Guest Spot

One of the surest ways to liven up a lesson is to invite a guest or teaching artist to work with your students. “At the most rudimentary level, it’s exciting to bring someone from the wider world into the classroom,” says John Cimino, president and CEO of The Learning Arts in Chappaqua, New York. “It helps you look freshly at things that may have become a little too familiar.”

First, it’s important to note the difference between guest artists and teaching artists: Guest artists are usually professional dancers or choreographers who can demonstrate, discuss and instruct students in a particular style of dance, such as Horton technique or flamenco. Their visit might include a master class and lecture, setting choreography on students or preparing them for a performance. Teaching artists are also from the professional dance world, but they have received additional training to use dance as a method for teaching other subjects, such as physics, writing and social studies. A teaching artist might use dance patterns to help students understand geometry or haiku, for example, and the lesson might also include a performance opportunity.

Whichever type of artist you choose to work with, here are a few steps to ensure the experience is productive for everyone involved.

Set Clear Goals
Debbie Gilbert, a teaching artist and co-artistic director of Whistlestop Dance Company in Seattle, advises classroom teachers to put a lot of thought into what they want to accomplish during a guest’s visit. “The key to being effective is to create clear criteria for the lesson,” she says. “The TA, the teacher and the kids should all know what they are learning.”

Depending on your goals and budget, the length of the guest’s stay can vary from a two-hour class to a two-week residency, or once a week for a semester. After this is determined, you and the teaching or guest artist can work together to break down the overall goals into a series of developmentally appropriate steps.

Talk It Over
Teachers and artists should talk in-depth about the upcoming visit. “It all begins as brainstorming: Here are our interests, here is a challenge, let’s create something together,” Cimino says.

Topics that should be covered in advance include:

  • district or national standards that must be met
  • how students will be assessed
  • classroom concerns, such as special-needs students
  • who will be responsible for classroom management
  •  informing parents and faculty of the guest’s visit

Ask guests what they will need during their visit and inform them about the size of the space in which they’ll be working and the amount of time allowed for each lesson. In turn, prepare students by discussing what the guest will be teaching and go over relevant information, such as vocabulary words and historical facts. If the class will be watching a performance, review audience etiquette.

Be Present
Gilbert was unpleasantly surprised when one classroom teacher read a newspaper during her visit. Teachers should partake in the experience, though the nature of the participation may vary. For instance, if the visit will stretch over several weeks, consider working together as co-teachers. If the guest is only available for one hour, the lesson might run more like a master class, with the classroom teacher either participating alongside the students or actively observing.

In any case, the classroom instructor should always be present to keep an eye out for potential problems, such as students who act out, and be ready to nip behavior issues in the bud.

Follow Up
Gilbert encourages classroom teachers to stay in touch after her visit, whether to ask for advice on working through challenges or to pass along news of successes. “Many times, you model a lesson so the classroom teacher can continue to teach independently, with your support,” she says. She also loves receiving letters from students, who talk about what they learned or why they enjoyed the experience.

There are many ways to incorporate a guest’s lessons into future classes. If the subject was Martha Graham, for example, you can have students write research papers about her or create their own Graham-style dance phrases.

A guest or teaching artist’s visit can leave both students and teachers motivated and inspired. Guests might even approach curriculum in a new way that clicks with struggling students. For instance, if they say the same things that you have often repeated to no avail, students might finally understand the validity of these lessons. In this way, a visiting artist’s influence can last long after the visit ends.

Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

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