Dyan Branstetter | July 2019

Teaching Artists: Empowering a School Community through Dance

It’s not every day that you get to start the day breakdancing. But when it happens, it is rather amazing. This year, our K-4 Title 1 elementary school hosted the teaching artists Hip Hop Fundamentals, based in Philadelphia, PA. Hip Hop Fundamentals’ mission is to educate, engage, and empower. They kicked off a weeklong residency program with an assembly focused on breakdancing, youth empowerment, diversity, creativity, and working together, embodied by Hip Hop’s four principles: Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun.

The students’ engagement at the introductory assembly was through the roof! Watching the artists spin, flip and dance was electric. And they were able to control the excitement of the crowd effortlessly to share new knowledge as they danced through a timeline of hip hop. Students couldn’t wait to try the dance moves themselves. Each class worked on choreography with the artists and performed for each other at an all-school culminating assembly at the end of our week.

One Person Can Make A Difference

This community partnership was a long time in the making. I’m not an administrator, and I don’t have the power to choose school programming or change curriculum. However, I strongly believe in arts education and arts integration. So I do everything that I can do to bring more of the arts to our students.

One of the missions I’ve taken on is a yearly artist in residence. A number of years ago, this was funded by our district when our music and art classes were cut in half. Now that music and arts classes have been restored, the funding for the artist in residence was cut. While not ideal, it is only a minor bump, because instead of simply finding and organizing the residency, I need to also write a grant and have it approved in order to fund the artist visit. We’ve had successful teaching artists experience for the past six years. My hope is that it continues for many years!

My principal has been supportive of me bringing these artists to our school. Each time I have proposed a grant with a strong rationale and purpose so that it would be hard to argue the benefits for our students. In my experience, if you have a solid idea based on research and follow through with the work in an organized way, administrators are totally on board.

Matching Teaching Artists with Your Students

Knowing the population I serve, I knew I wanted to get some hip hop artists into my school. We have a diverse population, yet our staff is not. Our past teaching artists brought some cultural diversity through art. But as our staff, all of the artists have been Caucasian teaching fine arts. I wanted to find some artists that could reflect our student population as well as bring a high level of artistry and professionalism. Hip Hop Fundamentals fit this description perfectly.

Incredible teaching artists are tricky to find, because some people are incredible artists, but their strengths do not lie align with teaching. Jeff Mather, a teaching artist in Georgia, wisely said, “Just because an artist does beautiful work does not mean that they are adept at sharing their art form with diverse groups. Then again, you could get lucky and find an artist who seems to have some innate ability doing this. But even artists who work with art centers or museums may not have the skill set or wherewithal to succeed in a school setting.”

Each year as I begin my search for perfect-fit teaching artists, I add more to my personal directory of connections. Even if someone doesn’t work out this year, I add them to my list for the future so I have lots of people to contact in the following years. What helps tremendously are organizations who have a bank of teaching artists, such as Young Audiences: Arts For Learning. Working with Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, I was able to feel confident that the artists would bring a high-quality experience to our school. And did they ever.

Measuring Success

It is a lot of behind the scenes work! You’ve got to secure the grant. Communicate and schedule with the artists. Don’t forget mapping out the scheduling logistics of the experience for students. However, it is completely worth it when the student’s reactions are so positive. In a survey sent to teachers after our experience, 100% responded that their students enjoyed the experience. We were able to spark something inside of a number of our at-risk students as well… Some of whom drastically outperformed students who are frequently recognized for academic success.

All students left their session with the teaching artists feeling strong and confident, for the message from the artists was that it doesn’t matter if you mess up, just keep going! They pointed out perseverance, focus, and self-control in the rigorous choreography, which transferred so naturally back to a classroom setting. My favorite measure of success? A sign-up sheet that was started by one of my learning support students in the two minutes we had between our session and lunch. (I found it in my classroom while students were at recess.)

We’ve discussed the many benefits of this hip hop experience for the students. But there were benefits for the teachers as well! I always feel like good teaching artists are like a little hands-on PD for teachers. They have the opportunity to pick up arts integration techniques for their classroom… All while observing and assisting during their class’s session with the artists! I pull together an experience-specific resource guide to share with teachers during the artist’s week. Why? To help spark lesson ideas and connections! Here is a sample of our Hip Hop Resource Guide geared towards K-4 teachers:

Tips for creating a successful Artist In Residence Experience (in a relatively traditional school)

  1. Find funding. This can be through your school, school district, or through writing a grant. I do this part over the summer.
  2. Find an artist. This happens in tandem with funding since to secure the funding you need to describe the experience the artist will provide. Check out our directories below to help start your search.
  3. Start a File of Local Teaching Artists: During your research for local artists, you will inevitably find contacts for more artists than you need. Save them! That way if something falls through you have a backup. Plus it gives you a place to start searching the following year.
  4. Set a Format for the Experience. Come up with a schedule format that works for you, and duplicate it each year. This routine helps teachers as they are planning, but it also makes it easier when you’re communicating with the artists. It makes it easier for your sanity, too, because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel!
  5. Equitably Feature All Art Forms. If this becomes a yearly event, rotate through the arts. This ensures students to have well-rounded experiences in art, music, dance, and drama.
  6. Communicate with Building Staff: Become close friends with your building staff, especially administrative assistants, custodians, and specialists. In order to have a successful experience, it takes a lot of communication to make sure you have permission to use certain spaces in the building. It is also important that you communicate scheduling to everyone involved. This will create a positive experience for everyone.
  7. Create a Teacher Resource: Enhance the experience by providing resources for teachers that are related to the art form being taught. Teachers are always strapped for planning time and instructional time. This can be a great way to introduce the idea of arts integration, and you can share the difference between arts integration and arts enhancement. Provide a variety of arts integration and enhancement levels of activities and lessons so that all teachers, regardless of their comfort level with the arts, can find something to use. Meet with the artist ahead of time to talk and ask questions to help find curriculum connections for your school. Collaborate with the artist on ideas you have for a theme, focus, or project that connects with your school and/or curriculum.
  8. Advocate for your Experience: Share, share, share everything as much as you can, and publicly thank your funding source as many times as you can. The more you can share the benefits of your experience, the more likely you are to secure support and funding again.

Our artist in residence experience is my favorite week of the year. Overall, I love how it builds school community through every student sharing a common arts experience. And I love how students gain exposure to an art form they are unfamiliar with. I love seeing some students, for whom academics are really hard, completely shine in with a new skill, helping change the teacher perspective on that student’s strengths. Lastly, I love seeing students and teachers making connections between the arts and academics/social skills. If you don’t already have a teaching artist experience like this for your school, don’t wait for it to come to you. Take it upon yourself to make it happen!

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About the Author

Dyan is a fifth 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.