This reflection is loooooooong. Just a heads up. Because It’s so long, I’m providing a table of contents with well marked categories and sections. I hope it will enable readers to easily find what they’re interested in reading.
Enjoy! And please excuse the wordiness. Believe it or not, this is a substantially edited version of what proceeded….. :-/ It’s ironic because I’m generally a big proponent of “less is more.” But for some reason this concept hasn’t penetrated my writing yet. I’m working on it :)
Table of Contents:
THE PEDAGOGICAL: INTROSPECTION
- A loosening of the reigns.
- Self-paced learning.
- Talking without talking.
- If I’m not excited, they won’t be excited.
- Do I let my ego get the better of me? Or do I hold the line?
- What I don’t say is just as important as what I do say.
THE PEDAGOGICAL: OUT-RO-SPECTION ;)
- Moves you can use.
- Students are brilliant pattern-identifiers. When it matters.
- Breaking it down isn’t always better.
- Homework: teach this dance to someone you know.
- Self-selecting: front - middle - back.
- Why a piece works.
COMMUNITY. ATTITUDE. PRETENSE. FUN.
- Am I, in my own way, adding value to the community?
- Teacher’s attitudes toward dance.
- No pretense allowed.
- “Fun” is a high compliment.
CULTURE. ORDER. SUBMISSION. DISSENT.
- “We’d like them to perform something cultural.”
- Choreographing them into submission.
- Cultivating rebellion and nurturing dissent.
- Given up on.
- Some students don’t like vacation. I get it.
- Like the lotus flower…
- In the midst of it all.
- Expansion and the value of my time.
- Learning to say “no”.
THINKING ABOUT FOR NEXT YEAR
- Mini dance of the week.
- SAT word of the week.
- Depending on your view of the afterlife, this might not be so bad…
- Have a great Summer!
THE PEDAGOGICAL: INTROSPECTION
A loosening of the reigns.
I remember hearing my professors talk about this idea of “loosening the reins.” They were giving us a heads up that we might observe this in some good veteran-teacher’s classrooms. I remember thinking 'Indeed! The prerequisite to this, however, is figuring out how to have your own version of a firm grip, so there's a place to loosen from.'
This was the first year I felt like I had enough of a handle on things to start doing this. About mid-way through the year I felt myself ease up a little. I remember feeling like I didn’t have to have control over every little thing that happened in my classes. I felt the boundaries of what I was willing to tolerate expand a little. But not in a they-are-walking-all-over-me kind of way (however I have experienced that, plenty) but in a this-feels-alright-because-I’m-allowing-it kind of way. That was a cool feeling and shift…and, I believe, a contributing factors to finding my flow.
So yeah, this idea of flow.OK, I’m gonna become a hardcore academic here and cite Wikipedia:
"Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."
That’s what I began feeling this year while teaching. Certainly not in all of my classes but in many. It was this state of just doing my thang. Without it taking much thought or effort. But still feeling very present and aware. It’s kind of like how I feel when I’m writing if I’m writing about something I really care about. It’s just flows - you aren’t “making it up” there is nothing laborious about it. It’s just flowing through me - I’m the conduit. It’s an ideal state of operation, I think. And I’m happy that I was starting to experience it while teaching.
As an itinerant teacher I’m pretty much alone out there. And so I’ve learned to become my own coach. Which means that I have to pace my learning: in order to not overwhelm myself, I have to focus on one thing at a time. This approach was corroborated when I read Rick Smith’s Conscious Classroom Management for my BTSA Program this year. He said the best thing a beginning teacher can do is focus on one thing at a time. Like “Today, I’m going to be more consistent about hand raising” or whatever. So that’s exactly what I’ve started doing. I pick one thing to focus on per day or week. That way I’m not overwhelmed. Plus I get to practice these foci in a variety of settings and across grade levels, which is fantastic when it comes to honing skills. Some of them have included:
- Today, I’m going to try to make eye contact with every students at some point during class.
- Today, I’m going to try to learn one more student’s name.
- Today, I’m going to say something kind, encouraging, and complimentary to a student who seems to need it.
- Today, I’m going to be more consistent about hand raising.
- Today, I’m going to work on having some closure with my lesson plan.
- Today, I’m going to work on being myself in the classroom vs. the teacher I think I should be.
Talking without talking.
I realize this every year. I talk waaaaaaaaaay too much in the classroom. As with anything else, when you use something too much, it’s power gets diluted. Students listen to me less when I talk more. And so I’m trying not to talk as much. Or only really speak when necessary. Short of being a mime, I want to try to talk as little as possible next year. And also, with regard to management, it’s always better (when necessary) for a swift, disapproving glance to replace a rambling lecture - it’s more effective and spares humiliation. Maybe at some point in my career I’ll be able to facilitate all of my classes without talking :)
If I’m not excited, they won’t be excited.
The highest form of respect you can pay students, I believe, is to try to be a good teacher. This means basic things like being punctual, being consistent, being prepared, being kind….. But it also means putting in the extra effort to make whatever you’ve planned for the day FUN & EXCITING: if I’m not excited about the curriculum there is noooooooo waaaaaaay they’re going to be excited about it: if I’m I’m bored, they’ll be bored. This works like clock work.
And the possibility and probability I’ll get bored with something is high (especially if it’s just meh) because I teach the same thing over and over and over again. So it behooves me to try my best to make it good & fun. The extra time and energy I spend in this attempt, I save in the classroom. Because management is easier. Because they’re more engaged. Because I’m more engaged……..Putting extra energy into prep actually CONSERVES it in the long run.
It’s also like “if it’s not good enough for me, why should it be good enough for them?”
Do I let my ego get the better of me? Or do I hold the line?
I’m always asking myself this and, whenever I wander off track, trying to find a reminder or practice that can help me realign. I think the fundamental question should always be "What’s best for the students? In this moment?" Walking this line isn’t always easy-peezey. Especially when performance nears, my reputation (and ego) is on the line, and I feel like I’m being judged. It get’s really difficult.
I’ve keenly observed how teachers of all stripes navigate these waters. Some sell their kids out in a second - and what I mean by that is that their students clearly stop being their first concern - their ego and the way they are being perceived by their peers and principal becomes their first concern. The shift can be subtle but it’s usually pretty evident. Some (the ones I want to be like) don’t change at all; they don’t change when they’re being observed in the classroom (well not a lot at least - quantum physics tells us that the nature of observation changes the observed but you know what I mean, at least not to a very noticeable degree), they don’t change when they’re in large group settings with their students either (like assemblies or performances), and they don’t change when their kids are up on stage. They are steadfast in their devotion to and support of their students - regardless of circumstance - even when their class (and therefore their ego) is on full public display! And the students feel this and respect them for it.
The latter is the kind of teacher I want to be as much as possible. I have to think of a practice or ritual to help support me in this. I think that whenever I feel big huge doses of fear / ego coming on, I should pause, breathe, recenter, and ask myself "What’s best for the students right now? In this moment?"
What I don’t say is just as important as what I do say.
I’m learning that what I don’t say is just as important, if not more so, than what I do say.
Can hold a lot. Of meaning.
And in the spirit of this realization, I’ll leave it at that (:-)
THE PEDAGOGICAL: OUT-RO-SPECTION ;)
Moves you can use.
A good friend of mine was telling me about an activity he remembered from high school called “News You Can Use.” Every week students would share articles and reports about news that actually had a real and immediate impact on their lives.
In dance class, I now think of good choreography as “Moves You Can Use,” because I’ve noticed that when the choreography we learn in class really resonates with students (it seems to make sense on their bodies, feels good to do, is memorable - I like to say it ‘makes kinesthetic sense’), they use it: during freeze dance, while they’re putting their own dances together, out on the playground… I’m staring to think that a good assessment to see whether choreography is or isn’t working is to see if students do it unprompted.
Students are brilliant pattern-identifiers. When it matters.
Every class I teach regardless of grade level begins the same way. I put three lines down on the ground, we come and sit on the front line, check in, and then I assign students a line via this pattern: front, middle, back. We go down the front line until everyone has a line assignment. After everyone finds their spot, we spread out and then I assign partners (it should be noted that we constantly rotate so no one’s ever stuck in a particular line for too long).
What I’ve discovered is that students are brilliant (at pretty much anything) when it matters. In every class I teach (if there isn’t a line order) I notice many students thinking through the front-middle-back pattern to see where in line they should be in order to be next to whomever they want to be next to. Even in Kindergarten, I see them shuffling and counting out the pattern “front, middle, back, front, middle, back…. - wait! Stephanie, you have to go right here in the line so that we can be partners!.” It’s beautiful to watch - and it’s all supposed to be under the radar, which makes it even better. Sometimes their classroom teacher’s will get frustrated with these practices but I think they’re brilliant. I mean, that’s what we do as adults in the real world, right? We’ve just learned to be a little more subtle about it; lots of sophistocated shifting and positioning takes place so that we can be next to and not next to certain people…
If it starts to become too much of an issue (as in disruptive) I talk to them about how from my perspective what they’re doing is really smart but that my goal as a teacher is for us to be all mixed up: specifically not working with the same people every week. Then I switch the pattern, which totally throws everyone’s plans off. OR I’ll have a student come up with a pattern that helps us spread out but still disperses us more or less evenly on our lines…
One of the things I want to work on for next year is incorporating more explicit math instruction into my dance classes. I think the whole pattern situation is pretty pregnant with possibility in that we have a solid handle on how it works now and students are really really invested in it. I can start asking questions like "If person A is slated to be in the front and the pattern is front, middle, back, back - front, middle, back, back, where in the line does B need to stand in order to insure that A & B get to be partners?" I love stuff like this…And I know the dancers would figure it out lickety - split because there are actual, real-life partner-implications - it actually matters.
If we can create or capitalize on scenarios that hold real meaning for students, in order to teach things, we don’t have to do any teaching (just perhaps a little coaching & prompting) because they can very ably figure it out on their own. And that’s the point, isn’t it?
Breaking it down isn’t always better.
I’m staring to feel like it’s some kind of educational myth that everything always needs to be broken down into bite-size digestible chunks. Approaches need to be content-dependent, of course, but so often we start with the small and work up to the big. What about starting with the big and then working down to the small? As necessary? Then back up to the big again? I started to really notice this this year, choreography-wise. I usually show a phrase a couple of times and then we break it down and do it’s component parts and then put them together again. But in the latter part of the year (mainly because I teach a lot of one-shot workshops and our performances are behind us so we can really just focus on the fun! :), I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could teach a whole dance in a 40 minute class - so we’d just do it together. There wasn’t time for much else! Students would mirror me through it the first time, with music, at tempo. And then we’d do it again. Without breaking anything down. And they were all picking up the choreo. lickedy-split! Granted much of this has to do with the fact that the dances are all pattern-based. And that now that we’ve been working together for a few years the students and I both know what to expect. But still, I realized that I break stuff down waaaaay too much. They totally get it after we do it together a few times. And the parts that aren’t being “gotten” right off the bat, we can always go back to and focus on later.
Learning for this year: I don’t always have to break everything down sooooooo much (:-)
Homework: teach this dance to someone you know.
I had a great Anthropology professor in college who gave homework assignments like “Use these three questions as prompts, discuss with a friend or family member, then describe your findings.” They spurred all kinds of lively and illuminating discussion & debate between my Dad, cousin, and I. We had a tradition of going on afternoon walks together on the weekend and I brought up these prompts during those walks. Not only was I having to really think through the major themes and ideas of class, but I was having to navigate a discussion with them as well. AND, at the same time, I was learning about my family and their (often surprising) perspectives. It seemed to work well. I filed the idea away for future use.
So how this all relates to dace.
Now and then (and much to my shagrin) a student will get pulled during dance class. We discuss this openly in class and I ask if any students would be willing to be responsible for teaching this student the choreography during recess or after school. A multitude of hands always go up (because kids love to teach and they love being entrusted). So I’ve started giving homework assignments to everyone. As students are walking out the door I say: “Please teach this dance to one person you know.”
It’s like why not, right? They’re already doing it anyway, this just makes it a little more official :) Seeing students for such a short amount of time per week, I’m learning to really capitalize on every moment of instructional time. Inside and outside the classroom.
Self-selecting: front - middle - back.
One aspect of dance teaching that I’m no good at at-all is choosing performance spots: deciding who’s in the front, middle, and back.
I’m not a competitor at heart. And based on experience I know how extraordinarily sensitive dancers can be about this. Couple dance with youth, and not getting selected to be in the front (if you really want to be) can very well have life long impacts and implications when it comes to self esteem - even if the only reason is “your tall and ______’s short - they can still see you in the back.”
Ideally it’s good to have dances that are choreographed in such a way that all students get an equal amount of time to shine, but I’m still in the process of figuring out how to do that well in my settings. So, until I do, students self-select. I tired this for the first time this year.
We all sat together and I talked to students about the differences between being in the back, middle, and front (from my perspective). "The back might be a good place for you if you enjoy doing the dance but don’t feel like you want people looking right at you. It’s also a good place if you want to have someone to look at for the moves. The front might be the right spot for you if you feel really comfortable with the idea of people looking at you from both directions: from the front, because you’ll be on of the first dancers they see, and from the back because dancers behind you might be watching you for the choreography. The middle might be right for you if you don’t feel like you need to be all the way in the back but you also don’t feel like you want to be in the very very front." Then I have students show me, by raising their hands, which spaces they’d feel comfortable in. They are always allowed to vote for more than once space - some feel comfortable in all 3, some only want to be in the back, some have their heart set on the front etc….I tell them that I’m not sure they’re going to get their first-choice-spot but we’ll try our best as a group to ensure that most do. And I also tell them that their spots might change, but that I’ll always check in with them to see how they feel about changing spots. I also tell them that if I need to make an executive decision, I’ll clearly explain my rationale.
The first time I did this I was amazed that the distribution of students who wanted to be in the front, middle, and back corresponded almost directly to the number of spots available in each section. This outcome was fairly similar across grade level and schools. I thought everyone would either want to be in the front! Or the back. But when you really talk with students about what all of the different spots entail, they are so self aware and on the ball about what’s best for them. Sure every now and then I need to switch someone for any number of reasons, but more often than not, students pick spots that are perfect for them. Our staging gets even better after we run the dance once in our initial places, reflect on how that felt, and then check in to see if anyone wants to switch….
After doing it a few times, it seems like the dancers settle into places that are really, truly appropriate for them. Which I (selfishly feel) is GREAT because it spares me having to make decisions I don’t feel comfortable making.
Why a piece works.
- specific, consistent, set choreography that utilizes clear shapes, patterns, and ideas.
- capitalizing on patterns in the music and assigning different choreographic phrases to them: phrases that, for the most part, stay consistent throughout the piece (with some variations to make things interesting).
- using fun, upbeat music that students are familiar with.
- it has a recurring theme.
- the choreography is enjoyable to do - it takes the body on a fun ride.
- it’s at the perfect level of challenge: doable enough to makes kids feel confident (in my classes they should be able to pretty much get it after 3 tries) and complicated enough to keep them engaged. Actually, I should be more specific. I feel like 70% - 80% of the dance should be gettable almost instantly and about 20% - 30% of the dance should require some substantial practicing. In this way when students run the piece they aren’t discouraged - because they’ve mastered most of it - but there is also something for them to chew on.
COMMUNITY. ATTITUDE. PRETENSE. FUN.
Am I, in my own way, adding value to the community?
I want this question to dictate what I do and how I do it. In small and big ways. Always. Period.
Teacher’s attitudes toward dance.
Teacher’s attitudes toward dance are based on their personal experiences with dance.
I know this falls under the category of “duh” and is anecdotal, but I still feel compelled to write about it. Because…… in my experience at least, a classroom teacher’s attitude toward dance has significant bearing on their student’s attitudes towards dance. I can feel it when they walk in the room. It’s like I can almost tell when a teacher prepped them beforehand saying something to the effect of “This class is important. Dancing is important.” (and frankly, sometimes a comment as simple as that is all it takes for an entire class to come in a with a measurably more positive disposition). Conversely, I think I can also feel when a teacher does not find dance valuable for their students.
These dispositions are very often based, I find out later, on experiences teachers have had with dance. Some teachers dance with their classes during instructional time, or they take part in dance activities on their own outside of school. Some teachers are self-proclaimed non-dancers. Or tell me about terrible experiences they had in dance class when they were growing up. Or they don’t consider themselves to be “movers”…. As with everything else, there is a wide range & spectrum.
It’s all really interesting to me…..and I feel like my job doesn’t just involve teaching elementary school students, it also involves facilitating positive dance experiences for adults as well. I want share my love of dance with people of all ages - I want them to know that they can “dance” - everyone can dance :)
The thing is that you can’t argue or blame people for their experiences or perceptions of those experiences: past experience and environment are (arguably) the primary basis for values and beliefs. And values and beliefs determine how we interact with the world around us, they determine our dispositions. Sooooooooooo, if a classroom teacher has had not-so-great experiences with dance in the past, or perhaps even no experiences with dance, it makes sense that they’re going to consciously or subconsciously transmit that to their students. And it isn’t helpful to bring blame into the picture - it’s more efficient to spend energy on trying to facilitate great dance experiences for everyone in the room, right now! That’s the only way to really change perceptions and opinion, I think.
No pretense allowed.
One of the things I love about working with children is that there can’t be much pretense involved; they’re the first to call you on your b.s. Whether that’s not being prepared, not being authentic, not being present, or not making sense. Good teaching, I think, demands having genuine, real, honest relationships with students - because they’ll have those with you regardless of whether you respond in kind. I think I’d even go so far as to say that non pretentious, authentic relationship are the cornerstone of effective teaching. And I don’t think this means you have to know your students well (though it helps) but you do have to be real with them, and acknowledge the truth of the relationship, moment, and situation. It’s such and honor and privilege to work with kids because you can’t get away with anything less.
"Fun" is a high compliment.
I used to be quasi-offended when I’d hear teachers refer to dance class as “fun.” The defensive-out-to-prove-the-importance-of-my-work-as-arts-educator in me equated that adjective with frivolity. And now I realize that, when said in earnest, “fun” is a high high compliment. Because when something is fun it means it’s engaging. And if something is engaging it means it involves challenge, structure, and substance. Games are fun because there’s a point, they draw you in, they make sense in a nitty-gritty way. So if people find your classes fun - especially little people - that means that something’s working :-)
CULTURE. ORDER. SUBMISSION. DISSENT.
"We’d like them to perform something cultural."
One of the things I’ve grown weary of hearing in general, but also specifically in the context of dance is “We’d like them to perform something cultural.” First of all. What does this request mean? And secondly, what are the tacit implications in it?
In thinking and writing through this, I feel compelled to speak about my own cultural background a little bit. My Dad is from India and my Mom is from Switzerland. I was born and raised in America. I have grown up in, around, between and through a multitude of different cultures. I can write an essay about my upbringing that would make college admission board members have multicultural orgasms - in fact, I did! And think it’s probably the main reason why I got into college - But I digress. Slightly. So, I’m just going to focus on three cultures right now: Swiss, Indian, and American (I can feel my sociology and anthropology friends casting swift disapproving glances, as I’m writing about concepts so broad that not discussing sub groups and sub cultures almost seems like a sin… but oh well - I’m alright if I try to stick to the personal experience aspect of things ;). Sooooooooooooo……actually - let’s just focus on my Swiss-ness and my Indian-ness.
First of all, I can say, without a doubt, that my Indian-ness is responded to much more favorably than my Swiss-ness. It’s inquired about more, people’s eyebrows go up a little higher when they hear about it, and I just have this general feeling that - on whatever scale of “diversity” is being used - it somehow legitimizes me. And it’s interesting because I don’t consider it to be a more or less important part of who I am than my Swiss-ness or my American-ness or my dancer-ness or my writer-ness, or my..well…. you get the point. But it’s constantly focused on. And I think it’s because it’s perceived as either “under-represented” or “exotic” or something else….
Generally speaking, my Swiss-ness is just sort of rolled into my American-ness - in an anglo-white-culture sort of way. Which is fascinating to me because I have and continue to spend a substantial amount of time in Switzerland and it’s nothing like America. These broad, sweeping generalization and assumptions that people make without even realizing it are no ones fault but they do illustrate that, at least for the most part, in a majority of my experiences, white culture isn’t considered culture. Or “cultural.” Or perhaps the implication is that it’s part of the dominant culture and we want to emphasize non-dominant, under-represented cultures…(?).
So when I hear “We’d like them to perform something cultural” I know that’s code for (in my case, because these are the dance forms I’m familiar with :) a Bhangra dance or a Bollywood dance - I don’t think they mean a Swiss folk dance or ballroom dancing or line dancing… when in reality those dance styles and forms are just as “cultural” and culturally relevant as any other.
OK, I’m gonna say it.
It’s all “cultural”. IT’S ALL CULTURE!!! Even white people’s culture is culture! The fact that it isn’t interpreted as such might just speak to how prevalent and norm generating it is (which is a whole other conversation in itself) - like a fish thinking through all of the elements and glossing over water; it’s so everywhere and everything that’s it isn’t even recognized. Even though it’s constantly used as the measuring stick.
My program seemed to be committed to “diversity” with an emphasis on serving particular “populations.” Which is deeply important, necessary, and well and good. But I remember wondering whether EVERY student that would eventually be in the classes of the teachers we were becoming would feel like their cultural background had as much worth and value as that of the student sitting next to them? Regardless of what it was.
Choreographing them into submission.
As teachers we do it all the time – lines, circles, formations, hands behind your back, toe & heel, regulate the body, control-Control-CONTROL (“self-control” if we want to put a positive spin on it :)…There is much choreography that takes place in schools and I’m not talking about dance class. Just track students through the school day and you’ll find that they create a multitude of shapes and formations and take part in numerous activities all designed to maintain order and minimize sound. To quote John Mayer in No Such Thing, a song about how the real world he’s taught about in school doesn’t actually exist:
They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you got to rise above
I, for the most part, agree with you John Mayer. I too want to run through the halls of my high school. And scream at the top of my lungs. HOWEVER (and feel free to call me old fashioned here) some kind of order needs to be maintained when you have hundreds of people living their lives in a relatively small amount of space - like in a school for instance: lines are important: being able to be quiet and listen when need-be is important. Now we could have a long discussion about how the way kids come together in schools is inherently unnatural and deeply flawed but let’s save that for other reflections….. All things considered, in contemporary school settings, the socializing aspect of teaching is an important one.
As a student teacher, this is where I’d always get stuck - 'kids need to learn this stuff' I’d think, 'but I don't want to be the one to teach it - I want to liberate them! And teach them how to break all those rules in dance class (:-).' And I still think that having a space where rule breaking is not only tolerated but encouraged is highly valuable. BUT, learning all these social strategies and graces is highly important. Little people, after all, grow up to be big people that need to be able to function in society which requires line-waiting skills and the ability to listen etc. All this stuff, and the ability to follow directions is most certainly at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of what should be focused on, for sure, but it is part of the spectrum.
When I was younger I used to prize defiance. And then I realized that breaking rules is far more interesting and meaningful once you’ve mastered them. I’m always walking this line. It’s liminal (I just acquired that word this year :) head space that I often find myself in: nestled between my understanding of the importance of rules / structures AND knowing that, often, the creative impulse, regardless of consequence, has to be thrown down with impunity (also a word I acquired this year :) in order to fulfill it’s potential.
Yeah. I dunno. It’s all a big contradiction.
Cultivating rebellion and nurturing dissent.
I had a really interesting conversation with a man I met at the NDEO conference last year. We were in a workshop / presentation about power in the classroom and were asked to discuss our feelings about power with regard to our own teaching. The context of all this was the presupposition that as teachers, whether we like it or not, we walk into the room with innate authority - inherent to the role. So his question / perspective was “What if you don’t want to operate with that authority? How do you get rid of it? My question / perspective was “What if you want to cultivate rebellion? What if you want to nurture dissent? Even if it means supporting students in their defiance and disobedience of your own authority as “teacher”? Is this possible in an elementary setting?”
I know and understand that kids cannot learn in chaos - there has to be some kind of structure and rule bound setup in a classroom in order for everyone to feel safe. And at the same time, the rebellious artists in me has a visceral, defiant reaction whenever anyone tries to tell me what to do or limit me in any way. I’d go so far as to say that having a rebellious spirit is a characteristic shared by many artists. So how does one, if not cultivate, at least support it?
Because often when I watch a rebellious child, a student that just won’t buy into this whole idea of ‘school’ and ‘rule following’ I think “Hats off to you my friend! You will go far!” And then I proceed to tell them to please be quiet and criss-cross-it while I’m talking. Ahh! The irony of it all! How do I not only support but cultivate this kind of spirit in my classes? Is it possible to do in an elementary setting? As an itinerant teacher? And keep everyone safe at the same time? Things to think on…
Given up on.
In one of my pedagogy classes we were asked “What do you remember about school?” It was an intentionally broad question, asked, I believe, to summon our most poignant memories. The first thing that came to my mind was being given up on. That feeling you have when you know a teacher has just - for whatever reason - decided that their efforts would best be spent on other students. Looking back, I think I had a really great education. But I still constantly experienced this throughout my schooling in all its forms: academically as a student throughout grade school, as an ice skater when I was a child, as a volleyball player in high school, and as a dancer and actor in college. With the exception of a select few, my teachers and professors always seemed to be interested in me and my work at first, until a certain point; then they realized that it takes me a really long time to learn and make sense of things: basically I’m slow on the pick-up. I don’t think fast or act fast or absorb quickly. For me to really get something, to understand it thoroughly, probably takes me 3 times longer than one of my peers. This is true for me in all fields of study. And up until this point at least, always has been.
This feeling made such an impression on me that I knew if I ever became a teacher, I would do my very best not to give up on students. Ever. With special empathy reserved for those who take a long time to learn. Because what education fundamentally comes down to, I think, is relationship. The teachers that I remember to this day never ever gave up on me. That’s why I loved them and that’s why I learned so much from them. We shared positive, nurturing relationships. They weren’t forced and they weren’t fake. They were good. And in the presence of those teachers, I would feel like I could stretch and grow and really take risks and push all of my boundaries…. They literally would bring me to my edge and then help me go beyond it. Without judgement or particular agenda.
It’s funny how experiences early in life shape us and our habits. It’s quite fascinating when you think about it. And it makes me appreciate how much power we have as teachers. For me, to mask this slowness that I’ve now come to embrace, I developed a multitude of strategies - the most prominent being:
1) Operating Independently - that way I can do things at my own pace and don’t have to waste my energies worrying about the judgement of others (there’s much more to my work-and-learn-on-my-own preference, but it’s a significant aspect of it).
2) Acting Pensive - I learned how to act thoughtful. I’d act like I had a ton going on in my head. And like - if you were lucky - I just might share the tip of the iceberg with you. It was a sort of alufness I cultivated to mask all the frantic processing that was happening as I’d scramble to absorb and make sense of things. What’s cool is that through the acting of it, it actually started to become true (:-)
3) Staying in The Back Corner - When I was in college, I wanted to start a dance company called Back Corner Dancers because that’s where my dance-friends and I always stayed, in the back corner. Hiding. Or trying to hide. Trying to hide the fact that we were always the last in class to pick up the choreography. I came to love and reclaim that space - in the corner, on the side, at the edge. In more ways than one.
Yeah, so all that to say, that feeling of being given up on sucks. Some run with it and can find ways to flip it and make it meaningful for themselves, and some can’t. And as a teacher I think it’s really really important to find that balance between over-investment in students (which can be just as damaging) and never giving up on them.
Some students don’t like vacation. I get it.
There are certain students who are on my radar more than others. They’re the angry (and really, deep down, sad ones), the ones that so often push back and at the same time desperately depend on the structure they’re pushing against - I get those students because I was one of those students. While my anger, stress, and confusion didn’t manifest outwardly, it manifested in a whole host of other ways and usually left me apprehensive of and dreading breaks or vacations. Because then I’d have to be home. And “home” was not a place I wanted to be. So the idea of spending weeks on end there was not joyfully anticipated.
I can usually spot students who might have similar feelings fairly quickly. Especially on the last day of classes before a break. A majority of the class will be really excited……and there they’ll sit, with the saddest look on their face. Or they’ll start acting out in uncharacteristic ways… One can never know for sure - and I try not to generalize or project too much - but I feel like I can pick up on that vibe. I think I get it.
Like the lotus flower…
My Dad taught me to always be like a lotus flower - regardless of the condition of the water, it always keeps itself afloat. And not only that, it blossoms beautifully for all to see. I try to remember this as as a teacher, and model it for students; regardless of the conditions (it’s not always easy but it’s possible) to rise above them: to conduct yourself in a way that draws attention to the beauty of the blossom rather than the murkiness of the pond. I think it’s important for kids to see this. And be around people who live it.
In the midst of it all.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a big proponent of self-care. Sleeeeeeep, rest, meditation, eating well, setting boundaries, learning to say “no”….. all that good stuff. Or rather, I have become a huge proponent of it over the past few years; my life in grad school and before I moved to SF looked & felt very different than it does now. One thing I learned this year is the value of doing nice things for yourself exactly when it seems like you can’t afford to do them.
For example, I usually get a massage at the end of each semester to thank my body for all it’s done and help me relax after what are usually a hectic 16-ish weeks. This year I decided to get a massage right in the middle of it all - right when the logical part of my brain was telling me "Jakey, are you kidding! You have NO TIME right now." And it AWESOME! Not only did it feel great, but it actually helped me be my best most-rested-alert-relaxed self - through all the performance madness. I was more present for the students and teachers and I was also more present for myself. And I had the opportunity to really enjoy it all. And that’s the point, right? To enjoy our work / experiences / life, to really be there for it. It’s just like meditating, in my opinion: you’ll probably benefit from it most when it seems least possible to fit it in.
This aligns with a bigger theme that I’ve been experiencing in my life - that, for me, there really should be no work and no play - they should be one and the same. I don’t want to have crazy, overwhelming, push-me-to-the-point-of-exhaustion school years and then have to use the Summer to recover from them. I want to be engaged AND relaxed all the time. And I find that happening for me more and more. I’m learning to relax more during the school year and I’m thinking about work more during the Summer. And that’s what feels right for me - a sort of constant flow and embracing of the paradoxical: work & play, engagement & relaxation.
Expansion and the value of my time.
Another part of my life I made big strides in this year was learning about the value of my time. It’s pretty valuable. And I don’t want to waste it with people or experiences that don’t feel right for me. I’ve started to become more selective about who I share time and space with. I can feel myself making a concerted effort to surround myself with people, ideas, events, and commitments that feel expansive to me: that are nurturing, educational, rewarding, and FUN! And not surround myself with the opposite.
Learning to say “no”.
This is something that I’ve had to learn the hard way. And it is hard. Especially, I think, for those individuals attracted to the teaching profession - you (or rather I should say “I”) want to please. I want everyone to be happy and fulfilled, wowed and awed. I want all needs to be met. I want to be able to provide on all fronts. I want to be accomodating, flexible, and able to deal with any circumstance…..
And it’s true, I do want to possess those qualities and be able to create those experiences for people, but. BUT. Not at the expense of myself. Meaning not at the expense of my health, values, or better judgement. If something doesn’t feel right, I’m learning to just say “no.” And it is possible to say “no” unapologetically but also with no negativity. What I’m experiencing and learning in the process of this shift is that along with a well-thought-through-firm-but-kind-straight-forward “no” comes respect. From others and from myself. It’s analogous to the boundary setting and structure so often lauded in the context of classroom management. It makes people feel like they know you (and know where they’re at with you) when you’re not afraid to set boundaries.
I walked into the front office of one of my schools one morning and caught the tail end of a conversation between two teachers. It went like this.
5th grade teacher: Do you mind if _______ comes and reads in your room for a while today, if it seems like he’s having a difficult time in class?
4th grade teacher: (hesitates)…..yeah…… sure. That’s fine.
5th grade teacher: (picking up on hesitation) Because if it isn’t, that’s totally fine too. It’s really important to me that you feel comfortable saying “no.”
4th grade teacher: No, really. It’s fine. I was just thinking that I might have ________ in class today and I know they aren’t the best company for each other…..but then I realized that’s happening tomorrow. So really, truly, it’s fine. But I appreciate you saying that.
After hearing this conversation I thought ‘What a great school!’ And work environment - one in which colleagues are trying to pick up on and address the unspoken AND be as straight forward as possible, encouraging their peers to set healthy limits and boundaries. It’s important, and frankly, a stark departure from the (no matter how subtle or well masked) passive-aggressive, agenda-ed, pressurized, and sometime down right manipulative discourse that pervades teaching settings.
It made me realize that the healthiest school communities place a high value on teachers feeling comfortable enough to set boundaries and just say “no” :-)
THINKING ABOUT FOR NEXT YEAR
Mini dance of the week.
I want to start working on short pieces (a minute at most) that can serve as transitions and ways for us to be exposed to new styles of dance. I think this will be fun and keep both the students and me on my toes (:-)
SAT word of the week.
I love language. I think it would be cool to teach a new word every week and find a way to somehow incorporate it into our dance class. As on of my professors pointed out to me, kids pick up language all the time. If they can learn “dog” they can learn “ambulatory” or “ameliorate” or “cartographer.” Or at least be exposed to the vocabulary so that it will one day ring a bell when they’re studying it at grade level. I also think it’s a great message to send to budding young movement artists - and part and parcel of my personal bias - that dancers can be and are wordly-wise (:-) As Leslie at Cesar Chavez so aptly put it:
Depending on your view of the afterlife, this might not be so bad…
This is the part of my reflecting that’s always the most difficult for me: letting go of ideas that I didn’t fully have a chance to think through - because I’m just tired. And feel like I’m running out of steam.
They’re listed below. Perhaps I’ll resurrect them for next year…..or perhaps they will serve as spring boards for different ideas in the future….. or perhaps they just weren’t meant to be explored (by me. right now)…. sigh.
I’m sorry ideas - I wish you were all hyper links to well thought through blog posts, but alas, it was not meant to be. Come back soon, in perhaps another form, when I’m ready to do you justice and properly explore you (:-) For now, you’ll live on below, in list-form.
- A Brand and a Corporation
- Engineer vs. Designer
- Operating as an Artist
- Think Through Everything Thoroughly. And waaaaay Ahead of Time
- Living in Paradox
- “Quit Early and Quit Often” - An Inspirational Talk by Deepak Malhotra
- Don’t be Desperate. Ever
- Grit & Resilience
- Never Allow Yourself to be Treated like a Commodity
- Am I a Business and are the Students my Customers?
- Looking at my Work Through an Ethnographic, Sociological, and Anthropological Lens
- Don’t Patronize Kids
- Books, Museums, Encyclopedias & Antiquity
- Everything is an Analogy for Everything Else
- Thinking in Links
Have a great Summer!
And with that, ladies and gents, I’m off to thoroughly disconnect and have a real Summer in both San Diego and the land of my less legitimate cultural half :-) See you next school year!
*Me at Cesar Chavez on Friday, May 30th, 2013 - the last day of school before Summer break.