By Matthew Tungate
Dance teacher Harlina Churn-Diallo – with her round face, closely-cropped hair, small glasses and big smile – looks every bit the part of an elementary teacher. Her mirrored dance room has signs like “Shoes off if you want,” “Have fun,” “Try all the dance moves” and “Be free.”
But she expects her students at Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School (Jefferson County) to act like professional dancers. During one class, Churn-Diallo’s students were dancing with shiny metallic streamers on a stick to Michael Jackson’s Heal the World.
“What you do offstage affects what you do onstage,” she told them sternly. “I choose who gets on stage by what you do offstage.”
Churn-Diallo instructed the students to lunge and shift their weight on a particular move.
“I don’t want to see your booty sticking out like this,” she said, pushing her backside out.
She later said she was teaching them about more than dancing.
“We teach them life skills through the arts,” Churn-Diallo said. “You’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to do things over and over again, you’ve got to practice, you’ve got to try something new, you’ve got to learn to work together with others and play fair.”
Lincoln Elementary is in its second year as an arts integration magnet school following several years of poor scores on statewide tests. Director of Performing Arts Tim King said the school is in the perfect location for its new direction. It has enough room for a $5.8 million expansion that will add a new library and arts wing, including a 250-seat theater, both opening next school year.
The school also takes advantage of its proximity to Louisville’s art scene, which includes professional ballet, orchestra and theater organizations, as well as the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and other organizations. For instance, a dancer from the musical Wicked went to the school and taught students a dance routine from the show.
Arts organizations are happy to partner with a school that’s nearby, King said.
“They’re just thrilled that Jefferson County is investing, instead of divesting, as is the case (in other places),” he said.
And invest they have.
While most schools have one art teacher who spends 30 minutes a week with students, King said, Lincoln Elementary has four arts teachers – instrumental and vocal music, dance and theater – who give students an hour a day of instruction.
Penelope Quesada, the musical instrument teacher, is in her second year at Lincoln Elementary and 10th overall. She said the school is her first opportunity to use all of her resources with students.
“The other music programs, they have just one time a week, they don’t have as many resources, they don’t get to see the arts,” she said.
King, who also is the school’s magnet coordinator, said attendance is up from 284 students last year to 389 this year – a 37 percent increase – with most of the growth in kindergarten and 1st grade.
“The arts magnet has really been a draw,” King said.
It has drawn a rich diversity of students to Lincoln Elementary.
Churn-Diallo said that despite the many languages in the school, students feel like they understand what happens in class.
“The arts have this universal language that transcends all these language barriers,” she said.
Teachers work to integrate the arts
Quesada said she teaches music from all over the world, and the students can identify with what they play. For instance, she and vocal music teacher Tammy Gibson collaborated in a class of 2nd and 3rd graders playing xylophones and singing a song in Spanish.
Quesada was teaching the xylophone players to keep the beat by playing a steady rhythm. One of the students missed a bar on her xylophone, but she knew to stop, find a spot in the song she knew and then pick it up again.
Gibson’s class was dancing, first in a circle and then in pairs, to the song.
“These children are not afraid to get up in front of each other,” King said.
“I’m here because the children are here and in need of the type of work that we do, which is provide the arts.”
Dance teacher Harlina Churn-Diallo, Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School (Jefferson County)
The school also encourages classroom teachers to let the arts teachers know what they are working on so they can incorporate some of those core subjects into the arts classes, he said.
Teaching photosynthesis is a good example of that. Students made a song, including spelling it, to the tune of “BINGO,” King said.
“If you had told a kid to spell photosynthesis, they’d say, ‘You’ve got to be nuts,’” he said. “But if you get that music in your brain, you never forget that.”
The school also does a lot of mathematics and music together.
“They don’t have any inhibitions at this age,” King said. “No one has told them that that’s a stupid thing to do.”
Churn-Diallo said she worked with a 2nd-grade class on government processes.
“The teacher brought me the book and said, ‘These are the 10 pages we’re reading and here are the bold words they need to know,’” she said.
So Churn-Diallo developed a song with dance movements about the parts of the government.
Now that 2nd-grade teacher is working on doing something similar with liquids in science, and she’s doing it on her own, Churn-Diallo said.
Churn-Diallo is in her second year at the school. Her background is in dance, not traditional education. In fact, she was originally hired to do only a month-long residency to help train Lincoln Elementary’s teachers about how to incorporate arts into their classes. The then-principal suggested she apply for a teaching job at the school.
The arts teachers are working with the grade-level teachers on how to integrate the arts, she said. Integration means giving equal weight to the subject area and the art form. A connection just uses one of the art forms to help convey the subject area.
The arts teachers are still working with core subject teachers to understand the fundamentals of each art form, Churn-Diallo said.
“It’s about educating the classroom teachers also,” she said.
Third-grade teacher Laquetta Carter is in her fifth year at the school and eighth overall, and she is a believer in the arts-infused curriculum. A dancer since she was 8, Carter was very excited when she heard the school was going to emphasize the arts.
“Dance was an outlet for me,” she said. “It gave me something to do.”
Carter noted a science lesson she planned in which students had to create a creature to understand the structure of life, and they talked about movement. The students incorporated science and arts vocabulary to learn about both at once.
“I think it increases student engagement,” Carter said. “Because the kids want to have fun at school and they want to have fun when they’re learning, and if we make learning more enjoyable, they’re going to learn and retain more.”
She feels like students learn more than they did before the arts program began.
“Especially with the intermediate classes, because they’re so serious and so structured and there’s so much that they need to learn, just to incorporate some arts will make the kids more willing to work,” Carter said.
Quesada said that using the arts helps reach students with different learning styles.
“Some of them are visual, some of them need movement, some of them need a song – we cannot put everybody in the same box and say, ‘Open the book, this is how you’re going to learn and this is how it’s going to be,’” she said.
Students get more than art from the arts
Drama teacher Greylyn Gregory worked with five Emotional Behavior Disorder (EBD) students during one of her classes. Gregory is very hands on, moving the students by the shoulder and with her energy.
They students were reading a version of The Three Little Pigs from a script.
The sign on her board said, “This week we will begin working on the voice. It’s not what you say but how you say it!”
“This is the best class in the whole school,” Gregory told the students.
Gregory, too, comes from a professional arts background. She has taught since January 2010. She has conducted workshops for 30 years, but Lincoln Elementary is her first job in public school. Gregory said she thought she preferred teaching 5th graders to adults, but has since changed her mind.
“I could eat those kindergartners with a spoon. I love them,” she said. “It’s like I’m the drama messiah to them.”
She is a big fan of incorporating more arts into education.
“I think we’re way past due on it,” she said
She knows that few if any of her students will become professional artists, but they will get skills to get them through life.
For instance, Charles, a student in the EBD class, wrote a monologue about ending violence after his cousin was shot and killed.
“He’s got so much sadness. ‘I’m the sad youth.’ Those are his words,” she said, on the verge of tears. “He’s got so much sadness and so much anger, and I thought, ‘What if I can give him writing prompts and he could take these prompts and actually express himself on paper? Then we can take it from the paper, and we can turn it into a series of monologues for him.”
He was preparing to read his monologue during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly.
“He could be the next Martin Luther King Jr.,” Gregory said. “It’s the Charleses that make me want to do this.
“More than training them to be professionals, it’s about giving them self-esteem.”
Churn-Diallo agreed that the arts help children have confidence.
“I’m here because the children are here and in need of the type of work that we do, which is provide the arts,” she said.
King said there also is a practical academic side to teaching children the arts.
Jefferson County Superintendent Sheldon Berman proposed the idea of having arts-infused schools after numerous studies have shown that students involved in the arts do better in other subjects.
King has worked in the school since Oct. 2009 following a career in the arts, including stints as executive director of the Louisville Orchestra, senior vice president at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, and marketing and public relations director for KentuckyShow!. He is very familiar with the effects the arts have on students, he said.
When he was with the Louisville Orchestra, he tracked down every living student who had participated in its Young Artist competition. He found that participants all had good careers – usually in music, engineering or medicine.
“And by far the most: medical doctors,” King said.
What he found was playing an instrument helped students learn how to study and focus.
“Music helps you to study. Every one of them said that to me,” he said.
Arts also give students a chance to succeed, King said.
“When a student performs and people applaud, that’s addictive,” he said. “It makes you want to do better and to progress, so that transfers over to your core subjects and everyday life.”
MORE INFO …
Tim King, email@example.com, (502) 485-3809