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Hands-On Humanities: Engaging Students Through Movement and the Arts

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Tim Briggs is a former 11th Grade Teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista who now teaches English at San Dieguito Academy


Looking across the classroom, I see my students standing stock-still, their arms frozen in mid-air and their bodies twisted like trees blown by a storm. In a loud, clear voice, I call out, "bludgeon," and the scene springs to life; a girl clasps her hands together and raises them over her head, then mimes delivering blows to an imaginary foe. For a moment, a few students sport confused faces, but looking around at their classmates, they begin to form weapons with their hands and swing their arms forcefully against the air. "Freeze," I cry, and the movement comes to a halt, the bodies before me again arranged haphazardly.

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To an outside observer, several questions might spring to mind: What's going on here? What kind of class is this? How does this connect to content? Where are all the desks? There are times when I asked myself many of these same questions, for the scene I just described represented a radical departure from anything that had taken place in my 11th grade Humanities classroom the year before. Yet, by stepping outside of my comfort zone and embracing new teaching practices, I moved closer to my goal of creating an engaging classroom space that levels the playing field for all learners and provides opportunities for in-depth discussion of complex texts.

My transformation began last summer in Merida, Mexico, at the Habla Teacher Institute, a week-long workshop dedicated to exploring ways to integrate literacy, language, and the arts in the classroom. I came to Habla curious and open to new ideas, but unsure of what I would be doing there. Imagine my surprise on the first day, when I found myself being asked to create a dance with a partner and perform it in front of the group. I was terrified! All I could think about was how everyone would be watching me make a fool of myself because of my lack of rhythm and coordination. In short, I felt like many of my students when they are asked to share their writing or read aloud to a group. Yet, with the help of Lida, our enthusiastic instructor, I was able to overcome my anxiety and present my dance to the other students (which, it turns out, was optional). Then, a funny thing happened: I realized that I had let go of my anxiety and was having fun.

Over the course of the next week, I experimented not only with dance, but painting, stencils, and sound installations, as we used art as a tool to unpack The Odyssey by Homer. In this midst of this creative maelstrom, I found myself absorbed in a way I had never experienced before--discovering all the sounds you can make with a spoon and a coffee cup, listening intently to my group members explain their idea for translating a passage into a dance movement, critiquing a performance for not being representative of the text. There were struggles too, like when I had to challenge my desire for perfection that was holding me back from creating visual art. By the end of my time at Habla I was certain about one thing: I needed to try this with my students.

Armed with my experience and a literacy and arts text I purchased at the workshop, I set about planning an arts integrated unit on "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman. My classroom soon became a place of creativity and inspiration as my students and I jumped head first into movement and vocabulary activities, like the one I described above. Later that day, when we sat down to read the Whitman poem aloud together, students nodded in recognition when they heard now familiar words like bludgeon, savage, and replenish. Before discussing the text, I asked students to form a tableau, or scene composed of a group of motionless actors, representing their interpretation of the author's message. After several minutes of furious rehearsal, groups presented their tableaus and the class was asked a simple question: "what do you see?" Students, even those most reluctant to speak, were calling out what they saw in the tableaus and connecting their observations to their interpretations of the poem. Other students built off the initial ideas and added new layers of meaning, generating a rich dialogue through the tableau, which had created a common language that all students could access.

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At the end of the class period, I gathered the students together in a circle to debrief our work. I asked each student to choose one word that best described their experience in class that day. One by one, they shared their word aloud to the rest of the class: "Engaging." "Challenging." "Collaborative." "Fun." Watching each student, I was struck not only by what they were saying, but the energy and conviction of their voices and the smiles on their faces. It was rewarding both to receive such positive feedback from students and to see them so present and alive in the classroom. Getting to this moment wasn't easy; it involved a lot of personal exploration, inquiry, planning, and risk taking. Yet, integrating the arts into my classroom also brought me the greatest reward in my six years of teaching, not only from students, but from myself--I took pride in my work and had more fun in the classroom than ever before. As educators, we need to open ourselves to new experiences, put ourselves in the role of students, and find new ways to engage ourselves and our students in learning together. The payoffs for students can be great, but perhaps the greatest dividend is taking the time to invest in our own development and rediscover the spark of learning within ourselves.

Photos by Nick Ehlers

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