Embodying Literacy: Teaching Reading, Writing, and Public Speaking Through Movement and Drama

As a teacher of reading and writing, I have always required that the scholars in my classes use their eyes, ears, and conversational voices on a daily basis in my classroom. But why have I limited my students access to literacy to only the head when they have whole bodies that can be engaged in learning?

I never questioned myself in this way until the present school year, in which I enrolled in year-long professional development course offered by Very Special Arts of Massachusetts (VSA) and the Boston Public Schools. The course was facilitated by two highly accomplished arts integration specialists, both of whom are faculty members in the Creative Arts in Learning Program at Lesley University: drama pedagogue Marianne Adams and dance therapist Priscilla Harmel.

The program consisted of several components: monthly meetings with our cohort of teachers, online assignments and reflections, curriculum development and implementation, and an on-sight visit from one of the facilitators.

The Teacher Experience

t one point during our very first meeting, a full day session at VSA’s beautiful downtown art gallery and community space, I found myself wrapped in several colorful scarves, dancing and playing drums with a group of teacher-artists I had never met until that day.

Our goal was to explore the immigration experience through enacting Adrienne Rich’s poem: “Breaking through Illusion”. I love poetry on its own, but the joy and engagement of performing works of literature with my classmates was something I needed to share with my middle school ESL classroom. Luckily, the facilitators not only promised but required that I would be doing just that throughout the school year.

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Dramatizing two perspectives of a narrative through movement (from left: Kim Taylor Knight, Dance Teacher at the Curley School; Gregg Bodell, Music Teacher at the P.J. Kennedy; Lisa Yanni, Visual Arts Teacher at the Winship; Logan Cole, Drama Teacher at the Dearborn; Gail Gefteas, Art Teacher at the Roosevelt; Jenn Dines, ESL and Special Needs Teacher at the Frederick)

Our subsequent meetings took place in the evenings at the Curley School in Jamaica Plain. At each three-hour session, we not only discussed our progress in implementing arts-based curricula in our classrooms, but we also spent a large part of the time learning and performing whole body arts integration techniques. I learned so much from the interaction with my co-teachers during these sessions. The class was a mix of arts elective teachers and classroom teachers, and this was a very nice juxtaposition to have in the group. The arts teachers were able to present many creative resources and ideas, while the classroom teachers were able to offer insights on the connection to literacy.

Dramatic Reading – Malcolm X

 This year, I had self-selected a goal of pushing my end of unit project-based learning assessments further to include more performance and presentation skills. I wanted my students to take the next step of not only completing a large assessment task, but I needed to push them to be able to present their learning to those outside of our classroom. This is a huge challenge for students learning a second language. Public presentation is nerve-wracking enough in the primary language, and it is exponentially more anxiety provoking in a second language

During the VSA Saturday session, we learned how to use lines from a text to create a script for ensemble performance. I utilized this “script from text” strategy to create an assessment piece of my intermediate and advanced ESL class’s unit on Civil Rights.

My students had just finished reading Walter Dean Myers’ Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, and we were about to embark on a close reading of the excerpt “Learning to Read” from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After reading and discussing “Learning to Read” together, I asked students to pick two or three lines that they thought were most important, explaining that I would use the lines they had selected to develop their parts for a performance piece. After a few rehearsals, our class held a special presentation of our dramatic reading piece for other classes in our middle school.

This performance was witnessed by Boston Public Schools New Teacher Developer Crystal Haynes, who also happens to be one of the hosts of the local television show “Extra Help”. She offered for our students to present the “Learning to Read” dramatic reading piece on television and for them to spend an hour on live television, fielding questions and informing viewers about Malcolm X.

On a cold Tuesday in March, I took a group of students to Roxbury Community College to record the show. It was especially notable that Roxbury Community College is located on Malcolm X Boulevard, not far from the house where Malcolm once lived with his half-sister. The students did incredible work with the performance, and the repeated readings of Malcolm X’s writing also served to build their reading fluency.

VIDEO: 7th and 8th Grade Students Perform “Learning to Read” on the television show “Extra Help” with Dr. Crystal Haynes

Introducing Movement Using the Myths of Heracles

Following our unit on Civil Rights, our class traveled far further back in time to study classical and world mythology. Although I had incorporated drama into the previous unit, our VSA instructor Priscilla Harmel pushed me to think about how to incorporate movement into the mythology unit. Priscilla encouraged me to plan a movement lesson on a day that she was available to come in and support me in teaching.

I adapted a movement lesson from a book recommended to me through the VSA course: Strategies to Integrate the Arts in Langauge Arts by Jennifer M. Bogard and Lisa Donovan, an incredible arts integration resource guide published by Lesley University. The lesson, titled “Moving Statues”, focused on having students identify and then embody action verbs found in a text.

For the text, I chose a selection from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths in which the epic Greek hero Heracles slays the Nemean Lion as part of his labors that atone for the murder of his wife and sons. Heracles is a muscle man, known more for his brawn then his brain, whose uncontrollable temper often gets the better of his good intentions.

As we read and discussed the selection together, I modeled identifying action verbs in the text. Priscilla assisted me in having the class act out the action verbs using dramatic movements, and she helped me introduce movement vocabulary. Priscilla also encouraged the students to think not only about the verbs and the movements connected to them, but also about Heracles’ intentions as he performed the actions described in the text. She repeatedly asked the students why they thought Heracles was doing what he was doing and how the intention would effect the movement.

Following Priscilla and I’s co-taught lesson, I assigned students to groups and given a text from one of Heracles’ labors. I provided them with a three column graphic organizer: verb, intention, and movement to use as they read through the text and planned a presentation in which they would read the text aloud to the class and act out several of the action verbs.

I provided the students with one class period to prepare the pieces with their groups, and I was truly amazed by the focus and dedication that I observed during the rehearsal period. I did not have to redirect a single student, and I was able to confer with all of the groups and respond to their inquires. The students were 100% focused and engaged on planning their piece. Following the performances, students were given a vocabulary quiz on the selected words, and all students received grades of 90 – 100%.

VIDEO: 8th grade students Francely, Leidhryd, and Vanessa’s performance piece from a selection in which Heracles fights the Amazons

Who’s the REAL Heracles?

I saw a huge pay off with the dramatic performance and action verbs activities as students began writing diary entries from the perspective of Heracles and preparing to present their writing to students in other classes.

Students revised their diary entries after examining several selections from the diaries of Anne Frank and examining how Anne develops her character through sharing her thoughts, feelings, words, and actions with the reader. As students revised, I encouraged them to think about the ways that Heracles moves in order to develop their descriptions of his actions. The combination of embodiment, visualization of movement (through watching their peers’ performances), and deep examinations of the writing techniques used by another diarist engendered sophisticated and unique diary entries from the students.

“SUICIDAL THOUGHTS” by Nicol

Dear Journal

Today is September 19, 0121. Today is also the day of the anniversary that I killed my beloved family. I was about to kill myself too but my friend Theseus saved me. I remember that day like it was yesterday. FLASHBACK

My friend Theseus stood there before me and he stretched out his hands to clasp mine own fresh bloodstained hands. Meaning he would become defiled and have a part of the blame and guilt.

“Do not keep me from sharing all with you. Evil I share with you is not evil to me. Men of great soul can bear the blows of heaven and not flinch.”

I said, “Do you know what I have done?”

” I know this”, Theseus answered. ” your sorrows reach from earth to heaven”.

“So I will die”, I said

“No hero spoke those words”, Theseus said

“What can I do but die?” I cried

Does he not see what I have done. How I should not be forgiven. Not to mention how everyone will look down on me for killing my beloved family.

” Live?” ” A branded man for all to say, look. There is he who killed his wife and sons. everywhere my jailers, the sharp scorpions of the tongue!”

“Even so suffer and be strong.” Theseus answered.”

“You shall come to Athens with me,share my home and all things with me. And you will give to me and to the city a great return, the glory of having helped you.”

I said nothing. A long silenced followed. I decided I will do it for best of my family. At last I spoke, slow , heavy words. “So let it be,” I said,”I will be strong and wait for death”  END OF FLASHBACK

I sat in a chair and cried.

 “Accepting the Twelve Labors” by Francely Clases

When I was in Delphi I went to see the Oracle of Delphi. I really was sad for the loss of my wife and my kids and even though the people of Athen said to me that it wasn’t my fault but the gods, I still feel responsible and I can’t forgive myself. When I got to the priestess and told her what had happened with my wife and kids and she looked at the situation just like I did. She said to me that I needed to be purified for my crime and only a terrible punishment can do that so she sent me to my cousin Eurystheus, the King of Mycenae. I said to myself “I knew it, I knew that I deserved punishment for the killing of my family.” The oracle said that he would give me my punishments. So there I was in Mycenae kneeling before my cousin, ready to become his slave and accepting the punishment he is going to give me.

 “The Lernean Hydra” by Mikel

         My second labor of punishment was to kill the Lernean Hydra, a snake with nine heads, and lived in the swamps of Lerna. Even though I was the strongest and bravest man in the world, I was pretty nervous about this beast, but then I thought, what are the women going to do when they find out that I, the mighty Hercules is nervous about going out to kill the Lernean Hydra? This monster was so poisonous that the fumes from its breath alone were enough to kill whatever came close to it. When I heard these news, I said to my family, “ You better hope that nasty little critter doesn’t kill me with the fumes of its breath.” So I went off. While I was walking through the swamp, I suddenly stopped. I was scared. And, when I turned to my right, there it was, just waiting for me. And, I said to myself, “ Here goes nothing.” So I filled my enormous lungs with air, held my breath, and ran at the Hydra. Swinging my club, I knocked off the Hydra’s heads, and one after the other they rolled to the ground. Here’s what really put me in shock. But no sooner had I knocked off one head then a new one grew in its place. So I half turned around and let out enough air to call to my charioteer to bring a firebrand and sear the necks. Then no new heads could sprout. What really made me mad, was when Hera saw that I was winning over the Hydra, and she sent a giant crab to pinch my heel. So with a mighty kick, I sent the giant crab flying as I knocked off the last of the heads. Then to finish up, I dipped my arrows in the Hydra’s blood, making them so poisonous that a mere scratch from them was deadly. After, I returned to Mycenae and said to myself, “ Thank god it’s over.” My second labor performed.

For the final presentation of the unit, students were instructed to select their best diary entry to perform for students in other classrooms. After two days of preparation, including a session of critical peer feedback, I organized students into small groups and they were sent to my colleagues’ classrooms to perform for their peers. Each student claimed to be the REAL Heracles, but only one students from each group could be chosen by the audience as the REAL or most convincing Heracles.

After the presentations, all students received candy and celebrated together, and the most convincing “Heracleses” received large plastic Easter eggs filled with candy.

8th Grade Guys

Winners of the “Who is the REAL Heracles?” contest hold up their prizes like trophies. A great day of celebration!

 

Reflection

Although participation in the Very Special Arts “Embodying Literacy” course was a lot of work, it was completely worthwhile.

First of all, the monthly meetings provided a wonderful outlet for teachers to get together and embrace their creativity as well as learn easily implemented whole body instructional techniques.

Secondly, completing the projects for the course pushed me to design better curricula for my students that allowed them to use all of their senses to engage in learning. Not only did the results pay off in terms of increasing the job and engagement in my classroom, but students improved their scores on standardized reading examinations, homework completion, and typical schoolwork. Using the arts served to motivate and engage students in our work, and the performances provided students with a huge incentive to make sure that the prerequisite steps were all completed – or else they would risk being unprepared in front of an audience!

Finally, the projects that I required for each unit pushed for students to do open-ended, higher-order thinking tasks. For example, there were no right answers for selecting the most important lines from the “Learning to Read” piece, yet I did require students to explain and justify their choices orally and in writing before I included them in the script. This developed their persuasion skills as well as their attention to the text. Additionally, the embodiment pieces allowed students to explore verbs by creating movements to fit the vocabulary as well as the context or usage of the words. This required for students to synthesize their understanding of the words’ meanings in isolation as well as in context.

I will continue to push myself to embrace drama and whole-body movement in the classroom for future units. The Very Special Arts “Embodying Literacy” course was truly a source of inspiration, and I am sad that it is over!

 

 

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