Finding the Patterns

An innovative way to learn math and music with movement

A group of young students is working to form a circle, giggling as they cross arms and reach for one another’s hands. One girl stands in the center as the children begin to rotate around her. It looks like they’re doing a simple dance, but that’s not the case. These dancers are actually learning about math as they pretend to be points of a circle, trying to keep an equal distance from the girl in the center.

The class is M3 = Math x Music x Movement, a summer enrichment program in which children discover mathematical patterns through dance and music. They explore such concepts as spatial arrays, jumping fractions and symmetric duets in an environment where they can take creative risks without feeling wrong. “The class does not focus on ‘getting an answer’ but rather discovering connections,” says instructor Janet Blenheim. Her program combines dance and academic components to show how patterns are the common denominator for math, music and movement.

Students of Janet Blenheim’s summer enrichment program learn geometry via dance.

The Roots of M3

Blenheim started teaching the class at Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, just two years ago, but her work integrating math and movement has been evolving for several decades. She danced professionally before earning a double degree in dance and elementary education, and she went on to teach creative movement and ballet at all levels. Now a Japan Fulbright Scholar and head of the K–5 Math Department at the School District of Upper Dublin in Pennsylvania, Blenheim is developing a repertory of Math & Movement lessons integrated with children’s math literature. “I believe students who are physically and cognitively engaged develop a deeper and lasting understanding,” she says. “The Chinese proverb I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand is my mantra.”

Lisa Collins Vidnovic, director of MBA, has known Blenheim for 25 years and is thrilled to be able to offer her school as a platform for the program. “We share a passion for dance and education, and different ways that we can expose all children to math and literature,” says Vidnovic. “Some children just learn better while they’re moving.”

M3 is designed for children entering second, third and fourth grades, but it has the potential to adapt to a variety of ages and levels. Students are on their feet using elastic to form geometric shapes, arranging polygons into patterns and choreographing dances to fit musical phrases. In the two-and-a-half-hour class, five days a week, there is little inactivity.

Class Structure

The first day, Blenheim has children introduce themselves by clapping the syllables of their name and having the group echo in response. “Then I introduce and model variations of pitch, tempo, accent, pattern (repeating a syllable) and movement (clap, snap or stamp),” she explains. “We repeat the name echo activity, but with choices and infinite variations.” Blenheim believes that the creative process flourishes when you establish structure and allow children variety or choice.

Her class follows a consistent structure starting with a body warm-up to music by composers such as Scott Joplin. She then gives a “brain warm-up,” a problem or puzzle for the students to consider. They might work with partners and try to arrange 16 dancers in an array formation, using colored tiles to represent their costumes. Blenheim’s instruction is: “The costume designer insists on a different colored costume in every row, column and diagonal.” The children organize their arrays and then record their thinking on paper handouts.

Each class is based on a theme or essential question, such as: What are polygons and where do you see them in everyday life? Blenheim gives a brief lesson about geometry terms and has the children model concepts with their arms and copy movements while saying vocabulary words aloud. “I choreograph the timing and activities of the classes to keep them engaged without exhausting them physically or mentally,” she says.

Choreographers/Mathematicians

Before the end of class, students are creating dances and counting music in multiples of threes and fours. One exercise has them moving across the floor in a “run, run, leap” pattern, alternating right and left, shouting out multiples of three. Later, Blenheim teaches musical terms by having everyone count aloud: softly (piano) 1, 2, loudly (forte) 3…until they reach 30.

“A lot of learning math is seeing the patterns involved,” says Vidnovic. “Janet has them choreograph a lot, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.” Vidnovic is hopeful that the M3 program will help students have a better understanding of choreography in their dance classes and rehearsals. “In general, it’s hard to get children to envision the spatial dilemma,” she says, “and how they should visualize the stage, the space they’re dancing in and their place in it.”

So far, parents and children are enthusiastic about the program, and Blenheim takes pride when she sees her students quantifying everything from jumps and turns to body angles by degrees. “The children are thrilled to dance a subject that is traditionally done seated at a desk with paper and pencil,” she says. “Parents are always curious about how I could possibly combine three distinct disciplines. The lightbulb goes off when I explain that the common denominator is patterns.” DT

Julie Diana retired as principal dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014.

Photos by Janet Blenheim, courtesy of M3= Math x Music x Movement

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