Moving out of Our Comfort Zone
A reflection from Valerie Branch, professional dancer, master teaching artist, and YA roster artist, on the triumphs (and challenges) of teaching Summer Arts and Learning Academy kindergarteners math and literature through dance with her teacher partner, Sara Myers.
“If we stay true to our art form, and what we know about our art form, then the students have an active and engaging educational experience where they are learning, processing, and applying information.
At this year’s Summer Arts and Learning Academy, I was partnered with elementary school teacher, Sara Myers, at William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore. Together, we taught kindergarteners math and literacy through dance and movement. I love working with this age group because it reminds me that we are all multi-sensory learners, it doesn’t just take one mode of teaching/instruction to help students learn.
In our arts-integrated math lessons, we created Number Bonds in motion to help the students gain a higher understanding of addition and subtraction. Students were able to break the number apart to figure out what two numbers it would take to create / get to that number; they were also able to put two numbers together and process the final product.
It’s a fun and magical thing to watch the brain work and watch the students process and apply information learned. I saw students raise their hands for an answer – give the wrong answer – and not be afraid to use their brains to ultimately find the correct answer. I saw students learn about and apply their knowledge of contrasting words in their physical bodies, and they created dances that were a representation of these words.
Working with Ms. Myers was an awesome experience for me as a Teaching Artist. I loved that she always had new fresh ideas, and wasn’t afraid to try new things with our students. It’s so important to trust your teacher partner and build a strong collaborative relationship. If the students sense that you are not able to work together and respect one another, they will continually challenge that relationship. Be open, but also don’t be afraid to give your ideas and to take risks.
“When we’re fully engaging with the students, moving throughout the room, using all of our resources and allowing the students to take ownership of their learning — that is when we are having the best time together, and when the students are learning the most.
When we’re fully engaging with the students, moving throughout the room, using all of our resources and allowing the students to take ownership of their learning — that is when we are having the best time together, and when the students are learning the most. I appreciated that Ms. Myers was open and willing to have those experiences with us! However, it was important for us to be in tune with the needs of our students, to challenge them to push beyond their comfort zone, but also to know when they simply needed a break.
In the afternoon, Academy teaching artists have the opportunity to share their art form with students during artist-led Arts Explorations classes. These daily classes gave students the chance to delve deeper into dance and movement.
Zoe, a student from my last Arts Exploration class, came to me very shy and almost afraid to shine. I challenged her to push past her comfort zone and be proud of her individuality. There were times during class when she would simply shut down. However, I continued to work with and encourage her, and it was amazing to see her classmates also supporting her.
Our ultimate goal in this Arts Exploration class was to create a dance about friendship, a dance we would later perform during a culminating event on the last day of the Academy. Through perseverance and her ability to trust herself, she was able to obtain a starring role in the dance, working together with another student to create a duet that began the whole dance.
As with any live performance, even though you make a plan, you simply do not know what is going to happen on the day of the show. On the day of our culminating performance —and in front of dozens of other students, parents, teachers, and artists — Zoe truly rose to the occasion and was a star performer. I was so proud of what she was able to accomplish and to see all our young students working together to create dances. They collaborated, engaged in meaningful discussion with one another, and were able to activate their short-term and long-term memory skills to process information and produce work.
“As with anything we do in life, in our careers as artists, etc., we face challenges. It’s how we deal with those challenges that define the person we are and are striving to be.”
Every day there was a challenge at the Academy, whether it was too hot in the building, students having a difficult time adjusting, creating an effective lesson structure that engages all students, or making sure that I remained as neutral and open as possible. I think what was remarkable about this whole experience is that we — myself, my teacher partner, and our students — always started each day with a fresh, clean slate. We continually found ways to improve the course of our day and the success of each child.
We encouraged our students to continue to rise above the challenges and try their best in all things. It was simply an awesome experience walking into or leaving the building and have students call out to say “Good Morning” or “Goodbye,” and run up to you to give a hug. You know you’ve positively impacted a child simply by the way they engage with you — even if the events of the day brought some challenges.
The mission of Young Audiences’ Summer Arts and Learning Academy is to provide Baltimore City Public School students with an opportunity to spend a summer learning from the best teachers and teaching artists in Maryland. Through a dynamic and supportive environment, students developed an understanding of the creative process and 21st Century Skills with an exploration into arts integration that focused on math and literacy. Students had a fabulous culminating event, showcasing their skills in visual art, songwriting, spoken word poetry, dance, piano, drumming, playwriting, fiber art, and filmmaking.
The Academy is funded by Baltimore City Public Schools, The Abell Foundation, The Family League of Baltimore with the support of the Mayor and the City Council of Baltimore, The Alvin and Fanny B. Thalheimer Foundation and individual contributions to Young Audiences. All participants are students at a Title I Baltimore City Public School.