My young dancers want to experience as much "grown up dancing" as possible. I am finding that many dance studios introduce ballet vocabulary much earlier than I think is appropriate. My students discuss ballet with their friends at school and often show me steps their friends have taught them. Sometimes, my students have another dance class at school where very different material is being presented. I want to teach developmentally appropriate material but at the same time keep my students excited and engaged. I find myself searching for material that feels both new, "advanced", and exciting but at the same time is building the strength and pathways my dancers need to be successful.
One way I like to challenge my young dancers is by teaching ballet vocabulary. We discuss that the language of ballet is French, and we practice using the French vocabulary. Each week I quiz my students on the vocabulary. "Who can raise their hand and share with the class the name of this step?" "Who can raise their hand and share with the class what the word "tendu" means?" "What language is the word "tendu"?" Generally, for my students aged Pre-K through 1st grade, we learn the words:
My students feel proud for knowing and using these words in class. Many of these movements are even done at school in gym class (hop, jump, leap, gallop). However, by using the ballet vocabulary, the students are adding another layer of knowledge, and are approaching the movement differently. This keeps them excited about practicing hops in our obstacle course instead of saying, "I know how to do that, that's easy!" Stay tuned for more descriptions on how I approach teaching this material! I would love to hear what ballet vocabulary you introduce to young dancers.
Lately I have been thinking about the difference between facilitating a class and teaching a class. I believe that I can have a more lasting impact as an educator if I can learn how to present class in a way that shifts the power into the hands of my students. I want students who feel empowered in their role as a learner as it is my hope that my students will continue to pursue learning and education once they leave my classroom. I am trying to find ways to facilitate their process and help them identify how to approach the material and delve deeper on their own.
In the past, I have taught a movement phrase describing it with set vocabulary, action words, directions, pathways, and tempo. Then, the students would perform the movement. Afterwards, I would share thoughts on what I noticed and address movement that needed extra attention. The students would then theoretically apply that information as they repeated the movement another time.
The past few weeks I have attempted a new approach. I have started by teaching the movement phrase and describing the mechanics and offering different verbal cues just as I have in the past. However, now, after the students have had the opportunity to try the movement, I open the floor up to the class. I ask the dancers to share any thoughts or observations about the movement. This can be questions, statements, or opinions. Instead of sharing what I have noticed, the students are directing the conversation and addressing the learning process themselves. I still contribute to the conversation, but now every student has the opportunity to act as the role of the teacher. I have noticed that this has encouraged curiosity and deeper investigations in each of my students, as well as an eagerness to share their perspective with their classmates.
This also helps the students articulate what they are feeling in their bodies- bridging the body-mind gap. It gives them practice talking about dance, and discovering the language they use. I have learned so much about how my students see movement, what aspects they concentrate on, and what they are thinking when they are dancing. It has given me a window into their thought process, which in return helps me prepare my upcoming classes. I think it also emphasizes that I don't hold all the answers- that movement is a process of trial and error, and finding how to make connections in your body. Since the students know to expect this process, I also feel that they are more invested in what we are doing, knowing that they are responsible for continuing the learning process.
Another way I have been trying to shift the power in the classroom is by allowing the students to make choices in the class. I ask the students questions about the sequencing of class. For example:
Those are two examples of how I am trying to shift the dynamics of my classes with my college students. I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas on faciliating classes? How dod you include your students
I have so much I want to share, discuss, and process, and right now I do not feel that I have the community to express these thoughts on a regular basis. I want to get in the habit of writing more as I feel this is a crucial step in my ability to articulate myself as a teaching artist. This blog feels like the best place to accomplish this at this time.
I took modern class with the lovely Jamie Zahradnik today at San Jacinto College, where I also teach modern technique. I teach the students on Monday/Wednesday, and she has them on Tuesday/Thursday. I think it is important for our students to see their faculty at work as a student, and to set an example of learning in action. Jamie helped me solve a problem I've been having as a dancer for a while now. I have always struggled with descending into the floor. I like to use the excuse that it is due to my height, and that I have a lot of body to organize. However, the problem really lies with a lack of grounding and a disconnect between myself and the floor. In class, Jamie taught a phrase that sequenced a sequential linear turn into a monkey roll. I felt my torso trailing behind me as I descended into the floor, and the movement felt disjointed. Yet, even after I adjusted my alignment, the descent into the floor still felt delayed and jarring. So I asked for help. Jamie pointed out that my feet were loosing contact with the floor- instead of sliding and staying connected and grounded, my feet were moving through the air and searching for where to land. The idea of skimming the floor with my feet or sliding into the monkey roll, helped smooth out the hiccups. I now have another cue to use when approaching descending into the floor- finding a slide or chasse action with my feet- skimming the floor rather than stepping out.
These are my current go to dance resources. Out of all the books in my dance library, these are the books I return to again and again.
Anne Green Gilbert is a genius. This book includes thousands of ideas for class. It is organized by the elements of dance with pages of individual exercises and sample lesson plans for full classes. This book gets my creative juices flowing and keeps my classes fresh. One exercise I'm excited to try this fall is called "xerox shapes" as it encourages young dancers to "remember a shape by closing their eyes and feeling the shape in their muscles."
This book is essentially a survival guide to teaching dance to children. Part I is even titled the ABC's of Dance Education and reminds you to consider every aspect of the process from class rules, class management, creating a dance space, planning and organizing classes, assessment, relationships, and what it means to be a dance educator. I return to this book again and again to revaluate what I am doing and how I can do it better. It is super easy to read as each idea is a short essay covering the obstacle, solution, tips, real life example, and the language to use to be successful.
I affectionately refer to this book as the Ballet Bible. It includes pictures and descriptions of every ballet step known to man. Enough said.
Ahhhhh turn out. No matter what style of dance you teach, a functional knowledge of turn out is key in training dancers to move safely and successfully. This books breaks it all down from stretching, strengthening, what your born with, and what you can do to use what you've got to its fullest capacity. As no two dancers have the same anatomy, I find this book extremely helpful in identifying how I can help my students. Plus, let's face it, my own turn out can use all the help it can get!!
I never had the opportunity to study a codified modern technique and my patch quilt of training left me unsure of what I wanted my own classes to look like. This book continues to help me evaluate what's important in a technique class and how I structure my class. I especially love the investigations at the end of each chapter. The questions and experiments make me feel like I have a mentor who is pushing me to take a long, hard look at what I'm doing, and encouraging me to try new ideas.
This book is a phenomenal resource for both my personal practice and also as a teaching artist. The book emphasizes the mind body connection and the concepts of breath, initiation, connectivity, and sensing. It is so easy for students to approach dance from the outside (steps and shapes) and this book helps me find ways to bring students inward.
I carry this book with me and use it as a resource in my technique classes. Each page has a different muscle or muscle group with a picture of what it looks like, a description of its origin, insertion point, synergists, suggestions for injury prevention, how to identify weakness in the muscle, and how you can locate the muscle on your own body using touch. I have a much better understanding of anatomy thanks to this book!
What does it mean to be a dancer today? What are the best training practices to prepare the next generation of dancers? This collection of essays and interviews edited by Melanie Bales and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol examines "evolving practices in dance training." I love the interviews at the end of the book which shares different training paths artists have taken. This book makes me question the choices I make as a dancer with my own body as well as the technique structure of the dance studio and higher education. There is no one way to become a dancer.
I took so many notes the first time I read this book. There are many books out there on how to approach teaching dance technique but this one is the winner as it cuts straight to the point with its clear and concise short chapters. The whole books is only 98 pages and focuses on the "how" of teaching.
As a dance educator my energy and focus is on my students and their growth and development. This book reminds me that in order to nurture others, I first have to take care of myself. Two integral concepts in this book are morning papers (getting it all out in free writing) and artist dates (time you set aside for yourself to foster your creativity). This book has been key to helping me find balance in my life and keeping me from burning out.
I am on a big education kick right now.
Many people argue that the purpose of testing is to provide feedback to educators, parents, and the community on where our students are at. I fear that too often testing is used as a tool to measure our students, and not as an indicator of understanding. As a student, a test was the ending, the exclamation mark, it most often meant that we were finished with that unit or class. It was not a opportunity to fine tune, to explore the material that was unclear. If I did poorly on a test, there were few chances to learn that material. In most standardized testing you don't even know which answers you got wrong. You are left in a state of ignorance, not knowing which fact you contain that may be incorrect. The blame was often placed on me as a student for not preparing for the test and memorizing the correct information. The test meant that the learning was finished. And for someone with a great short term memory, a test meant that I no longer needed to hold the information. I do not have the burden of testing children, but I am responsible for evaluating my college students and assigning grades. In all of my classes, regardless of whether a test is given, from toddlers through adults, the mentality of being the best, being first, being right, and doing it the right way is prevalent. I believe that testing (along many other things) stresses this mentality. To me, that mentality is socially alienating, does not foster collaboration, creativity, openness, experimenting, or risk taking. I have a class of 2nd and 3rd graders who just finished their standardized testing for the year. They shared with me what percentile they scored in. Why must one student fail to give another student confidence? Why are we constantly comparing one kid to another. A line from the book The Help plays over and over in my head when I work with these girls: "“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” I fear that testing is doing more harm than good.
Furthermore, testing is one sided. As a teacher, I feel that it is crucial to receive feedback on every aspect of learning. Perhaps feedback isn't even the right word. I want my students to feel that they have stock in their learning. That what they think and feel matters. I believe that for real learning to take place students must be allowed to take ownership in their education. I am striving to find the right questions to ask in my classes to let my students know that I care, and that I welcome their suggestions. I believe that these questions are different depending on the age group and class dynamics. I believe that this mindset can create a deep sense of respect in the classroom.
I know that there are many valid arguments for testing, such as accountability and the need for assessment and evaluation. But right now I am having trouble seeing the value in many forms of testing.
I feel full. I am stuffed to the brim with ideas, with new ways of thinking and moving. In fact, my world has gotten a whole lot bigger. Right now I don't know what to do with all this new information. I can not process it fast enough. It is still sinking in, and I feel it washing over me. I have been taking regular yoga and Feldenkrais classes and they have brought to light so many new ideas on approaching movement. I have been reading book after book on education, which has made me realize I've never considered what education is and what it can be. I have always taken it at face value.
In 1897, John Dewey wrote his Pedagogic Creed and included five different sections.
What education is
What the school is
The subject matter of education
The nature of method
The school and social progress
Martha Wittmann said "To be a teacher rather than just a collector of different ways of moving, you have to have some kind of personal belief or vision." Where do I stand? What do I believe in? What do I value? How would I state what dance education is, what my role is as a teacher, the approach I take, what exactly I'm trying to teach ,and the role of dance in society? These are big questions, and it is my hope that my answers to them will grow with time. Right now it is enough to just ask.
I am a horrible speller. Fortunately, there is a little red line that keeps me from making a fool of myself every time I write. For years I've been telling people that I couldn't spell because in kindergarten I was taught creative spelling. At some point in time, I remember being told that when my parents tried to correct my spelling, my teacher discouraged it because it might inhibit my creativity. For the longest time I thought the idea of creative spelling was ludicrous and an obscure teaching method that no one had heard of. Turns out I was wrong.....about all of it.
".....children in the primary grades are encouraged to write before they can spell correctly. "Invented spelling,".....is based, first of all, on the discovery that children go through fairly predictable stages in the way they write words. Their early attempts at spelling (like their early attempts at speaking) aren't random or sloppy but reasonable approximations that suggest a certain level of skill development. In fact, some people in the field prefer the term "developmental spelling" - if only to emphasize that children in such classrooms aren't being taught to spell incorrectly and that accurate spelling will eventually be expected.... kids are inclined to write more, to take risks, when they don't have to worry quite yet about spelling word perfectly- which, at that age, is unrealistic in any case.....Teachers who allow invented spelling aren't saying that it's always going to be OK to spell words however you feel; they're saying that in the early grades, the cost of demanding perfection are too high" (Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving beyond Traditional Classrooms and "tougher Standards" Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 167-68. Print).
I can't speak on the accuracy of my memory, but I can say that finding this passage brought an entirely new perspective on why I can't spell. I don't think I ever understood that by allowing me to just write, my teacher was allowing me to be creative in that moment. She was allowing me to have a voice and express myself through words. She didn't want me to become wrapped up in the mechanics, but to just experience the world of words. I am not responsible for teaching spelling (Thank God!), so I can't speak on behalf of educators. I can say that I understand this viewpoint. Kids get told all day long how to do things, the right way to do things, and I believe that it is much better to encourage writing in any form rather than to stress the "right" way to write. The kids I teach are afraid of making mistakes, they are so eager to please, and they get frustrated when they don't succeed. Yes, I want kids to learn how to spell, but at what age does it become important to stress that as the priority? I can also say that I never learned how to spell not because no one tried to teach me. I remember endless spelling test and quite frankly I remember test after test of words I will probably never ever use. I never learned to spell because I never cared about spelling. I never saw the value in learning how to spell words correctly. The words I did learn to spell correctly were forgotten as soon as the test was over. I remember asking my parents, friends, the dictionary, and now the internet how to spell, and figured that there would always be someone nearby who could spell it out for me. I still do that, I hollar at my husband, how do you spell.......? So I guess at the end of the day, I should be questioning why do I still have no desire to learn how to spell?
I strive to be a good teacher....and maybe my first problem is that sentence. What does it mean to be a good teacher? What do those words mean to me? I am sure that many people would define being a good teacher quite differently. I think one of the most exciting things about teaching is that you are working with people. And people are unique- there is no one fits all formula. And in my crazy mind every class should go smoothly, without hiccups, or surprises. Every child is unique. Every class is going to be different. Just because it worked once, doesn't mean it'll work again. Someone please ingrain those words into my head. No matter how much I learn about child development, teaching methods, positive languages, ect, it will all fail me. Because we are human.
So here are some ways I was human this week:
I know all of my student's names. I strive to call my students by name as much as possible in a positive way. I have well over 100 students this semester, and sometimes the wrong names comes out. Not because I don't know the right name, but because of what I like to call word vomit. My brain thinks one thing, my mouth says another. Normally this happens on a rare occasion, but this week, it has happened a lot. And this can really hurt a students feelings. You don't know my name? So the only solution I could come up with was to say, "Silly me, I seem to have forgotten even my own name! Is it Suzie Q? Jenny? Bobby?" At which point the whole class goes, "No, it's Miss Rebekah!!!" (These are three to five year old students). At the end of the class, I am sure to pull aside the poor student I have called incorrectly and apologize. I would love any suggestions on how to better handle that situation!!!
The next thing I got a lot of this week with my younger ones is "when are we going to do real dancing?" At which point I feel my heart rate increase, my palms get sweaty, and I tell myself to take deep breaths. First off, let's define real dancing. Second, let's talk about developmentally appropriate times to introduce that definition of "real dancing." I can handle this question from parents who are eager for pointe shoes, pirouettes, and arabesques. It's much harder coming from kids. Does this mean they are not enjoying my class? Where are they getting these ideas of "real dancing?" Ballerina Barbie? Other dance classes? How on earth do I handle this? And to be honest, I don't have the answers, and will be asking quite a few experienced teachers how to talk to kids about "real dancing."
Side note: For the dancers out there, I have a four year old who is doing changements in her other dance class at school. I almost die when I see her knees torque into a very scary third/fifth position. And she wanted to know why we weren't doing those in my class.
So this week I was reminded that I am human. I say the wrong things. I make mistakes, but my goal is to learn from them. To grow. To remind myself that this is a journey, not a means to an end.
I believe to be an excellent teacher you must be able to give up the power. Teaching is listening and following. Lesson planning is an integral part of teaching, yet, my current goal for myself is to forget about them when I enter the classroom. I tend to be task oriented. I have objectives for my students. I want to make sure that there is order, and structure. However, I don't want to do this at the expense of learning. I'm currently reading Feel-Bad Education by Alfie Kohn, and he states, "What matters is not what we teach; it's what they learn, and the probability of real learning is far higher when students have a lot to say about both the content and the process" (Kohn 97). In one year, what will my students remember from my classes?
In October 2012, I wrote the following:
Memory and Associations
I have spent a lot of time lately remembering. Why did I ask my parents for dance classes as a child? When and why did I fall in love with dance? What do I remember about my first years of tap and ballet classes? How did my teachers make me feel? Do I remember learning plié, tendu, or any step? No matter what age we start dancing, we enter a world of steps and combinations. We learn a specific movement, it’s name, and we repeat it throughout our dance training, perfecting and making it muscle memory. Yet, what if our students do not continue their dance training? What if today’s class was their last dance class? Would this change how we approach and teach our classes? The reality is that most of our students will stop their training. That alone does not change to teach technique and dance vocabulary as I know it will instill discipline, work ethic, concentration, ect. However, it has made me consider what else I am teaching through my attitude, language, and teaching environment.
I feel that if I take these two ideas together, I am one step closer to finding my voice as a teacher. What good is it to teach technique and add one more step if my students leave class bored, frustrated, and discouraged? Is it worth it to fill every minute of class at the expense of _______? Does it benefit my student to limit their choices to a specific list? How strictly do I adhere to the structure of a dance class? Am I willing to change gears in the middle of the activity? I want to listen, really listen to what my students are telling me through their words and body language, and I want to go on their journey. This may mean dancing like a snake for the fifth time in class or free dance in the middle of barre or watching those ants crawl across the studio. I know their are limits to running with their ideas, but I find myself too often saying later, wait, after, not today, out of time, all of which mean no in one way or another. How can I say yes? How can I be creative, and make it work within the framework of class? How can I cultivate a love of dance, competence in movement, and teach the whole person?
There are so many next steps. But for now I'm going to start by asking my students. I am asking what we should start class with, how we should end class, what we should do next, how can we do this or that, should we try this again, and I am going to run with their ideas.
Teaching is knowing how to say what you want to say. To this day the most difficult part of teaching for me is word usage. How can I use my words effectively to inspire, instruct, and redirect? How can I use age appropriate images, vocabulary, and instructions? How many words are necessary, and when is it best to just listen and observe?
I am a talker; I feel comfortable talking to anyone at anytime. I love telling stories and am prone to hyperbole. Lack of words has never been a problem for me. I give advice when it isn't asked, and am always happy to share my perspective. Yet, I feel strongly that teaching is listening, observing, and guiding rather than telling. I have to constantly remind myself to think before I say anything. It much more likely that I will say too much when teaching rather than not enough. Lesson planning includes not just what I am going to do in class, but how I am going to say it.
I have started making lists of phrases that have worked for me. When I am driving in the car, I practice the words I am going to use to teach a phrase, or introduce an activity, or what I'll say to Susie Q when she starts throwing her dot. Sometimes I immediately regret something I say in class, and I'll add that to the list of things to never say. For example, "eyes up" will get students looking at the ceiling, not just off the floor. And while that sounds like common sense, in the moment it's very easy to blurt "eyes up" rather than "look out on the horizon."
What words or phrases have been successful for you when teaching? What words do you avoid? Next time, I'll share the start of my list!