Blending The Arts And Common Core

Dec 19, 2014

Flamenco dancer Anna Menendez performs for students at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena as part of lessons that combined the Common Core standards for English literature with art forms.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR

Earlier this year, 20 Maryland teachers were paired with professional musicians, singers and other artists to develop week-long lessons connecting the arts with the Common Core standards.

The artists went through Common Core training, the teachers learned how to blend the arts into their instruction and the lessons the teams created together went live in some Maryland classrooms this week.

At Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, professional flamenco dancer Anna Menendez and English teacher Peggy Dombrauskas came up with a Common Core-based lesson that used the dancing to help students in three ninth-grade English classes understand Night, Elie Wiesel's memoir of his experiences during the Holocaust.

Dombrauskas chose three passages with different tones and moods and Menendez matched those to what the students would see and hear in her dance and music.

"The idea is to spark excitement,” Menendez said. “If they're moved by seeing me perform then that will stick with them and they can translate that into their understanding of the book." 

The lesson required the students to read the passages more closely and think critically about the text, a Common Core standard.

"They have to go deeper than this seems sad to me or this happy. (Tell me) why," Menendez said.

Dombrauskas said getting the students to defend their answers is another major tenet of the more rigorous Common Core standards that she pushes heavily in her classroom.

"It's not surface learning anymore," she said. "That's the best part. Now they're making associations they might not have had before."

One of the passages Dombrauskas read was Wiesel's description of the monotony of his days as he went through a depressing routine in a concentration camp.

“I rose at dawn as we did every day, had black coffee, a ration of bread as always...”

The students circled words that matched the tone of the passage from a list they had been given, then connected that tone to one of the several dances Menendez performed. Because Wiesel's day was monotonous, they picked a repetitive dance number.

"The same repetitive things going on in Eli Wiesel's life. Everyday was the same routine," Dombrauskas said.

Menendez also played three different pieces of music that the students matched to passages from the book.

"Think about tempo. The passage was pretty depressing and some of the music was fast and playful," Dombrauskas said.

The students stood in a circle, learned flamenco dance steps and created routines of their own to convey the tone of scenes and moods of characters in the book. Dombrauskas said blending the arts with the book made a difference in how her students responded to it when compared to past year's classes.

"I see them more engaged. They're making the connections and they're enjoying it more. Instead of feeling like we're giving them this depressing information every day, and the book is depressing, that doesn't change, they're also getting to do something that's fun, that's getting them out of their seats," Dombrauskas said. "They are not just having fun and games but are still learning about the message in the memoir."

Most of the students said integrating dance into their lesson took them away from their normal routine, something they liked.

"I think it's cool," said Courtney Stevens. "It's like easier to understand because it's showing you all this different stuff."

Jessica Malecko agreed and added, "It's better than just sitting in a class and reading a book."

Kevin Alger, who was initially reluctant about having to learn the flamenco steps and applying it to the book, changed his mind as the week progressed.

"I'm not a dancer myself so I didn't think I was going to enjoy it, but I like it a lot," Alger said. "It's a great opportunity to learn other stuff."

All comments Dombrauskas was happy to hear.

"I hope 10 years from now, I'll run into one of my students and they will say, you know I really remember what I learned in "Night" because of what we did in our flamenco classes," she said.

Now that the class is over, Menendez and the other artists will take their lessons to additional schools around the states.

Flamenco dancer Anna Menendez (far right) and Chesapeake High School ninth-grade English teacher Peggy Dombrauskas work with students on dance steps connected to moods and tones in a book they are reading. The two created a week of lessons that combined the Common Core standards for Englishwith the arts.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR