Project blends music, dance, pottery into many lessons

By Wayne Bryan Published April 24, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Martha Smither, right, is president of Arkansas Learning through the Arts, and Craig Welle is executive director. The organization, headquartered in Hot Springs Village, offers classroom teachers tools to catch the attention of their students.

HOT SPRINGS VILLAGE — It has been said that one of the harder parts of being a teacher is getting students to pay attention and become excited about their lessons.

The teacher could get them to dance.

That is the big idea behind Arkansas Learning through the Arts, an organization formed two years ago by Martha Smither, the company’s president. The company offers classroom teachers tools to catch the attention of their students.

“The mission is to improve student achievement by integrating cultural arts into the educational experience,” Smither said. “The teaching artists have workshops for the students that not only teach to the requirements from the common core but introduce the students to the arts at the same time.”

Headquartered in Hot Springs Village, the ALTTA program has been used this school year in four school systems in Garland County — Fountain Lake, Hot Springs, Jessieville and Lake Hamilton.

Craig Welle, executive director of Learning Through the Arts, said music can be used to teach all kinds of core subjects.

“Listening to the ‘1812 Overture’ can connect the class to history. ‘The Moth,’ by Vivaldi, has the longest string of 16th notes, and math teachers can relate that to units and division,” Welle said. “For science, there is the study of sound waves. The eras of music are social history, and music reflects the different cultures of the world. There are many things that can be taught with music and the arts.”

Welle is a vocalist and music educator and was an administrator of an arts program in Texas for 22 years.

So far, the classes have been developed for through the fifth grade. Smither gave one example of how the program works.

“A teaching artist comes to the school with a program we call Dancing With the Greeks,” Smither said. “It teaches Greek mythology to third-graders in a two-day workshop.”

Each student maintains a journal for the class, emphasizing writing skills. The artist teacher is a dancer who teaches the children how to move in a dance. The result of the lessons will be to perform five scenes in a play about Perseus and Medusa.

“The movement is taught to both girls and boys and in different ways,” Smither said. “We have the girls to learn pliés, and the boys — we show them football squats. They are both the same move.”

The story has to do with a Greek hero, Perseus, whose mother was human, but his father was Zeus, king of the gods. In the story, the young hero is sent to bring back the head of Medusa the Gorgon. The hair on her head had been turned to snakes and was so ugly that anyone who looked at her was turned to stone.

“For Medusa, we have a mannequin head painted green with black pipe cleaners as snakes,” Smither said. “All the children explain the play together, like a Greek chorus, and each scene has a moral to make it relevant.”

Within the preparation for the play, the journals and the performance include everything you are supposed to teach from Greek mythology.

“Among the morals, they will learn not to be afraid of trying the impossible,” Welle said. “The theme of the story is that if you start bullying, bad things will happen.”

Another version for Dancing With the Greeks has been produced for fourth-graders.

“The older students get more freedom on how to retell the story,” Welle said. “They get to choose how they believe the characters will move by what they are thinking. As the kids get older, they take more responsibility.”

Another program teaches social studies and history of the civil rights movement by hearing, writing and performing poetry.

The first day, third-graders talk to a young artist who portrays Langston Hughes, a poet born in 1902 whose African-American themes made him a primary contributor to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

“The program is Dreams and Dreams Deferred,” Smither said. “It will ask the students what are dreams, and what if a dream dies? That can be a difficult thing for teachers to get kids excited about.

“The figure of Hughes personifies poetry and makes it personal.”

The artist reads and talks about Hughes’ poetry. The next day, the artist returns as himself and talks about the Harlem Renaissance and jazz style.

“When he explains that the jazz style of poetry is where rap comes from,” Welle said, “the students’ involvement increases.”

“The students get to write poetry, only a couplet, but they can build from there and write their own poems,” Smither said. “What the kids did was phenomenal, and they read their poems as a choral reading. That is good for slow readers.”

Welle said the plans are to eventually have programs that create schoolwide events during which students write poetry and songs and get to perform them.

Other programs use pot making and flute playing to link students to the experience of Native Americans. Performance art and visual art are presented to help kids connect with the subjects in interactive and creative ways.

ALTTA also has summer-school programs that have been used in Hot Springs middle schools to link the arts with core subjects.

“Summer schools are the last great bastion of creativity,” Welle said. “They have the freedom to do something different.”

At the same time, the teaching artists, many of whom are performers, will have steady employment using their art and will get paid, Smither said.

“We are looking for teaching artists, and we are always meeting new artists just out of school or retired artists, all just trying to make a living,” she said. “The artists we currently have on board love it.”

Smither said ALTTA also needs volunteers who act as teachers’ aides for the artists and classroom teachers.

For more information on having a program at a school, working as an artist or volunteering, call Smither at (501) 922-2743 or Welles at (214) 676-0222.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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