Karen Kaufmann is changing education in Missoula, one school at a time
Karen Kaufmann's model dance education program is now taught at seven Missoula County public schools.
The desks in Maribeth Rothwell’s second-grade classroom at Rattlesnake Elementary School in Missoula, MT, have been pushed against the walls. In their place, Rothwell and her 20 students crouch down low, their arms held close to their bodies, demonstrating the first step of a plant’s life cycle: a seed. When prompted, the class begins to grow, stretching their bodies upward and their limbs outward. In a matter of minutes, it’s spring.
Rothwell and her students were led through this creative movement exercise last April by a teacher with Montana’s Model Dance Education Project (MoDE). The exercise—like all of those taught by MoDE—was custom-designed to enhance Rothwell’s academic curriculum.
MoDE is the brainchild of Karen Kaufmann, a professor of dance at the University of Montana who, in the fall of 2008, pioneered the in-school dance program that integrates dance education and traditional academic coursework—from language arts and poetry to basic math. Given the current
financial climate and emphasis on measurable academic success (usually through standardized testing), some might think this is the wrong time to forge new public school dance programs. But Kaufmann didn’t let unfavorable conditions discourage her. With innovative pilot programs and the willingness to adapt, she won the necessary local support. Now going into its third year, MoDE is in seven Missoula County public schools (a district of about 8,400 students), offering dance to students of all ages, from elementary through high school.
In 2007, when Kaufmann started thinking about MoDE, the Missoula County Public School (MCPS) district was, like all schools faced with budget cuts and No Child Left Behind, focused on academic achievement. “My original goal was for MoDE to be a school-district-supported activity,” Kaufmann says. But it quickly became clear that wasn’t going to happen. “People think of dance and movement as an extracurricular activity and don’t immediately make the connection to learning.”
When she realized there wasn’t enough support to launch the program as she had imagined it, Kaufmann went school to school, pitching her idea to each principal (some wouldn’t even meet with her). “I don’t consider myself a strong salesperson,” she says. No worry: Her track record did most of the talking.
Before joining the U of M faculty in 1988 (first as an adjunct, then as tenure track), Kaufmann, who has a master’s in dance education from Antioch, was on the Young Audiences roster for 15 years, traveling to schools throughout Montana, presenting solo performances and leading teacher workshops. In 1993, she co-founded Mo-Trans Dance Company, a modern dance group that was in residence at the U of M. A few years later she created an extension called the CoMotion Dance Project, with U of M dance students, which tours primarily in Montana (they’ve visited neighboring states and have made several trips to Alaska), presenting academically oriented short dance performances.
CoMotion’s flagship show featured dancers bouncing, tossing and rolling over giant, vibrantly colored exercise balls in a choreographed demonstration of Newton’s laws of motion. Last winter, CoMotion began touring with a new show adapted from a piece choreographed by Bebe Miller for U of M dance students (see bottom).
While CoMotion alone might have been enough to get some schools on board, Kaufmann had a more recent accomplishment that spoke directly to the district’s focus on testing.
In February 2007 she started Math Movers, an after-school dance program at Arlee School, an elementary school about 30 miles north of Missoula on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Arlee was struggling with low math scores and was open to new approaches. Kaufmann teamed with Dr. Tammy Elser, an education instruction designer and assessment specialist, who found a way to integrate testing into the program.
Over the course of a year and a half, Math Movers hosted a series of six-week sessions, working with about a dozen students twice a week for an hour after school. For the first five minutes of Math Movers, the Arlee students took a short math quiz on the concepts they were studying in class. Then, Kaufmann’s dance teachers led them through 50 minutes of creative movement addressing the same concepts. For example, if the students were learning about geometry during the day, the dance teachers would tape different shapes onto the floor, like a parallelogram, trapezoid and rhombus. Then, Kaufmann explains, the dance teacher would ask the students to gallop to the parallelogram and make shapes with their bodies on the perimeter. “Those were things they needed to know because they were learning about area and perimeter,” she says. At the end of each Math Movers session, the students took another quiz on the same material. Though they’re still in the process of analyzing the data using the students’ state standardized test scores, there appears to be a correlation between students with high Math Movers attendance records and improved math scores.
Additionally, Kaufmann received anecdotal feedback from classroom teachers. “They were reporting that during math class, the kids would say, ‘Oh, we did that in Math Movers,’ ” Kaufmann says.
Math Movers was a success, but Arlee was far away from Kaufmann’s home base. She wanted to make a splash where MCPS administrators would see it. So in February 2008 she hosted a five-day festival that brought hip hop, jazz, modern, African and creative movement to more than 1,200 students—in nearly every grade level—across the MCPS system. She also presented CoMotion’s performance about Newton’s laws of motion and did some curriculum integration. “We blitzed the schools with dance,” Kaufmann says. “We made buttons and wrote press releases. It raised a buzz and got some energy going.”
At the end of the festival, Kaufmann sent evaluations to all the participating teachers. She asked about the student response to the festival, and whether the teachers had seen dance integrated with academics as a learning approach. But most importantly, she wanted to find out if they would want a long-term dance program in their schools. Nearly all said yes.
With the festival, Math Movers, CoMotion and her impressive resumé, Kaufmann convinced seven schools to sign on: MoDE launched in the fall of 2008.
Rothwell, however, wasn’t one of those who needed much convincing. She’d been a fan of Kaufmann’s since they first met nine years ago when Rothwell was earning a master’s in Integrated Arts and Education at the U of M. “Children need to use their bodies so they’re engaged in learning,” Rothwell says. “I was thrilled to have a program where I could teach the curriculum and collaborate with a dance educator who knows the learning goals.” Rattlesnake has been a MoDE school since the program’s inaugural year.
As Rattlesnake’s MoDE lead teacher, Rothwell acts as a liaison between the three participating second-grade classrooms and their MoDE dance educator, Jordan Dehline. Each week, Rothwell tells Jordan what’s coming up in the curriculum. Sometimes, the classroom teachers ask her to create a new exercise for a fresh topic; other times, they want to revisit an old lesson to prepare students for an upcoming test.
When the class was growing from seedlings to flowers, Rothwell reinforced the connection to her curriculum by asking her students questions like “Do you remember what the leaves do for the plant?” and using key vocabulary words, like photosynthesis. Her participation encouraged the students, quietly conveying that dance is a valid, integral part of learning.
This partnership between classroom teachers and MoDE teachers makes the program suitable for different academic subjects and grade levels. But it also serves a functional purpose. While Montana offers teacher certification in art, music and drama, there is no such designation for dance. MoDE helps fill that gap.
There are currently five dance educators with MoDE—all of whom happen to be graduates of the U of M dance program. Having worked with Kaufmann as college students, these young teachers have the unique skill set necessary for success in an academic classroom. “I need dance teachers who will tightly focus a lesson around states of water, even though they might rather do pliés and tendus,” Kaufmann says. Like MoDE itself, the dance teachers have to be able to adjust to each classroom—and classroom teacher. “That partnership is what makes or breaks our program.”
Not only is MoDE suitable for different settings, it can be implemented with varying budgets. Using grants from organizations like the Montana Arts Council and the Dana Foundation, Kaufmann is able to match whatever funding a school can provide (Rattlesnake’s has come from PTA support). Then each school decides how to disperse those funds. Some choose to have their MoDE teacher visit at regular intervals; others start slow and add more dance classes as year-end standardized tests approach, to help reinforce crucial material.
Kaufmann still hopes to see MoDE become a district-wide program—and today, that’s no longer a pipe dream. There is a new superintendent, Dr. Alex Apostle, who, though focused on student achievement, seems open to alternative approaches. He visited a MoDE classroom last year and has been supportive of the program. “When people see it in action,” Kaufmann says, “they get excited.” DT
Prey: The CoMotion Dance Project’s Newest Production
In January 2010, veteran choreographer Bebe Miller visited the University of Montana dance department. She cast a dozen dancers and created a 12-minute abstract contemporary piece called Prey, which explored the relationship between predator and prey.
Professor Karen Kaufmann adapted Miller’s piece into a 45-minute lecture demonstration that the CoMotion Dance Project performed for about 1,200 middle and high school students at five Montana public schools. The tour’s costs were deferred for the schools, thanks to sponsorship from the Montana Cultural Trust and Montana’s Model Dance Education project (MoDE).
Along with excerpts from Miller’s piece, CoMotion presented a five-minute video of Miller talking about the work. Between dance sections, Kaufmann asked the students questions about the piece: “What does the red cloth represent?” “What animal imagery did you see?” There were no right or wrong answers; the goal was simply to get students to actively engage with dance.
“One of the great things the arts do is help students express their own ideas and discover meaning for themselves,” Kaufmann says. “Those are skills that are useful across the curriculum.” —KR
Former dance instructor Katie Rolnick has an MA in cultural reporting and criticism from NYU. Photo courtesy of MoDE