Valerie Gutwirth

VGutwirth photoA veteran dance teacher with 20+ years of experience, Valerie has taught pre-k to elementary at several schools in Berkeley. Currently, the Dance Teaching Artist at John Muir Elementary, she is committed to ensuring all students in Berkeley Unified School System have access to the arts and specifically to dance.

Her dedication and advocacy for dance education has manifested in tiers. The first is the engaging and well-articulated dance programs she has provided elementary students. She shares that over the years, “they have become strong and sustained parts of the school community.” Also she works to ignite the creative fire in her students to continue dancing beyond the classroom. “My students end up in dance production class at Berkeley High School. They end up taking dance at different high schools and private studios, and pre-professional programs across the Bay Area. My sporty boys take classes and bring their friends.” Having the dance program throughout the grades K-5 for over 9 years at John Muir, students now assume dance is a part of school, and dance becomes part of their play. Valerie has been inspired by how students are dancing on the yard and found ways to connect it to learning in the classroom; students take what they learn in class and show it to their peers on the yard. Her participation in 2003 Summer Institute provided opportunities for her to unpack what it means to use a constructivist approach to build student knowledge around dance content and language they were already familiar with, expand their physical literacy with other kinds of literacy, and learn structures of inquiry around creative work. Through dance the expectation that students can think and move creatively is woven into the fabric of John Muir’s school community.

The second tier Valerie has had impact is at the collegial level. Teachers at her school site take dance learning into their classrooms. Sometimes that looks like bringing social dances back into their classes or both teachers integrating dance with math, science, and language arts. In addition to collaborating with classroom teachers Valerie invites parents to participate in students’ dance learning. Some of her parents have a background in traditional dance forms (i.e. Cueca from Chile, Moroccan dance, and Senegalese dance) and they will teach them directly to the students. In this way parents and classroom teachers become an additional dance resource for the school community. Where possible, Valerie likes to provide compensation to value their expertise and artistry. Along with involving parents, bringing in community dance groups is a top priority for Valerie. She first began this arts community-dance community link when she worked at Cragmont elementary because at that time the school had a large budget. Due to funding decreases across the district for arts, she now writes grants to bring community arts groups to her students.

The third tier of Valerie’s influence that has had momentum is in working with the professional dance teaching community in Berkeley. “I feel like I have been working on that for a long time – it started when I was leaving Cragmont 10 years ago.” She remembers having to participate in district-mandated professional learning days, but there was never anything for the dance teachers to do.  She was very frustrated. When she moved to John Muir, her kids were older and she had more spaciousness and time to begin thinking about and advocating for dance teachers coming together for professional development. She has noticed an evolution in this area and most recently, when she took a sabbatical from 2015-2016 to investigate what dance looks like district-wide, it has developed more. Her research showed the inconsistencies in arts programming. The district over the years has VAPA coordinators interested in programming for all four disciplines, but limited in their capacity when their budget is only for music and there’s no budget for dance, drama, or art. During her sabbatical she went and observed five of the 7 other BUSD dance teachers. This was an opportunity to get to know each other, listen, learn and think about next steps. “The upshot of all of this was that the 8 of us, we’ve come up with advocacy strategies. We are using each other’s work for inspiration. Places where the district can grow its education, we are joining with community organizations like Berkeley Arts Education Steering Committee (BAESC) and Berkeley School Funds to help make dance programs comprehensive and better for students. We are also working to articulate dance from elementary to high school, [while] looking at how to address how Berkeley can grow as a school district that supports dance as one of the pillars of a rounded education for all students.”

Photo by Mike Melnyk

In our 25 years, Luna has worked with hundreds of teachers who we’re now proud to say are teaching all around the globe. From Emily Blossom to Jakey Toor, our past Professional Learning colleagues are collectively and cumulatively teaching tens of thousands of children. Starting in 2017 we will share their stories, one each week, about how they continue to positively impact the dance education field, the future, the world. To read the growing anthology, please click here.