When Andrew Cress, a teacher at Duquesne City School District, heard about Attack Theatre’s program that integrates movement and dance with curriculum, he was skeptical.
“I attended a professional development program where Attack Theatre was presenting. And to be honest with you, I was not interested in their session at all,” he says. “A colleague of mine said, ‘We’re going to this session.’ So we did, and I had a great understanding of how it was going to help my students.”
Cress became so enamored with the concept that he submitted grant applications to bring Attack Theatre to Duquesne City’s fourth grade classrooms as a residency program.
“I’m not sure how I ever survived without them,” Cress says. “I learned as much from them as the students did. I learned new ways to engage our students. I learned new ways to get resistant students to participate. I learned new strategies to help those more difficult learners. I believe in the work they are doing.”
The Attack Theatre program is one of the community efforts that is helping to rebuild the Duquesne City School District.
In 2013, financial turmoil put the district under the authority of a court-ordered receivership, resulting in the disbanding of the middle and high schools and the launch of a financial recovery plan. With limited funds, the school district could only support kindergarten through sixth-grade classes and no extracurricular programs.
Since then, with grassroots efforts, the seventh and eighth grades have returned, with sports programs coming back soon. High school is expected to return within a couple of years.
Attack Theatre’s work with Duquesne City students revives classrooms with a fresh approach. The company started its residency with the fourth grade last year. This school year, with support from the Jefferson Regional Foundation and the Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media, Attack Theatre expanded its efforts to work with kindergarten through fifth grade.
“It has definitely improved morale and helped with student engagement,” says Jamie Schmidt, Duquesne City School District’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. She, too, was somewhat dubious about the idea but was quickly won over.
“We love it, and honestly, our teachers love it and are engaged in it firsthand,” Schmidt says. “They don’t have enough good things to say about it. Based on our feedback of working directly with Attack Theatre, we have continued to form partnerships with them in any capacity that we can.”
Attack Theatre’s work in the classroom is based on the belief that movement is an essential part of all living and learning.
“We’ve learned through the years that movement can be a powerful way to hone skills of a particular interest or to work on communication or collaboration,” says Michele de la Reza, co-founder and artistic executive director of Attack Theatre, which is now in its 28th year.
“Students aren’t just seeing or hearing or reading, they’re actually doing, feeling. From there, the research shows that there is not only meaning, but there is also retention. You remember it years later.”
The company uses movement to work with any subject, from creative writing and social studies to poetry and even physics. Instructors approach teachers to find out the critical need, and the students’ most challenging curriculum, and go from there.
“It’s really easy to find ways that movement connects with curriculum,” says Sarah Zielinski, a company dancer, teaching artist and collaborator with Attack Theatre. “Everybody has a body they walk around in. And whether you’re a visual learner or an auditory learner, the kinesthetic learning that happens through connecting curriculum with movement is so powerful as to imprint those lessons in their bodies.”
Attack Theatre reaches more than 11,000 teachers and students annually through school assemblies, residency programs, professional development workshops and learning tracks that offer Act 48 credits.
“We’re giving the tools to the teachers, and they can run with it,” Zielinski says. “Teachers are creative to begin with, so it’s just like a little springboard or maybe a refresher of an idea of, ‘Oh, I’ve never looked at this perspective.’ And that’s what dance does: It really shifts the perspective.”
From all reports, the kids love it.
“When it was Attack Theatre day, my attendance was better because the kids wanted to be there,” Cress says. “It’s not frequently that kids are looking forward to an academic learning experience in the classroom. It’s hard to get that kind of engagement from kids.
“I was very surprised; even some of my toughest learners — the fourth-grade boys and girls who are starting to think they’re too cool for dance. But every student thrives with them. Some of it was seeing themselves reflected in the people who were teaching the course. And some of it was they just made it so fun that before the kids realized what was happening, they were learning.”
Cress recently moved to Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy in Woodland Hills School District to take on the position of assistant principal. He hopes to bring Attack Theatre to his new school, too.
“This is my 10th year in public education,” says Cress, who taught in urban schools in Cincinnati and rural schools in Ohio before teaching at Duquesne City and Woodland Hills. “To date, this is the most engaging activity I’ve ever seen students participate in. I feel like it made me a better educator.”