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Teachers brush up on new techniques to help improve a struggling school

Fourth grade teacher Karsina Gaither smiled at the front of the classroom, eager to share a new theater technique.

"OK, actors," she said, "to get your body ready, you have to learn something called 'actor’s neutral.' "

Though she spoke to the group like her usual nine-year-olds, her students on this day were a bit older. She was training her fellow teachers at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Watts. 

They were reviewing a method called "snapshot," a drama-based strategy used to reinforce vocabulary.

The teachers stood up straight facing the back of the room, feet shoulder-width apart, looking straight forward. Gaither gave them a word, like "calm," or "angry." When she cued them, clapping her hands, saying, "Actors, on!" they spun around, holding an expression that reflects that word. Gaither moved through the space capturing the frozen expressions with an imaginary camera. 

This is just one of many strategies teachers at Joyner at packing into their arsenals to carry back to their classrooms this year. The school is one of 16 in the state that's part of Turnaround Arts: California, the local arm of a national effort to use arts education as a strategy to improve low-performing schools.

The potential for transformation hinges on teacher commitment to the vision. 

"If the teachers that have [students] for the lion's share of the day aren't really invested in it, then it's not gonna happen," said principal Akida Kissane Long. "They are ready for this transformation."

Joyner is in its first year of the program, and KPCC is spending the year following the school. 

Among the school's 30 teachers, there's a yearning for change. 

"We’ve been working so hard because we are such a low-performing school," said Cathryn Deering, the school's arts specialist.

Schools in the program are in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in their state. Last year at Joyner, only 16 percent of students met math standards, and 15 percent in language arts. In the face of these challenges, teacher turnover has been high. 

"This year is the first year in a long time that it’s pretty much intact, the staff," said Deering. "The teachers are so dedicated and everyone here has gone above and beyond to get the school going."

Deering was a classroom teacher at the school for five years, and this year stepped into the role of arts specialist. In addition to teaching weekly music classes, she leads and coordinates professional development sessions on arts integration –  an approach where teachers systematically weave arts instruction into other subjects. 

Teachers at Florence Griffith Joyner practice a lesson during a professional development workshop.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Teachers at Florence Griffith Joyner practice a lesson during a professional development workshop.

Students rotate through general music, instrumental music, dance and visual art throughout the year and have a wide variety of after-school arts offerings, but the goal of arts integration is to see the various arts form connected to classroom content. 

Teachers at Joyner are getting training in a variety of arts integration strategies – learning how to bring fine art analysis into science lessons and how to incorporate percussion instruments into classroom reading sessions.

"I see myself as a student in those [professional development sessions]," said kindergarten teacher Maria Ortega. "I’m so engaged, I can only imagine my students. I’m excited to bringing it into my classroom." 

As teachers put the methods to use in class, Deering is trying to carve out time for peer reviews among grade level teachers. 

Ortega and fellow kindergarten teacher Angelica Navarro put the snapshot technique to use in class during a lesson about bears – having the students find expressions to capture words like "hungry" and "claws." 

Teacher Maria Ortega uses an arts integration technique with her kindergarteners to help reinforce vocabulary.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Teacher Maria Ortega uses an arts integration technique with her kindergarteners to help reinforce vocabulary.

Afterwards, Deering led a debrief with the teachers to discuss what worked and areas where they could improve.

"The kids were engaged, the actors were listening," said Navarro. "It’s showing us they really have an understanding of the vocabulary."

Both teachers wanted to be more clear in giving directions in the future. 

"I should have been more explicit with my students – you need to freeze because I need to take a picture," said Ortega.

This is Ortega's first year teaching, but she was a teaching assistant in kindergarten last year. She said with the new tools teachers have this year, classes feel different. 

"There’s always that want, you want to have art – that's a goal," Ortega said, "but this year we're really able to because we're given that time to plan with each other and think critically about what we want to teach them."

The students at Joyner will have state math and reading tests in a few weeks. There’s a lot of pressure in a low-performing school like this. But Deering says stress levels among staff and students seem lower this year. She says maybe the new art skills help teachers bring light to things that are heavy.