Third graders at Propel East Charter School in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, sit in a circle playing hot potato. Some students toss the imaginary spud from hand to hand; others sit calmly wincing as the potato burns their hands. One boy tosses the potato on the floor and, pulling a hose from behind him, sprays gallons of water to cool it. Another takes an exaggerated bite. The kids watch, smile, and grimace at their classmates' varied reactions.
The props may be imaginary, but the excitement of these 3rd graders is real. This improvisational activity, led by members of the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater, is a warm-up for one of the daily enrichment classes at Propel charter schools. Partnerships with local artists and collaboration between these community educators and Propel's teachers are an integral part of the program.
The Propel schools are a consortium of charter schools in the Pittsburgh area. Currently, our network includes two K–5 schools—Propel East and Propel McKeesport—and our K–8 flagship school, Propel Homestead. All schools embody a strong commitment to both academic excellence and exposure to the fine and performing arts. Propel East is a racially mixed school at which 55 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The majority of students at both Propel McKeesport and Propel Homestead are black, and more than 80 percent of students at each school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
All Propel schools offer daily enrichment. Engagement in artistic study and expression and physical movement are the central elements of this enrichment. Propel's leaders established the program to reflect the Propel schools' core belief in the importance of academic accomplishment, community, and personal power and passions.
Propel schools partner with local fine and performing arts groups and recreation centers, who present to our students learning modules based in various genres. Each group works in the schools for six weeks, providing two visiting artists or teachers to lead each learning module.
Visiting artists may change from year to year. In past years, we have partnered with, among others, the Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble; Pittsburgh Irish and Classic Theater; the YMCA; Attack Theatre (which focuses on movement and dance); Spoken Word (which guides students in responding to poetry through creative movement); and Civic Light Opera's Creative Vision program (which introduces students to acting, musical theater, and dance).
Propel designed the program to ensure that classroom teachers and visiting groups routinely collaborate. For instance, visiting artists from Creative Vision involve classroom teachers in designing their modules and often build curriculum around books that students are reading in language arts class. In their recent module at Propel East, artists from Creative Vision connected drama, music, and dance activities to content in the book Pirates Past Noon, which students were reading in language arts. They guided students in creating artwork and writing an original song with a pirate ship theme and conducting research to learn more about pirates.
Visiting Artists in Action
Through enrichment, Propel students become accustomed to connecting artistic and academic concepts in all learning experiences. In a module that the Attack Theatre presented at Propel East this year, visiting artists used creative movement techniques to reinforce geometry concepts that 1st graders were learning in math class.
In a typical enrichment class in this module, visiting dancers led students through warm-up exercises in which they demonstrated knowledge about geometric concepts. As dancers Annie and Beth turned, they shouted, “90 degrees, 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 360 degrees!” Students followed the dancers in spinning two quarter turns, a half turn, and a complete circle.
After the warm-up, students watched as Annie put her finger to her lips and tiptoed around the edges of the gym. She informed the class that she had just walked the perimeter of the gym. “What's that?” one student asked. Annie and Beth explained that a perimeter is a boundary or border: They clarified the concept by having Beth stand inside the perimeter and Annie outside the perimeter.
Beth then asked students to watch closely. She walked around the gym, outlining an invisible perimeter in the shape of a large L and instructed the students to stay inside this new perimeter. As the children scurried into the imaginary boundary, Beth called, “Now for the tricky part. We want you to move inside the perimeter!” The students walked around, carefully avoiding the edges of the shape. Annie and Beth told them to jiggle like gelatin inside the perimeter, melt like ice cream inside the perimeter, and so on. Smiles and laughter filled the room as this physical interaction with an imaginary perimeter gave students a powerful way to grasp a mathematical concept.
Visitors from Attack Theatre also used a movement lesson called “Machine” to reinforce the concept of cause and effect, which was a central idea that these 1st graders needed to grasp for a story they were reading in the Open Court reading program. Attack Theater took this theme and built it into a movement activity students enjoyed. In the Machine routine, one student stands in the middle of the room and moves a part of his or her body, such as wiggling a hand. Then another student joins in with a movement that directly affects the first student's movement, for example, holding that person's wiggling hand and swinging it. As students join in the movement, making connections, swinging arms or legs, shaking hands or heads, they visualize the abstraction of cause and effect.
How We Manage It
The Propel schools' enrichment coordinator—who has a long history of involvement in the Pittsburgh arts community—invites the arts groups into the schools and provides on-site supervision and guidance for the visiting artists. To maintain high academic standards, visiting artists are expected to provide clear lesson plans and to modify assessments for students with different learning needs.
The art teacher in each school works closely with the visiting artists to familiarize them with the school and to maintain connections among the visitors, the students, the enrichment coordinator, and the school faculty. Students take enrichment for 50 minutes each day, alternating between classroom art on one day and a workshop with the visiting artists on the next. For every module, the artists and the art teacher together assign each student a grade.
All the schools build extended time into their calendars to give academic teachers, art teachers, and visitors the hours needed for such fruitful collaboration. Propel's school year includes 190 instructional days for students and 30 additional professional inservice days for teachers, some of which are earmarked for collaborative meetings. This extra time also enables teachers to pursue their own personal and professional development. The Propel schools' leaders believe strongly that, as professionals, educators need time to continue to learn.
Celebrating the Learning
At the end of each module, students showcase what they have learned through a Celebration of Learning. Families are invited to attend. Celebrations of Learning vary from theatrical performances to informal presentations to open observations of a typical class session. Students are involved in every step of preparing for such events, helping to make props, designing scenery, and creating advertisements or programs that incorporate the module's theme. Creating a Celebration of Learning requires collaboration among classes and teachers. Students begin to see connections between their classes, and they more easily retain knowledge when they make such connections.
The Celebration of Learning for Creative Vision's recent module at Propel East, which used drama, music, and dance to reinforce students' reading of the book Pirates Past Noon, centered on a pirate theme. As friends and family entered the school for the performance, they dug for “treasure programs” that had been rolled up and placed in a treasure chest filled with “jewels.” The program showcased kindergartners' fish and bird costumes, 2nd graders' hand-painted mural backing up their rendition of the Beatles hit “Octopus's Garden,” and a fantastic island dance performed by 1st graders. Students sang “Come Aboard the Propel”—the original song they had helped compose—and performed as dancing mermaids and singing pirates.
Video courtesy of Propel East Charter School
A sense of pride and accomplishment emerges during the Celebrations of Learning. After each celebration, students watch their videotaped performances and share feedback. Students need this reflective component to extract deeper meaning from arts instruction. Reflection on both their final productions and the effort they put in to make them is also necessary to accomplish a main goal of arts education—to enable students to better understand their lives and the world around them.
Fostering Learning for the Whole Child
There are many facets to the Propel schools' success in fostering learning for the whole child. The most apparent is the collaboration among the teachers and visiting artists involved. These artistic collaborations set up a model for collaboration throughout the school. As students see the staff working together to provide an integrated curriculum, they emulate this positive behavior in their daily interactions.
Arts-based learning also enables students with different learning styles and intelligences to excel—and to explore the different ways in which people learn. The activities provide a positive outlet for students' emotions and physical energy. Our schools have found that some time away from a traditional, static classroom structure is healthy. If they have avenues to express their emotions and talents, students are less likely to act aggressively, to bottle up emotions, or to resist participating in activities they find hard.
The program also exposes students to many cultures and art forms. Students at the Propel schools come from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences; some have had no opportunity to experience the artistic and cultural treasures that Pittsburgh has to offer. The length of the program enables students and artists to engage with one another over a long period of time, and to experience the arts in far greater depth than the typical daylong visiting artists model permits. Such exposure to arts and culture at an early age gives students a broader perspective on the world.
At a recent Celebration of Learning at Propel East, I listened to a 5th grade boy, beaming with confidence, deliver his lines with a stage voice that carried across the gym packed with parents and friends. The rest of the class backed up his monologue with an impressive chorus. This enrichment unit had obviously brought students a new set of skills and knowledge, particularly a level of acting ability not usually seen in elementary children. These students would soon begin an entirely new learning experience when a new pair of visiting artists walked into their classroom.
Sarah Zadny is the art teacher at Propel East Charter School, 1611 Monroeville Avenue, Turtle Creek, PA 15145; 412-823-0347; email@example.com.
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