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West Jordan Journal

Hawthorn students get out of their seats and into the action of learning

Jun 28, 2021 11:02AM ● By Jet Burnham

Kindergarteners re-enacting a scene from the story “The Little Scarecrow Boy” during a dramatic arts class. (Photo courtesy of Tori January.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Sherry Powell’s fourth-grade class had read about the body’s circulatory system. They’d seen pictures of it and had it explained to them. And then they went to their dramatic arts class and they became the chambers of the heart and the red blood cells, moving through the circulatory system and exchanging cards representing oxygen.

“This helped them understand how the blood picks up oxygen and how one side of the heart pumps the blood in and the other pumps it out,” Powell said. “They also were able to comprehend the "circle" part of that system.”

Powell said when students have lessons like this with Hawthorn Academy’s dramatic arts specialist Tori January, they are attentive and engaged in learning.

“I know the kids remember her lessons because she involves them with music, body movements, acting, etc.,” she said. “I love it because I am able to refer back to her lessons and review. That is when I see the kids start moving or humming.”

January creates activities that get students out of their seats and put what they’ve learned in their social studies; language arts, and science classes into action.

“When the kids can get up on their feet and do something, it really cements it in their head,” January said.

She collaborates with teachers to create activities that supplement the academic curriculum or reinforce social skills.

“Whether we are studying Indigenous Americans, or learning how to get along with one another, she has them role play and get into the real action,” third-grade teacher Patti Zimmerman said.

First-grade teacher Ronni Blair meets regularly with January to plan lessons based on the academic standards.

“She always can tie in and bring in another perspective and experience for the students,” Blair said. “She is always energetic, fun, knowledgeable and prepared.”

January gets silly with the younger students-- the kindergartners love when she plays dumb, and they get to be the expert--but she also knows how to engage older students in developmentally challenging ways. 

When sixth-graders were studying space, she engaged them in a role-playing scenario in which she played the CEO of the solar system who needed to downsize. Students developed a character representing a space object and, using what they’d learned in science class, campaigned to remain in the solar system.

One student portrayed a black hole, dressing in black and speaking with a sucking intake of air. Another dressed as a star--in glitter and sequins--and took on the persona of a glamorous superstar.

“It's great to see how creative they are,” January said. “I find joy in seeing where they're going to run with it.”

Similarly, January asked fourth graders to represent a system inside a body and complain to the brain, played by January, how the person was making unhealthy choices. They had to present, from the organ’s perspective, how the habits (eating too much sugar) were affecting them (developing cavities) and propose a solution (stop eating sugar, brush us.)

January encourages students to explore history from the perspective of the people who lived it, such as when the fourth graders study the pioneers coming to Utah.

“We can read the history books and know they came, and why they came, but I want to put them in that decision moment,” she said. “I want them to see the pros and the cons because we make decisions based on information. Right now, we're looking back in history. We know all the information. But they didn't have all the information at that time.”

Older students participate in “dinner table debates” in which students discuss topics, such as women’s suffrage, from different perspectives. Using the facts they’ve learned in social studies, students discuss options for taking action. Fifth graders were very perceptive of the different issues at play, said January, such as when a student said she wouldn’t support women’s suffrage because it wouldn’t affect her voting rights as a black citizen.

“This lesson is a perfect example of why I get excited about creative drama," January said. “Their confidence to take what they understood about private citizens initiating change and apply it to a scene was exciting to watch.” 

January loves her job at Hawthorn Academy, especially since she doesn’t have to give students a grade, just confidence.

“I don't have to make a judgment call on how well they did or put a label on whether or not they can be creative” she said.

She believes arts education provides a complete education.

“Arts education isn’t fluff,” she said. “Arts education in all forms gives children the confidence to learn the subjects in-depth.”