One of my guilty pleasures is watching reality television, particularly performing arts competition shows. The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) and Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) are my go-tos. I’ve only been watching DWTS for a few seasons now but each season I’ve watched, there is one episode that has the stars identify their most memorable year. Their professional dance partners create choreography to tell the story of each star’s memory.
Do you know what I’ve noticed? I’ve noticed that every season, that episode is often when stars have a “break-through” in their dancing! They actually care about the message of the dance and connect emotionally with it. Generally speaking, this elevates the level of performance for these non-professional dancers. You really can see them owning the choreography and connecting meaning to the movements.
Of course, what is so compelling about all these reality competition programs to me are the personal journeys of the contestants. I enjoy seeing the growth they experience, the break-through moments that move them to tears. I watched a man on SYTYCD who had only ever done breakdancing who broke down after performing a contemporary dance. He explained to the judges that he had never really connected personally to movement before and said that he never realized dance could be that for him.
This is what using the arts can do for your students as well. It can connect them emotionally to their learning and allow them to find their voice to tell their own stories.
But what does that look like in the classroom?
One 2nd grade classroom teacher had her students dance their personal narratives. They created movement maps with different lines to represent different movements along the floor. They then performed their dance narratives focusing on the emotions experienced in the different parts of the story. The teacher marveled at the level of detail that emerged in the students’ writing because they had finalized the writing after they had experimented with movement to convey the story.
In one of my theatre classes in graduate school, small groups chose one members’ narrative to act out. The author directed the short play. It was so interesting to talk about the experience afterward! The directors were so moved to see their stories performed by others (stories which ranged from deeply touching to hilarious) and the actors felt a sense of duty to authentically recreate the story of their fellow group member. Although we were adults, this could easily be adapted for younger students giving them a chance to be actors and directors.
Both of those examples are obvious since they are literally the stories of the students. But whatever is being created or performed need not be the students’ stories to have the students be emotionally invested. Students can find a story of their own in any work of art – music, visual art or dance. They can assign meaning to allow the piece of art to tell them a story and they can support their story with evidence from the piece. When performing or listening to/watching music or theatre, students can be given the history of the piece to understand the intentions of the composer or playwright.
Anything that can be personified, whether it be a rock that witnesses the changing landscape over time or is witness to battles of war or a cell in the human body dividing or carrying on the work of the body, allows for the performer to have empathy and connect with the experience of that object.
Art helps us make emotional connections
When we make emotional connections, we care about things. Art can help students make emotional connections to their learning making it a more meaningful and memorable experience. And if the students share those connections with others, those other students may be moved and they may see and understand science or history or a piece of art in a whole new way.
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.