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The arts set young minds in motion


BOWIE - A dinosaur the size of 25 first-grade children waddled clumsily between desks in a Rockledge Elementary School classroom in Prince George's County.

Four 7-year-olds formed the prehistoric animal's head, two of them swiveling their heads to look like eyeballs. Two others opened and closed their arms like carnivorous jaws. The creature was a cross between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a stegosaurus, said another child, who was part of the tail.

But this wasn't recess or gym class: It was a reading lesson at the arts-infused school in Bowie, where the children reading Bernard Most's "If the Dinosaurs Came Back" were taking part in Moving America: Maryland, a program that uses dance and movement to teach first-graders everything from phonics to addition.

"Students' physicality is very powerful in their learning," said dance educator Krissie Marty, who has been teaching alongside first-grade instructors since September. "When I think about it practically, it's like a science lab, but creative."

Rockledge Elementary is one of eight Maryland schools - including three in Baltimore - participating in the Towson University-based, three-year teacher-training endeavor that integrates dance skills and concepts into daily academic lessons.

The program puts a dance educator in the classroom to work directly with children, and helps teachers use movement to teach traditional subjects.

In first-grade reading classes, movement is supposed to help children understand story content, sequencing, characters and main ideas.

"It marries the arts with academics in a way that engages and empowers students in the process of learning," said program director Jaye A. Knutson, an associate professor in the dance department at Towson University.

Many levels

The program, which began this school year, is funded through $200,000 a year in grants from the state Department of Education, National Endowment for the Arts and the GE Fund.

The program assigns a dance educator to each participating school to train teachers and will follow the children as they advance for three years. The teachers also take background courses at Towson University, including a graduate-level course, "Enhancing Reading Through the Arts."

After the three-year training program, teachers are expected to have embraced the teaching tech- nique and to continue to infuse dance into their curriculum, Knutson said. She also hopes to continue the program after the first three years and put dance educators in more schools.

In the program's launch this academic year, 10 schools around the state applied to take part and eight were selected, including Frankford Intermediate School, Mount Washington Elementary and Roland Park Elementary-Middle in Baltimore.

Knutson says she has received inquiries from dance educators in Florida and Massachusetts about establishing a Moving America program in their states.

'Excited about learning'

At Rockledge, Principal John Ceschini said he thought the program would fit nicely at his school, which has a tradition of blending arts into the curriculum to help teach children the basics.

The school, which Ceschini has headed for seven years, brings in artists-in-residence and is involved with arts programs through such institutions as the Kennedy Center and Harvard University. Teachers use the arts, including drama, poetry and music, in daily reading lessons.

"We firmly believe that the arts are an excellent vehicle to teach all content," Ceschini said. "I see students excited about learning, engaged in whatever the topic is."

As the resident dance educator, Marty helps plan the curricu- lum and collects photos and other data that will be used to study the impact of the program after three years.

Marty, who earned her graduate degree in choreography from the University of Iowa, said dance is especially useful for children whose style of learning is known as kinesthetic - that is, those who learn through activity and motion.

And teachers can tell immediately tell which children are catching on.

"At first, there was some skepticism and hesitancy about getting 25 first-graders on their feet and asking them to run around and start jumping," Marty said. But, she says, all three first-grade teachers are on board, and the sec- ond-grade teachers are excited to learn new teaching techniques.

A teacher's view

First-grade teacher Jill Manning acknowledges being a little hesitant when she learned about the program.

"My first concern is that I've got to teach these children to read by June," said Manning, a 26-year veteran teacher who considers herself a traditionalist in the classroom. "But the key to reading is experiences - the better you remember it, the better you're going to learn it.

"Young children like to move anyway, and dancing keeps kids engaged," said Manning.

Manning said some reading concepts are more easily taught through dance than others. Many pupils seem to grasp story content particularly well after they experience it by using their bodies, she said. In her favorite dance project this year, the children read a book about the lifecycle of a butterfly and then put the book to dance.

The dance-oriented lessons also seem to help children with oral and written language skills in other parts of class, Manning said.

"Some kids who didn't write or speak so well can now talk about what we just did. They can answer in complete sentences about how they felt about the story and the dance," Manning said.

On a recent day, when the dinosaur waddling around Manning's classroom had settled down, the children were instructed to write stories about dinosaurs.

"This is where their ideas come together," said Marty. "This taps into my passion. Dance is functional - I can teach reading."

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