Dance instructors put a new spin on teaching language and math

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The second graders at Joseph Pennell Elementary School filed into their weekly dance class for a lesson that was more about math than motion.  By spinning on tiptoes — a half turn, a quarter turn, a full pirouette — they were introduced to fractions.  By moving to a beat, they began to recognize numerical patterns. By mirroring one another’s movements and poses, they learned about symmetry.

In other sessions, they practiced their ABCs by twisting their bodies into alphabet shapes.

For the last four weeks, students in kindergarten through third grade at the West Oak Lane school have jumped, twisted, and twirled through Kinetic Literacy, a program that uses dance to help teach required Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math.

“We love that students are able to see and learn about math and literacy in different ways and through different [subject] areas, and not just by reading a textbook,” said Jason W. Harris, principal of the 430-student school.

The initiative was developed by Lisa Collins Vidnovic, founder of the Metropolitan Ballet Academy and Company in Abington, and Janet Blenheim, a former teacher and math curriculum leader in the Upper Dublin School District. Vidnovic is a former dancer and ballet mistress at the Pennsylvania Ballet; Blenheim, who studied at the American Ballet Theatre in New York, also was a professional dancer.

Vidnovic began offering the language-arts dance classes — called Reading Moves Me — in Philadelphia six years ago as a volunteer dance teacher at Pennell and at Lingelbach Elementary in Germantown. She later collaborated with Blenheim to add the math class, M3=Math x Music x Movement. The sessions are part of the school day.

“Children who are actively and cognitively engaged learn and retain a deeper understanding,” Blenheim said. “Everything is clicking.”

The initiative is funded by donations from organizations such as the Seybert Foundation, a Philadelphia charity that supports children’s programs.

Harris, a musician who formerly sang with a group of fraternity brothers, said the program allows children to benefit from arts education at a time when such programs are repeatedly on the budget chopping block.

“Music kept me interested in school,” Harris said, “and I did pretty well. I’m a principal.”

On Thursday, nearly 30 second graders sat rapt and cross-legged on the floor of the Pennell library as Blenheim used cardboard cutouts depicting pizza slices to begin a lesson on fractions and symmetry.

“Everybody loves pizza,” Blenheim told the kids.

“Not everybody,” replied one faint voice.

She went on to show how the paper pizza could be divided into equal parts when friends visit — in half, in thirds, in quarters.

Then it was time to turn the demonstration into dance, as an excited chorus of “Yays” filled the room. The students jumped in quarter turns, then half turns, then full circles,  landing where they started.

Daasia Shaw, 8, said she liked “doing the half turns, when we jump from [facing the] front to [the] back.”

When Storri Stafford, 8, leaped and spun, completing a beautiful full turn, Blenheim asked her to repeat the move for her classmates.  

“This is so beneficial,” said second-grade teacher Tracy Gaal. “The kids remember the lesson from week to week and you see them doing the dance moves in the halls. It brings the [Common Core] Standards to life.”

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