“Imagine what could happen if we did this all year” Working with The Learning Alliance at Fellsmere Elementary by Story Tapestries Master Teaching Artist Debbi Arseneaux

After an intense week of working in four different classrooms at Fellsmere Elementary in Indian River County, Florida, this past spring, I sat in a debriefing meeting with the four teachers and their principal. I had just completed an embedded coaching residency where I modeled arts based strategies to teach vocabulary and deepen comprehe​n​sion of text, IMG_1295and then supported the teachers as they tried out these strategies with their students. The teachers biggest feedback was how impressed they were with the level of engagement of their students and their biggest complaint was that they wanted more time with me. The principal, Mr E. (as they call him), was passionate about the impact he saw on their students: “The level of comprehension, their understanding of the vocabulary and the text, the way they smiled when you walked in the room…You were only here for such a short time. Can you imagine what could happen if we did this all year?”

For us at Story Tapestries, that is indeed the million dollar question! We want to help unlock the potential in all teachers to use creative strategies that engage their students in meaningful ways all the time. We want to help all students take charge of their learning and give them reasons to love coming to school…when kids are engaged, they are learning! And when they are working together, they are developing those critical 21st Century skills we know they need: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.

The school population is largely Hispanic with many English Language Learners. Whereas in many classrooms, teachers are worried about how to reign in the behavior of their students when they get excited and actively engaged in creative activities, in this
school, the teachers often expressed concern that they weren’t sure how to bring the energy out of some of their students. They worried that they might not be able to accurately assess some of their quieter students’ progress in comprehension. The wonderful thing about working on comprehension through movement and drama techniques is that it provides multiple entry points to demonstrate learning, including verbally and physically. The teachers could see immediately if a student understood the vocabularIMG_1292y word or the key detail in the text when they made a choice about how to participate in a tableau, for example.Our process is always to custom tailor our programs to the needs of the school and the meet the teachers where they are at in terms of their comfort level with arts integrated lessons. In this instance, as is often the case, I was working with teachers with a range of skills and differing comfort levels with the arts, but all of them were open and eager to see what I might be able to do to help them improve their practice. The importance of the support of the administration in this cannot be overstated. The energy and enthusiasm I saw in the staff at Fellsmere was modelled and led every step of the way by Principal Ramon Echeverria and Assistant Principal Kimberly Garcia. No one claims to have all the answers, but it appeared to me that Echeverria and Garcia approach creating positive school and classroom culture as a team effort and go out of their way to support their teachers.

IMG_1301I left that school feeling embraced and supported and challenged and like the work I was doing had the potential to make a real, lasting impact on an entire school community. So, soon after that experience, when The Learning Alliance, the literacy organization we partnered with to visit Fellsmere, offered me a full time position to help support more programs like this in Florida, I decided to take a big leap and dive into the deep end. Who doesn’t want to go to work every day feeling that sincerely appreciated and like your work could make a difference?

As of this writing, I am now living in that community, working with that school, and others like it, to make sure students have access to this kind of meaningful learning experience all year.

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This Jazz Man, He Plays…Everything! Working with WPAS at the Sitar Center in Washington DC by Story Tapestries Master Teaching Artist Debbi Arseneaux

I had a blast this summer teaching at the Playful Rhythms Camp with Washington Performing Arts Society at the Sitar Center. WPAS asked Story Tapestries to bring a little drama to this great music and arts summer camp. With campers across a wide range of ages, we took a colorful and fun text and brought it to life using our Actor’s Tools: our body, voice, mind and imagination. The book follows the rhyme scheme of the classic children’s song This Old Man and each number is represented by a different jazz legend playing a different jazz instrument. So for the first day, we created sounds and motions to go with each number from the story, taking the words right off the page. There were Pages from This Jazz Mantrumpets, and drums, and keyboards, oh my! Students worked together in groups to layer the instrument sounds and motions, like they would in an actual band. I was impressed with how well the older students stepped into leadership roles with the younger students when asked to “lead the band.”
For the second day, we created our own jazz band characters, giving them a unique instrument movement and sound that reflected a personality trait decided by the student. They drew these characters and wrote out the sounds of the instruments. We reflected on how important it was for us to work together to make music and how we can communicate through music. Again working in groups to rehearse, they created their own jazz bands and performed for each other. I loved the idea of encouraging each camper to celebrate their originality and to figure out how to jam together. They had to really listen to each other to be able to combine and layer the sounds. Even in summer camp, kids can be learning vital life skills and we can help their love of learning!

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Schoolhouse Rock – Stretching and growing skills together by Susie Richard

What can be more rewarding than helping a group of kids achieve more than they thought possible? This past winter, I had that pleasure. Story Tapestries was contracted to produce the school musical that was to be put by the after-school program, Polite Piggy. And I thought, “OK, so they did a half hour rendition of 101 Dalmatians last year, a standard Elementary School script, let’s see if I can modify one of the Middle School shows to really stretch their talents.” So I went to work modifying Schoolhouse Rock into a 40 minute show.


There was confusion at first. “We’re gonna be on stage the whole time,” they asked repeatedly. I would just smile and nod and watched them learn to share focus with each other. It was a wonderful if chaotic process. During the course of it I brought in an intern from the Middle School where I direct their play annually, and even learned the culture of the school and modified how rehearsals were done so that the students had a more familiar process to produce work. The more we worked, the more they became an ensemble, helping each other and filling in gaps caused by frequent cast member absences. And in the end, we had a show everyone could be proud of.

But perhaps my greatest triumph was the inclusion of a young boy who had severe ADD and ADHD. As fate would have it, his medication would wear off right as the after-school program would begin. At the beginning, he was the first to ignore my calls to attention and was constantly being told to sit down at the table for a time-out so the rest of us could work. He would still come to me crying at times saying he didn’t want to do the show, even when it was his time to do his solo song. I spent many a moment talking to his mother during parent pick-up time telling her that he seemed miserable, to which she replied that he’d regret doing it if he quit, so he had to stay in.

This presented me with a dilemma. How could I include him and not cheat the other students out of my attention while I helped him? The first couple of strategies were agreements we came to together. First, he was allowed to sing his solo song with his hood zipped up to completely cover his face during the first rehearsal of it, and then progressively show more and more of himself by singing into the microphone with his back to the audience, and then turning around more and more. The second was that when he or I felt he was getting to be disruptive, he could sit himself down with his knitting and focus on that for a while until he felt ready to come back to the group. He could listen from there and was fully capable of adding himself back in to whatever scene we were just working on.

But the final strategy to help him stay part of show was a happy accident. We had gotten to a new song faster than I expected during one rehearsal and I hadn’t quite finished choreographing it. As I had the kids run the scene before with the Music Director, I huddled around my directing table with my intern and frantically tried to talk through what we should do. Our friend with ADD wandered over and after listening for a minute, jumped in and began offering very concrete and helpful ideas. After that, we included him in all discussions of changing choreography and blocking. He became our choreographer and assistant director.

The ownership this gave him to the show was wonderful to watch. Here, a kid who often bothered his cast mates with his disruptive behavior, now dived into scenes that he had helped create and was a source of knowledge for kids who were having problems remembering what to do. He was proud of his role and very sincere and helpful when asked a question by a peer. And he began to fit in. He played the game we did half-way through the rehearsal and sat with the others during snack time before rehearsals. And when he would think of a funny thing he could do in the show on the spot, for he had one heck of a sense of comedic timing, the others would applaud and laugh and then look to me for the decision on whether or not it contributed or stole focus in the show. Eventually others began to do this and it became clear that he had even done better than me at creating a safe space to try new ideas.

I believe all of the children in the Maury play learned and grew in their belief in their abilities, but it is my sincere hope that not only does this young man keep the pride in himself that I saw develop over the run of the show, but that other adults in his life can recognize it and foster him into the positive leader I know he can be. Thank you kids of Schoolhouse Rock, together we not only created something magical, we also learned and grew with each other!

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Dr. Seuss, Civil Rights, and Middle School – Oh My! Dancing Poetry @ Kenmore MS

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Standards/Overarching themes for the week:
Sustained reading: 25 mins
Review plot structure/sequence: plot graph/elements of story
Poetry Forms: ABAB/AABB
Comparison/Contrast of text in different medium: Book/Video/Play
Text: The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss
  • Students will experience the same text (The Sneetches) via sustained reading (book), visual representation (video), and embodied story-telling (play)
  • Students will create a sketch of the main character in the text
  • Students will create poetry based on the main theme of the text: “Sneetches are Sneetches”
  • Students will physicalize, and therefore experience synergistic learning, of all materials by putting the key concepts, vocabulary, and themes into action with their bodies using the principles of B.E.S.S.T. (body, effort, shape, space, and time) as a definition of dance/movement in the classroom.

Incorporate for classroom  management:

Roll your shoulders back if you’re finished
Tap your toes
bounce in your seats
stand up by 8, sit down by 8
Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care
Stand to answer

All that seems a little dry, doesn’t it? In truth, it was super exciting! This is what happens when you blend uber academic planning with dance: the reality jumps off the page and becomes magic for students and teachers alike. My residency at Kenmore Middle School in VA was anything but dry, that’s for sure! I was paired with a stellar educator who was willing to try anything; together, we had a blast.

What started out as a discussion on the Sneetches behavior towards one another, in the context of reviewing the poetry forms ABAB/AABB, morphed into a student-led discussion of the Civil Rights Movement and students’ personal experiences with bullying and racist behavior. We discussed how it feels bad to be mean to others. And how good it feels to be kind. Below is the poem that the students wrote as a group as a result:

I am a Sneetch

Yesterday, I was quite snide

I was rude to my favorite pair

I felt like I should hide

So, I offered to cut the girls’ hair

I just wanted to play

But, I felt ashamed

The others wouldn’t let me stay

They called me names

Now, I know about the human race

People should have the same rights

to stand toe to toe and face to face

United together for our fight.

Our final activity was to put an adaption of The Sneetches on it’s feet and physicalize the text as a class. We did not have time to memorize parts, create props, costumes, and all of the bells and whistles. Instead, we did a standing reading facing each other in a box shape. Each student stepped forward into the box when it was their time to speak/gesture/move/act. Aside from the benefits of working with text in a new/fresh way for the students, they experienced and conquered the fear and anxiety of “performing” text in front of their peers in a safe, and supportive atmosphere. They were simultaneously performer and audience member. They attended to each other and rose to the challenge within themselves. It was messy. We repeated the play twice. It got better. Much better. They felt their improvement, in the moment, without a test or a paper – and were proud.

I highly recommend offering students the opportunity to take positive risks like this one; I saw the self esteem of several students rise within one class period through this activity. And, as a bonus, they experienced all of this WITH their teachers; we chose to be characters in the play as well – so we all took the positive risk and learned together.

Here’s a screen shot of the text we used: Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 12.25.15 PM

More soon from the trenches!

  • k.k. :)
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Seaton Elementary – Dancing with Books and Poetry


This spring, I had the awesome task of working with three brilliant educators at Seaton Elementary in Washington, DC as part of my work in StoryTapestries’ VSA programs. My three classrooms were vastly different ages and needs:  Pre-k students who were mostly non-verbal, k-2 students with a broad range of emotional and physical disabilities, and VSA3rd-5th graders who were on the higher-functional range of abilities. As in any situation, each child deserves to be treated with individual respect and attention; at Seaton, the teachers went above and beyond to meet this criteria every. single. moment. Working side-by-side to integrate dance into their curricula was ripe with learning opportunities for teachers, students, and myself. Together, our primary goals for the residency were:

  • to create a more active classroom by using movement to support transitions between activities, stations, and spaces;
  • to integrate dance into the core curriculum;
  • and to empower the teachers with a broad skill set to continue movement-integrated lessons beyond the scope of the residency.

The pre-k classroom worked with the text, “Pete the CScreen Shot 2015-07-10 at 1.27.18 PMat, I Love My White Shoes” by Eric Litwin.  We created motions for key vocabulary words and made the reading of the text a whole body experience. There is a song to match the book that gave our reading and dancing an extra dimension of fun. We worked in 15-minute rotations with two students at at time, maximizing realistic expectations of attention, comprehension, and retention for students.

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The k-2 classroom worked with “Always in Trouble” by Corrine Demas, illustrated by Norah Z. Jones. As
with the pre-k classroom, we worked in rotation, but in larger groups. At one station, key vocabulary words were highlighted with gestures, pictures, and matching activities. The other station abstracted key concepts from the story: days of the week, positive/negative consequences for behavior, parts of a story, etc. We put them into motion using locomotor movement across the floor, shaping in space and specific pathways, and tableaus.

The 3rd-5th graders explored a poetry unit, focused on Haiku and ABAB or AABB rhyming sequences and stanzas. The students did full-body tracings of themselves, completed a personal haiku to describe themselves and wrote their haiku on their body tracing. These tracings served as art for the walls as well as a meaningful visual reminder of the haiku form and they led to a fruitful discussion of each other’s similarities and differences. In groups, we wrote ABAB poems about a frog’s habitat – as their classroom is an imaginary frog pond. The students drew pictures to represent their poems and created movement to accompany the poems. Each group performed for the other, shared their art, and poetry. The frog habitat study culminated in a classroom book that was printed for each student to keep, inclusive of all of their work. Each day with this classroom included warm-up movement to “get the wiggles out” and transitional movement to keep the flow going from one activity to the next. The class explored all elements of a frog and it’s habitat physically, visually, orally, and in text. They even have plans to build a frog pond on campus to bring the study full circle!

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 2.24.57 PMWhen was the last time you hopped like a frog? I dare you to give it a try right now!


k.k. :)

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Beatboxing and Math in New Castle, Pennsylvania – by Max Bent

Thanks to Story Tapestries and the Hoyt Center for the Arts, I had the opportunity to spend over a week working with third and sixth graders in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Although I’ve done many arts integrated residencies prior, this one stands out as a model for success. An appropriate name for the approach we took in New Castle might be “building community through the arts.” As a teaching artist, I most often work with students, or their teachers, or some combination of both. But in New Castle, I collaborated with students, teachers, a center for the arts, and local artists over the course of the residency. It was awesome and I hope to work in another community under the same residency model soon.

New Castle is a beautiful, old small town in Northwest PA near the Ohio border. I immediately felt at home since I was staying in someone’s house. The Marquez family, now my good friends, were kind enough to let me stay with them for the entire residency. In return, I manipulated Hector, the papa, into eating three salads in one week. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say that being able to live with a family in the community had a HUGE impact on my experience and I would consider it essential to replicating the residency model.

The residency kicked off with a wonderful professional development (PD) session at the absolutely stunningly beautiful Hoyt Center for the Arts.


The PD was the perfect opportunity to meet the teachers and artists I would be working with and share my art of Human Beatboxing with them. Over the course of the three hour session, I was able to introduce the whole group to some of the fundamental techniques of beatboxing and demonstrate a few applications through arts integrated lessons. The best moment of the session was a long, informative discussion about one of the activities that led to a few significant upgrades to the activity. Thanks! As I always tell teachers, it is teachers that clarify and improve my own ideas.

Over the next five days, I worked in a third and sixth grade classroom at George Washington Intermediate School. Our objectives were different for each group. I was shadowed by two local artists from the community interested in arts integration. These artists were far more than shadows, and immediately contributed to the lessons. After the classroom work, I met with the artists for a debrief.

In the third grade classroom, we decomposed hexagons into triangles, rhombuses and trapezoids (sixths, thirds and halves, respectively). Each fraction was assigned a vocalization and thus students were able to perform the decomposed hexagons.

The sixth graders worked in teams to compose multi-part arrangements which were laid out on an X-Y plot. Below is a recording of one of the groups performing their piece:


An X-Y Plot composition arranged and awaiting performers.

The teams tackled music and math objectives. They worked together to perform their compositions, a process rich with musical skill development (steady beat, texture, form). Additionally, their teacher suggested a statistical analysis of the students composition. For example, the students created line plots to illustrate the change in volume over time of their compositions.

The artists that worked with us in the residency developed arts integrated lesson plans using a template I provided. One of the artists, dancer Shari Mastalski, went above and beyond the call of duty, and, on top of completing her own lesson plan, composed (with a little guidance) a rap based on lessons we observed in the sixth grade classroom. Below is the Integer Rap:

Integers are whole numbers for example one,
Two, three, four, five, up the number line they run.

Integers can be negative numbers when
They run the other way past zero like negative ten.

If the signs are different you must subtract
And take the sign of the larger number that’s a fact.

When you have to subtract, remember leave, change, flip
You may be confused but sit up straight and get a grip.

Now if only we had somebody to drop a beat…

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Professional Development through VSA – Kennedy Center – by Suzanne Richard

Arts integration in special education seems so fundamental to me that I welcomed the chance to present at a series of Professional Development programs on that very subject.  Thanks to a grant from VSA Arts, Arianna Ross and I, of Story Tapestries, had the chance to share the ideas of Embodied Storytelling to groups of teachers who I knew would VSAbenefit immensely from this work.  The inclusion of multiple styles of learning are vital to a well-rounded education. That benefit increases exponentially when dealing with students whose various disabilities may affect their ability to receive and retain information in a traditional classroom culture. This post will focus on two vastly different programs we offered, the first to a large group of approximately 80 high school and middle school special education teachers and aides, and the second, a much more intimate group of approximately 20 teachers that work with elementary school students with special needs.

With the first, larger group, after introducing them to our basic embodied storytelling tools which, among other things, allow teachers and aides to create a collaborative and focused work environment, develop and enhance the acquisition of new vocabulary, and begin to get them to explore kinesthetic modes of learning, we focused on exploring texts that illuminate different scientific processes.  We broke them into groups based on their self-selected seating choices at various cafeteria tables and asked them to use the tools we shared with them to first draw out one a paragraph they constructed from one of the steps in texts we gave them on the water cycle, photosynthesis or metamorphosis.


First they were asked to draw, in pictures, the elements of this paragraph (main idea, supporting details and conclusion) on a graphic chart we gave them. Then they put together a presentation of these paragraphs for the rest of the room with each person embodying a different element of the paragraph. The end result was a tableau at the end of the process.  I found it fascinating to watch groups who had previously seemed unimpressed with the tools we were sharing begin to grasp the process as they worked with their fellow collaborators and colleagues.  They began to relate the process they were using as it pertained to the children they were working with on a daily basis.

Because of the size of the workshop, we had the groups share their presentations with other groups and then chose several groups to present to the whole room.  We were able to single out groups who had seen the value of our work immediately and those who had only really understood how this fit into their daily classroom culture after they had gotten up on their feet.  It was a beautiful example of the existence of different styles of learning and the value of arts being integrated into daily learning activities.  During reflection time at different points in the program, teachers and aides shared with their colleagues specific areas where they thought our activities could really enhance the learning experience and foster retention in their classrooms.  By the end of the workshop, many of these ideas were coming from former skeptics and the whole group was engaged.

The smaller group of elementary school teachers required a different approach.  These were all teachers from the same school used to working with each other.  In a sense, we not only had to address their classroom culture, but also the culture of their own engagement in a professional development workshop based on their previous experiences with these colleagues.  There was the “class clown”, always throwing in an occasional quip. The “cool kid” who sat in the back of the class and rolled his eyes at everything and carrying a portion of the participants into his unimpressed disengagement. The “star student” already prepped and familiar with and employing the techniques of arts integration and eager to learn what embodied storytelling had to bring to the table. There were also aides, who were not necessarily included in professional development opportunities and feeling a little like intruders.

20141203_131028The first thing we did was get them into a circle around the room, allowing them to keep their cliques, but forcing them to see all of the participants on an equal basis.  As we began the basic tools and vocabulary acquisition techniques, we encouraged full participation by individually engaging with different individuals at certain times while having them act as a single group in other activities.  For example, as we focused on the process of metamorphosis with this group, we took them on an imaginary physical journey around the classroom as butterflies, visiting different colored flowers and creating a world to embody the story in.  The sheer silliness of the activity allowed for laughter and commentary in an active process that was also easily identified as a fun activity for their students.

As the target student age of this group was younger, we had them work on a sentence about one aspect of the process and then illustrating that concept on a graphic.  Once they were broken into groups, they each presented their sentence as a part of a group. Although it was not a competitive atmosphere, even the “cool kid” in the back of the room took great pride in showing what he had created as part of a group and by the end, everyone was eager to share how they thought this work could be applied in their classrooms.

The main body of our workshop was similar to embodied storytelling workshops we give to general education teachers.  The thing about all of these workshops that was most gratifying, was the missing information we were able to provide all of these teachers about common tools we use to create what we call an inclusive classroom.  As I use a wheelchair, we often demonstrate this early on by staging teachable moments where Arianna will ask us all to stand in a circle, and I will step in with a reminder that a better way to say that to a room full of students, some of whom might have mobility issues, is to instead ask everyone simply to form a circle.  We also discuss varying traditional ways to create tableaus and concept sculptures the students do with a partner by adding things like voice requests and imaginary strings that can move limbs and other body parts into the desired positions instead of directly touching their classmate, being sensitive to students who are averse to physical contact.  And what I really found surprising was the gap in knowledge among these groups of special educators on disability etiquette.  Few had heard of “person first wording” and politically correct language for various disabilities and differences.  This led to many in depth discussions and knowledge sharing within the groups.

All teachers can enrich their classrooms using Embodied Storytelling.  But more importantly, the creation of inclusive classrooms in any classroom environment can add to the power of arts integration.

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