Jace Zamora, a kindergartener at Soulsbyville Elementary School, said he learned all of his dance moves from the popular online survival game, Fortnite.
Surrounded by his classmates, Zamora hunched toward the floor and mimed like he was dribbling a basketball.
“I like to dance sometimes,” Zamora, 6, said, showing off a slide move across the floor. “But other times I don’t want to do it because I get too sweaty and have to take a bath.”
Besides just expending his energy on the classroom dance floor, Zamora knows he’s learning how to integrate a creative activity with his classroom academics, said Dana Spurrier, 43, of Sonora, a dance artist guest teaching the students Thursday morning.
“I think that a lot of kids learn through visual movement and doing things,” said Spurrier, who is a dance teacher at Connections Academy in Tuolumne and owner of Onstage Dance Studio in Sonora. “There’s some things you don’t think about when you think of dance. You don’t think about math, science or engineering, but there’s so many of those components within dance.”
Across many county schools in the past months, K-8 students have been involved in unique arts activities that are not typical to their normal classroom routine.
Diana Harford, director of School and District Support with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office, said teachers in Tuolumne County K-8 schools were often the only teacher for a single grade.
The $583,000 STEAM grant — intended to integrate science, technology, engineering and math with the arts — allowed the resource limited teachers to collaborate with artistic expertise and develop new education strategies, Harford said.
“Students are benefiting and learning right away and we hope teachers will learn strategies to help integrate them in the classroom,” she said. “They can work with each other and build on each other’s experience to build great structural units.”
The grant is funded by the California Department of Education and was awarded to Tuolumne county via federal funds with the Student Support and Academic Enrichment competitive grant program.
The grant has involved 60 teachers from all the Tuolumne County public schools, as well as teachers from the Sierra Waldorf School in Jamestown, Mother Lode Adventist Junior Academy in Sonora and Mother Lode Christian School in Tuolumne, and approximately 20 area artists.
Some students are involved in the visual arts such as watercoloring and muralling — being led in classes by local artists such as Betsy Spring, Sarah Cuthill and Dianne Stearns — while some are exposed to music, dance and performance.
“Naughty kitty cat, you are very fat,” sang out a group of kindergarteners at Mother Lode Christian School in Tuolumne.
A few students paused between the lines of the song to giggle. Dominick Restivo,19, of Sonora, a local jazz musician teaching the students, sang along with the tune and chided to students to complete the song.
“You have butter on your whiskers, naughty kitty cat. Naught kitty cat, scat!”
The students clapped their hands.
After the session, Restivo said his philosophy was to teach deep musical concepts in the simplest ways.
“Any teacher singing songs, singing folk songs, is going to take them a huge way toward being a musician,” he said. “The difference between this and just singing songs in kindergarten is we’re teaching kids to think in sound and about the logic of music.”
In many of the activities, concepts are ingrained into the students through repetition.
The students alternate between the different scales of Do-Re-Mi, or solfège, while making various body movements to increase focus and coordination.
“I was going to Kentucky, I was going to the fair, I had a senorita with flowers in her hair,” sang out a group of Mother Lode Christian third graders as they stomped, pirouetted and wiggled in a circle.
Will Hardman, 9, a third grader at Mother Lode Christian, said Restivo made it easy to embrace the education in a playful activity like singing.
“I like singing. It’s fun to learn how to sing with all the other parts of it too,” Hardman said.
They will also match Restivo as he plays drum rhythms on the floor with wooden sticks to teach the students about patterns. Using the red, blue and green sticks, the students call out to Restivo as he plays a beat — either rhythmic and matching lyrics or steady and keeping time.
“It’s amazing they are learning rhythm,”saic Nicole Vondrak, Mother Lode Christian kindergarten teacher. “They’re learning to read music, but they don’t know they’re learning to read music.”
Vondrak said the school, though a private institution, applied to participate in the STEM program with the county and was approved. Vondrak said the sense of wonder and imagination the arts education prompted in the students has made the school consider hiring Restivo for a job once the grant is concluded.
“I’ve loved singing for a long time because my dad is a worship pastor,” said Violet Rivera, 8, a Mother Lode Christian third grader.
“She’s always smiling when Mr. Restivo is here,” added her teacher, Chara Revord.
At Soulsbyville Elementary School, Spurrier has even integrated classroom topics — like the water cycle — into dances which reinforce key terms and concepts.
A group of students chanted out “precipitation” while mimicking rainfall with their arms.
“It’s doing the art standard of dance instead of just getting the wiggles out and going onto the next subject,” said Jennifer Lewicki, Soulsbyville Elementary School kindergarten teacher.
Spurrier said many of the classroom dances were performative in nature, invoking problem solving skills, creating shapes in math or science skills with how muscles work.
“At this level the problem might be don’t run into your neighbor,” she said of the kindergarteners. “For fifth and sixth grade, it could be a mirror where you match your partner.”
The goal behind the grant is to increase school achievement scores, which makes the underlying academics to the art activities vital to the program.
“When they’re excited about learning and doing hands-on activities, they’re more engaged, they’re able to apply their learning and they’re able to retain it better,” Harford said.
Harford said the grant, which initiated in January, will conclude by the end of May. During the summer, teachers will develop units of study involving STEAM that will be available to all other teacher participants in the program.