Article by St. Claire Donaghy; photos by Joshua S. Kelly
Reading a text book or taking notes from a teacher are not the only ways for children to learn.
An arts-integrated learning approach might be a good fit for a child if he or she would rather make stop-motion animation videos than more traditional techniques to understand prehistoric reptiles and dinosaurs.
Instructors with Greenwood School District 50’s Arts, Communication and Theatre School (ACTS) Magnet program at Brewer Middle School said the curriculum offered there often appeals to students who learn best by touching, drawing, moving and performing.
The program at Brewer is for students in grades six through eight.
“A kid should not apply for the ACTS program solely as an avenue to get into the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities,” said Brewer ACTS program dance teacher, Sheri Brewington. “The focus of this program is learning through arts integration. That being said, it may spark greater interest in the arts and a student may be inspired to pursue them further.
“We do turn out a lot of kids who do go on to study the arts through Governor’s School and beyond, but that is not the focus of ACTS,” Brewington said.
Recently, more than 70 ACTS eighth-graders enrolled in the program’s musical theater course performed Disney’s “The Lion King Jr.”
ACTS drama teacher Ansley Keenan, 32, said exposing young people to theater provides them with opportunity express themselves in different ways.
“All of the ACTS kids, from fifth through eighth grade, are exposed to drama,” Keenan said. “If it’s not going to turn them into theater practitioners, it will at least develop some kind of arts appreciation and understanding of audience etiquette. If they do want to audition for shows outside of school, it gives them the tools to do that.”
With the drama production the eighth grade just put on, Keenan said students have gotten valuable experience in collaboration and self-confidence by being on stage.
In addition to core academic subjects, ACTS students are also taught drama curriculum in accordance with state standards for drama, Keenan said. They are taught about acting, play writing, technical design, theater history and research.
“In ACTS, students choose a focus,” Keenan said. “It could be voice or drama or dance, or strings, art or another focus and there is opportunity to choose a rotation for focuses as well, depending on grade level and what courses they have fulfilled already.”
There are six class periods in a school day.
Sheri Brewington, 43, ACTS dance teacher, was teaching dance at Brewer as an elective even before the district implemented the ACTS magnet program at the school. She said the district liked the “school-within-a-school” format that also enabled students to take part in core academics and athletics.
“About half of our students come in with previous arts experience and about half do not,” Brewington said.
Brewington has seen former students go on to become teachers at Brewer and others go on to study dance in college.
“It’s surreal to think that something you taught a student stuck, especially when you reflect back on days teaching when you felt nothing went right,” Brewington said.
Beverly Psomas, 61, ACTS voice, guitar and musical theater teacher said her main goal is for students to be able to understand and read music.
“At some of the music festivals and clinics we attend, there is a sight-reading component,” Psomas said. “They have to read music they have never seen before. I really try to prepare students for music study at the high school level and eighth-graders here get a high school credit for my class.”
This style of learning helps students feel comfortable in front of other people, whether it’s an interview or performance situation, Psomas said, noting she has been with the ACTS program for eight years.
Jessica Hrivnak, 23, ACTS strings teacher said the program exposes a number of students to the study of music.
“We started a pilot strings program for fifth-grade non-magnet program students,” Hrivnak said. “And, a fifth-grade magnet program is at Woodfields Elementary.”
Cathy Chalmers, Greenwood School District 50 director for gifted and talented and magnet programs, said finding the right fit for a child’s style of learning can be a key to academic success.
“The South Carolina Department of Education encouraged us, six or seven years ago, to look at children through different lenses,” Chalmers said. “We were encouraged to create various learning environments for children, because all don’t learn the same way or have interests in the same things. If we find matches for students’ areas of interest and talent, they flourish.
“A dancer may be able to spend a really focused hour in honors Algebra I when she knows she’s going to her dance class, in school, in an hour,” Chalmers said. “The same thing may be for tech kids. They can handle that advanced English class because they know they are going to go to robotics for an hour.”