Noël Grady-Smith, Dance
How long did the students spend on the whole ‘Can Frogs Dance?’ unit, including ballet classes, dissections, and debate?
From late January through early March, all of our seventh-graders gradually work on the systems of the human body. I try to synchronize my study of anatomy and the dancer to coincide with this science unit. For students not in my elective dance classes, I also offer a "visiting class" arrangement during my planning period. The science teacher brings all the students in that section to me and we team-teach.
The whole unit is about four to five weeks long, but my part usually takes between two and three weeks. The ballet terminology and the execution of the ballet barre and center exercises take about four to five classes. We team-teach dissection labs, which take two or three days. Then comes the summative experience of the debate, on the final class day in the sequence.
How did the three teachers involved come to do this collaboration?
Our collaboration was a natural outgrowth of casual conversation. Burl and I eat lunch together and I was bemoaning that one of my favorite units would be left undone, since I no longer had my original science colleague to collaborate with. Burl was willing in an “I guess I’ll try” way to join me in the experience. Later I confided to him that the weakest part of the unit had usually been the debate, which I found particularly challenging each time. We approached Joan, who had confidence that we could elevate the nature of the discussion to the level of a true debate with a few creative touches. The entire experience proved to be very successful and gave me such a great sense of connectedness to my colleagues and to their curriculum.
What role did each of you play in the planning process?
Each of us took on a different part of the planning and kept the others informed along the way. Joan came up with the entire plan for the debate. She reinforced our ideas and added her own curriculum by outlining the correct process for debate and summarizing statements. One of the best ideas that she had was forming the imaginary ballet company's staff and board of directors so that all of the students had roles to step into as they formulated and later expressed their opinions.
Burl handled all the details of the anatomy lessons and for the dissection labs. He helped students investigate the deeper structures of the frog's anatomy in the lab. Burl also was a role model for sharing a lesson. He tried everything that I taught in our dance class, demonstrating that everyone could participate in the dance as well as the science and language arts classes.
How does your school support you in planning this type of unit?
As a North Carolina A+ School, we teach through thematic units that include hands-on, experiential learning, and that involve daily arts instruction by arts teachers. This designation includes an arrangement that permits our arts teachers to plan with teachers in each of the three grade levels.
I have two planning periods (for sixth grade and for eighth grade) on our A days, and one planning period (for seventh grade) on B days. We also have one day reserved per semester for elective teachers to meet all day with the academic teachers to plan thematic units and brainstorm other short-term collaborations. In addition, we often have after-school sessions that give us uninterrupted time to match our curriculum and unify our learning goals.
Our school also is very helpful in giving us the necessary funds to purchase extra items needed to make the lessons go well. We have a wish fund that has been set up in the form of mini-grants through our business partner. The mini-grants are $300 maximum, but we have become experts at making that amount go a very long way.
What goals did you have for the students in the dance part of the unit?
Since I was teaching visiting classes and not just my seventh-grade dance classes, I wanted them to gain a more general understanding of anatomy as it applies to movement as well as a basic recognition of what classical ballet is and what it requires physically. I wanted them to be able to demonstrate their learning in the dissection lab as well as in the final debate. All of the goals for dance, science, and language arts were written out very precisely.
How did Burl assess the students' understanding of frog and human anatomy?
Burl designed a dissection lab guide and several quizzes to keep the students on their toes with terminology. He used informal observation techniques during my dance sessions as well as in the actual dissection process. We came up with the Two Points game, in which two students face each other and point to the bone or muscle as it is called out. Burl also had a unit test at the end of the entire experience.
You've done this unit several times. What would you like to do differently next time?
In the future, I would like to involve our students with some professional level dancers or exemplary students from the School of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which includes high school and college-level students. I want our students to be able to ask questions and understand the level of physical effort and skill that is needed to be successful in this art form. I would like our students to attend a performance after the visit with the dancers, and go behind the scenes. This would also help them to fill out their roles as members of the company staff and board of directors. And I know that some of them would develop more deeply held views on the inclusion of a frog in a ballet company after they had experienced the theatricality of ballet first hand.
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Joan Celestino, Language Arts Teacher
How were students assigned to their debate teams and to their individual roles?
We wanted to involve everybody in the debate, but the numbers for a debate team really need to be limited. So we created the make believe ballet company board of directors to enable all of the students to have a part. We created roles for the students that we thought would interest them, some relating to the arts (choreographer, patron, ballet master, costume mistress), others to the business of the company (lawyer, financial director, CEO). I asked each student to write what role he or she would like to have, and they put their choices on cards. From those cards and my knowledge of the capabilities and talents of the students, I assigned the roles.
We tried to make the activity fun and did not want anyone to feel too pressured with his or her assigned role. Learning about the roles came from prior knowledge from dance class along with a small amount of research and much dialogue about perspective. For example, I posed questions such as: How would the costume mistress feel about the challenge of creating costumes for the frog?
How did students prepare for the debate?
Our students knew nothing about debating. I had to start with the most basic definition (organized argument) and then try to connect debate to real life (political campaigns, courtrooms, academic high school/college teams). We discussed as a class the possible opening statements, and all of the students wrote down ideas that they had for the teams. We spent two class periods discussing students' ideas. The actual debate preparation was done in the hour before the debate. Debate teams were told to write opening statements combining the views of all team members, anticipate opposing team's arguments, create an outline for the rebuttal, assign team members to present each part, and practice their delivery. At the same time, the board members were to develop their individual characterizations, develop arguments, and formulate questions to ask the two teams. For all of these students, managing this list of tasks was a challenge. Our students rose to, and in fact exceeded, our expectations. As a teacher it was great because anticipating arguments from an opposing side - developing a counter-argument - is a key skill in our writing curriculum.
What is the value of role-playing for students at this age?
Students at this age still have difficulty recognizing multiple perspectives and identifying point of view in literature. Role-playing sharpens those recognition skills as students experience the perspective of another. Like most learners, middle school students can create more meaning out of learning when they experience it first-hand. Giving them a chance to take on other roles lets students imagine the thoughts and motivations that could be driving their character. The more practice students have with this, the more likely it is that they will be able to transfer the skills to their own lives, understanding better the needs, desires, and motivations of people around them.
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