PORT ANGELES — Dance might seem to be an unlikely way to learn about geology, but the 16 Roosevelt Elementary second graders in white lab coats who followed the lead of arts educator Keely Whitmore by stretching, hopping, reaching, skipping and crouching were absorbing concepts about rocks, erosion, landscapes and the environment.
The lesson reinforced what they had been learning in teacher Sharon Fritschler’s class by bringing the subject to life through movement as they waved their hands to imitate a river and slowly grew from a tiny rock to a mountain and then an exploding volcano.
It was also a lot of fun.
The class was a product of Peninsula Performs, a new Field Arts and Events Hall education program that Whitmore and seven other local artists teaching dance, drama, photography, printmaking and sculpture are bringing to second and fifth-grade classrooms in the Port Angeles School District.
Field Hall executive direct Steve Raider-Ginsburg said Peninsula Performs is based on Hartford Performs, a program that works with Hartford, Connecticut, public schools to make the arts accessible to students.
“Performers could come give a performance at schools, students could be bused to an off-site performance or artists could visit the classroom,” Raider-Ginsburg said.
“Our goal is to use the program to reinforce and expand the education that students are already getting.”
Each artist’s lesson or series of lessons is aligned with national Common Core State Standards and Washington Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, which outline benchmarks for student knowledge from kindergarten through the senior year of high school.
Integrating arts into non-arts curricula to improve learning by connecting two different subject areas to deepen students’ understanding of both is not new.
And there is research to suggest that this approach can make a subject more accessible to students, like using theatre to teach history (tinyurl.com/3t7sajxs) and incorporating painting and drawing into science lessons to increase their level of interest (tinyurl.com/4mxw8cht).
Peninsula Performs is funded with grants from the Port Angeles Education Foundation and the Washington State Arts Commission; there is no cost to the school district.
The goal is to build the program so that it can expand in the number of students it serves and local artists it hires, said Kayla Oakes, Peninsula Performs’ education director.
“If we continue to get funding, we can hopefully open it up to other grade levels this year and ultimately other school districts on the North Olympic Peninsula in the future, not just Port Angeles,” Oakes said. “We would love to add more musicians, dance, and theater and continue offering the visual arts as well.”
The collaboration with the school district came together quickly after Oakes spoke with assistant superintendent Michelle Olsen last spring. It was particularly important, Olsen said, that the program was tied to Common Core standards as well as to a new elementary school reading curriculum.
“We talked a lot about how we might connect it with what we’re already doing in the schools so that it supported the work that is already there,” Olsen said. “Our teachers are very aware of the standards and where those opportunities are within our curriculum to provide a more unique experience and hands on learning.”
Teachers choose from a list of artists on the Field Hall website that links to a page with that includes their teaching credentials, details about the lesson, what subjects it is appropriate for (history, social studies, etc.) and how it meets educational standards. Teachers and artists are required to communicate before a class visit to align lesson plans, and discuss scheduling, expectations and desired outcomes.
“I asked her what they were learning about in science and she told me they were learning about rocks,” Whitmore said of her email conversations with Fritschler. “She had the idea of doing the life cycle of a rock, so I ran with that and that’s what we ended up doing.”
Whitmore’s lesson began with breathing exercises and tactile activities like students pretending their fingertips were raindrops landing on their heads. They practiced having a body in control, “like a dancer,” and then a body out of control.
Students took turns pretending to be a rock on Hurricane Ridge, where the class had taken a recent field trip, as it wove its way downhill to the ocean by weaving through a circle of other students waving brightly colored scarves and pretending to be mountains (white scarves), plants (green), animals (orange) and a river (blue).
“What do you see when you roll down the mountain?” Whitmore asked.
Fritschler, who started working in the district in 1983, said Whitmore’s lesson using dance was akin to her approach to active and project-based teaching.
“But it’s always wonderful for kids to have exposure to new instructors and new ways of communicating and also just stretching what they’re able to do,” Fritschler said.
“I think that they were able to feel kind of a different way of thinking and being and trying to incorporate movement with their bodies.”
Although Whitmore is using dance to teach science as part of Peninsula Performs, she said she had applied it many other subjects.
“You can do things with storytelling, literature and social studies and even with math you can incorporate movement,” said Whitmore, who has a master’s degree in education and an undergraduate degree in dance.
The dancing and moving continued throughout the entire one-hour lesson and students who had been reluctant participants at the start were fully engaged by the end.
“Who are we?” Whitmore asked. “We are great students, great scientists, great dancers, and great learners!”
Second and fifth grade teachers in the Port Angeles School District and artists who are interested in Peninsula Performs can find information on the Field Hall website: fieldhallevents.org/education. Questions about Peninsula Performs should be addressed to Kayla Oakes at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at Paula.Hunt@soundpublishing.com.