Science with Dance in Mind
A new Baltimore public school program encourages dance and science teachers to think alike.
“Try standing up without applying Newton’s laws,” says dance educator Rima Faber to a group of teachers. “You have to push down on the floor to go up, you have to overcome inertia, you have to overcome the force of the propulsion to stop your constant motion. Just getting up out of your chair applies all the major laws.” Through simple activities like this, Faber has been encouraging a team of Baltimore teachers to teach science through dance. The collaboration has resulted in a new program called Teaching Science With Dance in Mind that will be launched in three Baltimore public schools this fall.
Faber, who helped found the National Dance Education Organization and served as its program director until she retired this year in June, has been passionate about teaching science through dance since the 1970s, when she developed movement exercises to help her daughter grasp concepts that she couldn’t understand through verbal instruction alone. Faber and others, including Anne Green Gilbert in Seattle, have promoted movement as a key to academic learning for years. But what makes this project unique, says Faber, is that the aesthetics of dance are as important as scientific understanding. “They are given equal treatment,” she says. “Usually the art gets forfeited in favor of the academic goals. But here they are mutually respected.”
Faber pursued the idea for this program last year when she learned of a Maryland-based nonprofit group that gave grants for experiential approaches to science education. She figured getting the funding would be a long shot since the organization, Hands-On-Science, had never funded a dance project and, due to the economic downturn, was about to shut its doors. Still, she decided to try and argued her case passionately. “I invited them to move forward to the 21st century by bringing science into a new realm of pedagogy that involved kinesthetic learning,” says Faber. Hands-On-Science, impressed by her arguments and syllabus, included her project in their final granting cycle.
Previously, Faber had created dance and science lessons by asking science teachers for a list of concepts that students were having trouble understanding. Then she’d devise isolated movement exercises to help. But with the Hands-On-Science funds, Faber has been able to design a more extensive approach that addresses a breadth of concepts included in Baltimore County’s science curriculum.
She has also been able to partner with two other Baltimore-based dance educators: Suzanne Henneman, who oversees the dance curriculum for the Baltimore County Public Schools, and Katie Wright-Sabbatino, an arts integration specialist who currently teaches second grade.
From the start, Faber knew she wanted the project to involve classroom teachers as well as dance specialists. One goal was to train dancers to teach science—but she also wanted science teachers to understand dance and to be able to use it as a teaching tool. “The ultimate goal is to get science teachers to automatically think of movement as a part of their lexicon of learning possibilities,” she says. “That’s what will give this longevity.”
From January through May, Faber held training sessions that provided five dance specialists and five science/general ed teachers with necessary skills. The classes tied elements of dance—space, direction, shape, levels, rhythm, timing, phrasing and movement quality—to
scientific ideas. For example, when discussing quality of movement, Faber brought in scarves and beanbags and asked participants to describe how the objects fell—heavy, fast and direct for the beanbags and drifting, gentle, slow for the scarves. They translated these qualities into movement and also used the differences to discuss physical forces like gravity and air resistance.
After their initial training, each dance specialist was paired with a science teacher to collaboratively create movement exercises that they’ll teach as a team in primary or middle-school classrooms this fall. The teachers began by identifying parts of Baltimore’s science curriculum that they thought would be best served by dance and then worked with the dance specialists to create movement to go with those concepts. The 10 participants will
continue meeting as a group throughout the school year to discuss and assess their progress.
The teachers involved in the project have become an enthusiastic, close-knit group and are excited about this project’s potential to help a variety of students. “Some kids just don’t learn verbally, but when they experience something, they get it,” says Faber. “Without approaches like this, those children fall through the cracks. And even those who do learn well verbally enjoy this method.” Wright-Sabbatino agrees. “We think of science as being physical and concrete, but sometimes it can be very abstract,” she says. “Dance connects you to an idea and makes you feel it from the inside.” DT
Emily Macel is writing a book about Erick Hawkins. She lives and writes in Washington, DC.
Photo by Rima faber