Meetings. They can be long and wasteful of time. However, we also know that meetings are a necessary part of collaboration. Recently, I was invited to attend a planning meeting. I was there to learn how to document the process in the software my organization uses. The meeting began with a teaching artist and three 5th grade teachers outlining how to integrate debate with stepdance. That was that! My inner arts integration geek was awakened and I was all in.
Though the collaboration is in its 3rd year, one teacher was vocal in expressing that the integration felt contrived. It felt unnatural to her and she could not see an elegant connection. She felt it interrupted the flow to tell the students how they connected. Connection is an important part of arts integration and though I was only there to observe, I suggested that they present the concept of debate first. The next step would be to teach the students stepdance and then ask the students to draw connections. (There was so much more I wanted to say but I didn’t feel it was my place.)
When I got home that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about that integration idea. The integration of debate and stepdance is elegant and natural in concept! Have you ever seen stepdance? Dancers often use call and response, or recite verses together, as they create rhythms using their bodies. This integration could work really well, provided there are good grade level standards to support it. As my mind raced, something occurred to me. Perhaps the problem with the planned integration was that the students were chanting about debate… rather than debating using dance.
Off and running
I began by looking over the various Standards I could align. The 5th grade CCSS for ELA in reading for evidence, writing opinion pieces, and speaking and listening was a great fit. Next, I read through the 5th grade NCAS for Dance. I wanted a Standard from each of the processes (Creating, Performing, Responding, Connecting). It needed to align well with the ELA Standards and the idea of debate. Then it was time to look through the Standards for 5th grade California History/Social Science. I found something that aligned beautifully with the Standards I had already identified in ELA and Dance.
In California, 5th graders begin their study of the United States with the development of the colonies. Then they move on to the Revolutionary War and finally, the formation of the Constitution. During my Standards searching, the following detail grabbed me: “Describe…the ongoing struggle between proponents and opponents of slavery…”
Many slaves came from Africa. Stepdance originated in Africa. And there is a heated debate over the institution of slavery in the colonial era. BOOM! How perfect is that?
Break it down
The “creating” dance standard tasked the students with creating choreography from several stimuli. That led me to research stepdance, slave songs and the relationship between the two. (You could also consider visual artworks relating to slavery in the colonial era and how that could inform choreography.) Once they complete their research on the institution of slavery and creating their pro/con arguments, students would have text, music and visual art to serve as inspiration for choreography. This research would not only give them a deeper understanding of the historical debate. It would also give them practice in gathering evidence for writing opinion pieces.
The possibilities were endless and I was absolutely geeking out. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I stayed up nearly all night. By morning, I had outlined a unit that integrated all three content areas.
Food for thought
I decided to share it with the teaching artist as food for thought. When presenting it to her, I did acknowledge that this unit would be best delivered by a dance teacher on staff at the school. (This is so that s/he could regularly collaborate with the classroom teachers on the integration and support the instruction.) That is not to say that it wouldn’t work with an outside teaching artist. It would require more planning time than many schools have in their residency budget. It also would create much more work for all the teachers since they would have to gather materials, write plans and support the process in their classrooms in between dance sessions.
I also suggested that perhaps making a shift from rhythmically chanting about debate while stepping to debating while stepping may be a richer experience. (And a stronger integration of the ELA and dance standards!) You have to start somewhere and honor the limitations a situation can bring.
During this experience, I realized a couple things. One is that there are many people who are interested in arts integration. The other was that many may already be practicing it but they may not be leveraging it for its greatest impact. The factors that contribute to this may vary. But to take a good integrated learning experience and turn it great, all you need is some arts integration education, research, and investment of time.
I am making it my mission to make that happen whenever and wherever I can. I invite you to join me!
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.