Seeing is Remembering 

Partners in the Arts brings a little "magic twang" to the classroom.

Students, primarily sixth-graders, have spent time with sculptor Paul DiPasquale; storyteller Dylan Pritchett; trumpeter Mike Davison; the barbershop quartet The Flying Iguanas; swing vocalist and pianist duo Desiree and Debo Dabney; dancer Fink; and Virginia Commonwealth University's jazz ensemble. It's a far cry from the "teaching to the test," criticism that often is leveled against the SOLs by critics, and the teachers at Oak Knoll are becoming convinced this interdisciplinary approach works.

Partners in the Arts was formed in 1993 after school administrators, artists and arts organizations came together to discuss the possible negative impact the Standards of Learning could have on arts education.

"The arts can be the first things to go when you're looking for time and money to teach the core subjects," says Debbie Mickle, director of Partners in the Arts. "We determined there was a way we could use the arts to teach across the curriculum." Through a summer institute that trains teachers how to integrate the arts into their curriculum and a grants program, Partners in the Arts encourages creative, collaborative learning.

Barbara Paterson, a language-arts teacher at the school, was instrumental in helping Oak Knoll receive its Partners in the Arts grant. Paterson says she hasn't changed the way she's taught in her 25-year career, even with the implementation of the SOLs. "I have always taught my subject area, English literature, through the arts," she says. " … Anything I can do to make the arts more applicable, … to be more absolutely necessary is a good thing."

According to teachers, Paterson says, history is one of the most difficult SOL subjects to teach. This is reflected statewide in SOL history scores, which are some of the lowest. "When you're trying to teach history to kids, it's difficult to them because it doesn't seem real," Paterson says. "In order to remember and visualize what the times were like, we thought it would be a neat idea to bring in artists who can represent the time period in their art. You tend to remember things better if you can see it. The arts are like a little magic twang [to memory]."

Fink knows firsthand how valuable movement can be to memory. She suffers from a learning disability that was not discovered until she was in high school. It wasn't until she began to work with a tutor who taught her how to learn through games and theatrical devices that she began to do well in school.

Although her high school dissuaded her from attending college, saying she wasn't "college material," Fink attended Virginia Commonwealth University, where she majored in theater and dance. "Now, I blend theater and dancing and apply it to academics to help kids learn," Fink explains. "I see how the arts can relate [to the subject matter] so they can think with their bodies and not just their brains. … With history, if you are that character it is easier to remember than if you read a history book and memorize a fact."

Fink has worked with every student at Oak Knoll Middle School in their physical-education classes, teaching them about creative movement. She then spent time with the sixth-grade students in their U.S. history classes, helping them re-create history through movement.

Today is one of her final days with the kids who are putting the finishing touches on their choreographed versions of 20th-century history. One group of girls has chosen the sinking of the Lusitania as their theme; three boys create a dance to illustrate baseball; a large group of energetic boys act out their version of Pearl Harbor, complete with much rolling on the floor and dragging of bodies. In May, the history classes will present their creations to the entire school.

Sixth-grade U.S. history teacher Amy Williams at first was skeptical about the notion of incorporating movement into her history curriculum. But now that she has witnessed its effects on her students, she says she plans to continue using movement in her classroom.

"The kids absolutely love it," she says. "It gives them an opportunity, in a nonverbal way, to express what they have learned. … It is so easy to regurgitate facts. This is them taking what they have learned and applying it. It is amazing to watch." S


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