In the spring, Patchogue-Medford fifth graders were learning about slavery, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the classroom. Their teachers had also arranged for them to see “Freedom Train,” which tells the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad through dance, dialog and music, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. To further enhance the students’ learning experience, Grade 5 teachers collaborated with dance and movement artist Danielle Marie Fusco. Ms. Fusco designed an arts-integrated project that explored the implications of inhuman treatment towards people in the past and in the present day. Connections to the content were also made by the school's art and music teachers.
In the residency’s initial session, Ms. Fusco introduced the project. She told the students that the project would look at both history and dance. The students were give workbooks to write key dance terms and their reflections. During each of the residency’s sessions, the teaching artist focused on different dance movements (ie, locomotive and axial, unions and canon) as well as the use of energy and space. The students viewed video examples, filled out pages in the workbook, and practiced the dance movements.
For example, in Session 2, Ms. Fusco introduced unison, canon and the concept of navigating through space. “For canon,” the teaching artist noted, “dancers perform the same phrase one after the other. By contrast, unison is the simultaneous performance of action." The students were shown a video example. Ms. Fusco encouraged the students to watch the movements and notice how the dancers used their bodies to communicate. "Art is more than entertainment," she stressed. "Art is a communication.”
Afterwards, Ms. Fusco led a discussion about the use of canon and unison in the video performance. She also asked the students what they thought the performance was about. The students were aware that the video was about slavery. They said that people struggled for freedom in the past, so that we can all enjoy freedom now. The teaching artist told the children that the piece was known as The Underground Railroad. In their workbooks, students wrote about dance terms and answered questions about Underground Railroad.
Next, the children practiced the dance movements in the video. “Art can tell a story,” said Ms. Fusco. She divided students into small groups. She encouraged them to use their bodies to communicate an idea. The students were directed to create a short movement phrase that included at least one obstacle around which to navigate. Throughout the movement activities, the teaching artist used dance terms from the “word bank” in the workbooks.The groups performed for each other. Those students observing the movements of their classmates recorded their reactions in the workbooks.
While the dance residency progressed, the classroom teachers and specialty teachers were also making connections to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. In the classrooms, teachers and students discussed The Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya. In art class, the students created an outline of an elephant, which they later added design and text representing peace and unity. The music teacher introduced Mafia’s Big Word and led a discussion about discrimination. Later in the project, the students wrote persuasively, justifying Harriet Tubman’s actions.
In Session 3, Ms. Fusco and the children focused on character building in preparation for creating a narrative dance. The students were asked to consider how they might build characterization in dance and use body language to create a story. In Session 4, the children worked in groups to create and rehearse their narrative dances.
The project culminated with a performance of the students’ narrative dances. According to Ms. Fusco, “In addition to exploring dance and history, and practicing their writing skills, the students made connections to their own lives. Their personal experiences helped them to relate to the people of the Underground Railroad. When we understand ourselves, we understand our world."
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