagon
Teaching Geometry Concepts with Vocabulary
I start by front-loading these vocabulary terms. We first inquire about the definition of a polygon by exploring examples and non-examples until we settle on our official “rules of a polygon”. Then, I teach approximately four words at a time. For each set of words, students make a quick flip book out of construction paper. They record the word, the definition, and a visual reminder of the word. Then, we create a motion for each word. For example, for the concept of an endpoint, the students punch out their fist. To show a ray, students point one arm in any direction. For a right angle, students make an “L” with their arms. After each set of four words, we play a game of “Simon Says” to help students master the movements and review the words.
Introducing the Dance Assignment
Once students know the vocabulary, students are groups together into pairs, trios, or quads. I ask them to collaborate to use the motions (or variations of them) that we learned for Simon Says to create a geometry dance. Their goal is to show us at least 5 movements or poses where the audience can identify a geometrical word that we now know. At least one of them must be one of the polygons we learned.
Integrating Dance Elements
After students begin to play around with their movements, I pull the class back together to explain the idea of positive and negative space between dancers, and how students can create a more interesting dance by utilizing that space intentionally. (Positive space in dance is where the dancer’s body is when dancing. It is the space where people mostly look when watching dancers. The negative space is the empty air around the dancer.) I share a few video clips of the dance company Pilobolus, and we look at how they use movement to create new shapes.
After discussing the initial viewing, we watch again to focus on the positive and negative space. Then, after quick reminders about safety and that third-graders are not trained to lift one another like Pilobolus does, students return to their groups to finish their choreography.
Performing and Assessing the Dances
Once students are ready to show us their geometric dance, it is helpful to give the audience a purpose for watching. I provide little checklists of our vocabulary words for audience members to use as they spot each one. This holds audience members accountable and helps to captivate their attention through all of the performances. Plus it further reviews our vocabulary words. This strategy also slightly takes the pressure off of the performers who may be nervous to perform in front of their peers since they know others are watching for the math concepts instead of their individual performance.
After each group’s performance, the audience members share the vocabulary words they thought they noticed and the performing group gives them feedback, sometimes demonstrating the pose again to show the polygon (or other term) that they created. This gives me an opportunity to do some formative assessment as I observe which students seem to understand the vocabulary, and which groups could demonstrate some examples of positive and negative space.
Note: As an extension or in place of these performances, students could take pictures of the performers as they create each geometrical movement and label the geometry with an app such as Skitch or Seesaw. Students could import these into Adobe Spark and add music to create a music video similar to those we viewed of Pilobolus.
Bridging the Movement to Paper
These movement activities are an integral part of my geometry unit, and I wouldn’t want to teach the concepts without them. However, it is important to bridge the movement to paper, since that’s how students will need to demonstrate their proficiency. Some students can naturally make this transfer, but most students need a scaffold to connect their movements to the types of questions that are presented to them as they use attributes of polygons to identify them like the examples shown here, or explain the mathematical difference between a square and a rectangle.
For this reason, I balance our movement activities with visual art activities. I also have students create visual flow charts to see how quadrilaterals can be compared and contrasted, and we measure every angle with the corner of a piece of paper. Without internalizing the vocabulary first, however, students will not be successful with these more rigorous tasks. And without our geometric dancing, students don’t always internalize the vocabulary.
Have you tried using dance to help students master geometry? I’d love to hear your ideas!
Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.