Six years ago, I heard my school was joining a new movement called The Right Brain Initiative. My first question was, “Does this mean I have to stop my goals and objectives as a music teacher in order to do this special project?” I was assured this was not to be an interruption of my music class, but extra arts for my students in addition to my music class. I thought The Right Brain Initiative sounded great, and in these five years together I have been so blessed.
Recently, Right Brain brought together all specialists (PE, Music and Art teachers) for professional development. This was not for classroom teachers, but specifically for us. We began the day learning about the new national standards coming, called Common Core State Standards. Although these are being taught to classroom teachers, the common core is good for the arts as well. The standards talk broadly about skills important in our subject matter, too (such as pattern recognition, or speaking and listening). Instead of filling in the bubble tests, students will be expected to analyze and create photos, digital media, and lyrics as well as the standard English essays.
I then shared some possibilities to bring dance into a music classroom, as an example of possible connections between teaching specialists and Right Brain residencies. We experimented with instruments (hand drums, rhythm sticks, egg shakers, and jingle bells) by creating an ensemble sound when a ball was bounced. Then everyone tried to find a different way to produce sound on the same instruments when a ball was rolled or tossed. Soon we were composing our own song as conducted by the ball, and then added dance movements. One musician commented, “I especially noticed how much fun the non-music teachers had. I think they were surprised!”
My first indication of Right Brain influencing my music classroom appeared in 3rd grade, where I teach a folk song and dance called Alabama Gal. I chose this song because of my musical goals to teach syncopation, and the notes Low La, and Low So. When explaining the dance movements to my 3rd grade students, they quickly said, “We already know how to do that because of dance class [Right Brain residency with Oregon Ballet Theatre] , and it’s not called a side-ways skip, the real term is sashay [and the real ballet term is chassé (Fr)].” I was pleased to have students who could use appropriate dance vocabulary and already had an experience with the movement. This accelerated my teaching so we could simply put the movements together, instead of me describing, demonstrating, and then giving practice time to experience specific steps and phrasing.
Small gains such as this happen all the time at Quatama Elementary because of the Right Brain work. Another positive from the residency is I haven’t had to fight against dancing being for “girls only.” There are so many things I would love to teach, but sometimes I am so focused on the music aspect I forget to teach the dance part when we move. With Right Brain in my building the children already have dance knowledge and now I can simply compliment and reinforce their informed choices as they move to music. Since I work in two schools (one Right Brain, the other not) the difference Right Brain makes becomes very apparent. At my non-Right Brain school I have to be more specific in order to get good creative movement instead of dance happening naturally because of my students’ Right Brain arts background.
The day concluded with how we can continue to build upon each other’s work as artists. Some teachers said they loved a specific idea and would use it in their class tomorrow. Others were really excited their school had just begun this process and couldn’t wait to help be an advocate. Imaginations were sparked with brains thinking and collaborating. There was and is such excitement and hope about this worthwhile work.
Carissa Martus is a music teacher at Right Brain partner school Quatama Elementary in Hillsboro, Oregon.