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Carolyn Lange, Forum Communications , Published December 16 2012

Arts education program pushes teachers to try new approaches

GROVE CITY, Minn. – Students in a hammer-and -nails-type shop class got an unusual assignment recently that could change how they look at every future school assignment.

It could also change how their teacher looks at teaching every class in the future.

“We’re really stretching them here,” said Craig Dischinger, an Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City High School industrial arts teacher, as he watched students who like to “build, build, build” instead of ponder their analysis of Greek myths and create a paper collage that represented the touch, smell and sight of the ancient legends.

“It’s stretching me, too,” said Dischinger. “They’re really getting a new view. I’m getting a new view. It’s great.”

Dischinger is one of four ACGC teachers who are teamed up with Tory Peterson, a teacher from the Perpich Center for Arts Education as part of a yearlong grant program called Arts Courses for Educators.

ACGC is one of five school districts in the state selected for the program this year.

The teachers participate in four different two-day workshops at the Perpich Center, which is a statewide boarding high school specializing in arts education, to learn how to incorporate art and creative thinking into their teaching methods. Peterson also travels to ACGC three times during the year to demonstrate how to use those skills by leading students through special projects in the four teachers’ classrooms.

He not only challenges the students but also guides the teachers.

By using some unique methods – like having visual art students use their bodies to make the shapes of letters of the alphabet and having shop students get a little deeper into their creative side – students and their teachers are encouraged to take a few risks that could open them up to a broader way of looking at the world and a different way of teaching and learning.

Peterson said teachers need to get beyond the concept of “sitting behind a desk or at a desk for hour after hour after hour,” and get themselves and students moving to allow them “to be kinesthetic and reacting and interacting with each other.”

Jenna Tanttila, the ACGC visual arts teacher, said the program has helped her students learn to trust each other, gain personal confidence and become “more open and engaged in what we’re doing.”

It’s also helped her gain confidence as a teacher and to “not be so afraid to put myself out there and push it a little bit further than what I’ve done before.”

Peterson said it’s common for teachers to “find the road that works” and “get comfortable with the things we do” but that being exposed to new teaching ideas and being given an opportunity to experiment “keeps the teachers on their toes.”

That’s been one of the benefits of the program, said Heidi Thoma, the ACGC choir instructor.

“It’s gotten me from being in a rut where you do the same thing over and over again,” she said.

Instead of starting choir class with just a vocal warm-up, Peterson encourages students to get warmed up with some physical antics that not only get the students moving but also laughing.

Connie Halvorson, who teaches communications and theater classes, said Peterson has “brought things to life” in her classroom.

Having Peterson lead occasional classes throughout the year with his unique brand of creativity breaks the ice with students and makes it easier for ACGC teachers to change up their style of teaching.

Dischinger said he was skeptical at first and said his students “rolled their eyes and got defensive.” But he said the Perpich training has “really improved my teaching abilities” and he’s seen the “light bulb go on” in his students.

Halvorson said the four teachers intend to share what they have learned with the other ACGC teachers in a workshop. “There are many different teachers that could benefit from it,” she said.

Carolyn Lange writes for the West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.