I find little pieces of art work everywhere & every day at my sites: drawings, origami animals, arrangements, block-constructions, jewelry (like the paper-clip bracelet pictured above). At first glance these articles might not seem like much, but for kids, they hold a lot of meaning. And special meaning, because they made them. This bracelet, for example, took real time, effort, design, imagination, and forethought from the creator; especially considering that the artist was probably a 1st or 2nd grader. Finding things like this makes my day :)
I had just finished teaching a Pre-K class at one of my schools when a Mom walked up to me and said “I just want to thank you for everything you have done for our family.” She had been observing the dance class that just finished and taking footage of her daughter up on stage as we ran through all the dances we’d learned that semester.
I had met her before but couldn’t quite place where. She started talking to me about one of her daughters who I’d had class with at another school; she had her older daughter in Kindergarten in one of the schools I work with and her younger daughter in Pre-K at another school I work with. I had never experienced this scenario.
She pulled out a box and said “I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see you again. This is from all of us. It is a special gift for a very important teacher for our family.” She pulled out a box from Tiffany & Co. “I just started working at Tiffanys and I told all the staff about you and and how you are and your nature and this was the first thing everyone suggested. If you don’t like it or it doesn’t feel right for you, the receipt is in the card - please don’t hesitate to bring it back to the store and we can find something else.”
I almost started to cry. I didn’t know what to say. In front of me was this incredibly kind woman, presenting me with a gorgeous gift. And I didn’t even know her name, let alone her children’s names, until I glanced down at the accompanying card. “It’s from the Bean Collection. We thought it was appropriate for you because a bean is a seed and that’s what you represent to us - you help our children grow .” Now I was really fighting back tears. I couldn’t believe it. I had never received a gift like this from a student or a student’s family. She went on to say “I am trying to believe in public schools but sometimes it’s hard. You have renewed our faith in public education. I never thought we would find experiences like this for our daughters - real quality experiences.”
I was shocked. Truly shocked. To be the recipient of such generosity and such heartfelt and positive feedback. And I didn’t even know her name. That kept repeating in my head over and over again. I don’t even know your name - I don’t know your daughters names.
They are two of almost 2,000. My classroom literally feels like a revolving door - little ones enter and then leave, class after class, day after day - hundreds a week. And while I try to learn as many names as possible, and be as truly present with every student as possible, there are simply too many for me to really know. And the same goes for parents and guardians, family, and friends: ducking in and out of class, dancing in the back of the auditorium now and then, whenever the spirit moves them. It’s incredible, and mind-boggling. And I’m finally learning to embrace it; the paradox that is public education - and especially the job of the itinerant teacher - working with hundreds and hundreds of people day in and day out - doing highly emotional, highly personal work, in what sometimes seem like factory-like conditions. Receiving this gift made me pause, and reaffirmed and re-reminded me of what I always try to remember - the sea of faces I see on a daily basis is comprised of individuals, with distinct personalities, feelings, histories, needs, wants, emotions, backgrounds etc……you name it. And of course families - families that many of them return home to and tell about their day in great detail. Families like the one that gave me this beautiful, meaningful gift.
Thank you for it. And for everything it reaffirmed and reminded me of.
Joseph joined a 1st grade class at one of my schools late in the year. He joined just as his classes dance session was wrapping up. I had the opportunity to dance with Joseph for about 15 minutes and then he had to be removed from class. This, for me, is always a last resort and breaks my heart; I want ALL students to participate, especially students who might be struggling in other aspects of their schooling. But Joseph’s behavior was so disruptive, and his physical outbursts so aggressive, that everyone around was at serious risk of being punched, pushed, or verbally abused. The classroom teacher decided to remove him from dance class all together as we only had two more classes left. I didn’t have the chance to interact with Joseph again until it was time for our all-school-flash-mob-dance at Jump Rope for Heart, a few months later. I did however see him make multiple trips to the principles office - from my post by the auditorium entrance - often yelling, cursing, and punching his way to and fro.
On the day of our flash mob, Joseph came up to me with a flower. He said “I’m gonna give you a flower. Here you go.” And he handed me the white flower you see pictured above. “I remember you.” I said to him. “And I remember you from dance class.” he said to me. “We’re going to do a dance today that your classmates learned shortly before you came to this school - it’s called On The Floor.” “I know that dance,” he responded “They taught it to me. And we practice in our room.” “How great! That way we can all dance it together!!” I said. “Yeah,” he replied “I’m going to give you another flower.”
Joseph had considerably mellowed out since I last saw him - not in a sedated, out-of-it way, but in a real, stable, genuinely calm way. And what’s more, good, kind, generous gestures seemed to be pouring from him left and right. After our dance class I found out that Joseph was dealing with a whole host of circumstances in terms of his care-taking and living situation - circumstances that no child (let alone a 1st grader) should have to deal with. He also was lucky enough to be placed in a really strong teacher’s class and have amazing social workers and support staff working with him every step of the way.
You hear all these stories about kids who “fall through the cracks” in public schools all the time, but I haven’t really encountered that in the schools I’m at now. To the contrary, the schools I work with seem to help students become their best selves on so many different levels. I’m really lucky like that I get to see these beautiful stories unfold before my very eyes, day after day. And while there are still a fair share of students who are plagued with incredibly tough circumstances (within school and without), the more time they spend there, the more settled, happy, and stable they seem to become. Maybe I’m just lucky and work in awesome schools. Or maybe public education isn’t the monster it’s made out to me. Or maybe it’s a mix of both, and lots of other stuff as well. I don’t know….So many things about Public Ed. are a big contradiction. What I do know is that lots of good happens every day. And it makes me happy to witness. As does receiving flowers from 1st graders who, only a few months prior, seemed to only be able to connect to others through punches, kicks, and curse words.
After recording a grade-level-rehearsal for an upcoming performance at John Muir Elementary, I decided to leave the camera on for the dance class that followed. I have signed media releases for all of the student and adults who are identifiable in this footage because they participated in the SFUSD Art Festival earlier this year.
This is Ms. Page’s 2nd grade class. I have been working with the students in this class for the past 3 years, since they were in Kindergarten! We have a really great working relationship and I’m happy to report that I know all of them by name. Ms. Page also happens to be the Queen-Bee of classroom management and stays for dance class, I mean truly STAYS (present), teaching her students about dance class etiquette and always keeping a watchful eye on them regardless of where she happens to be sitting in the room. This kind of participation and presence on the classroom teacher’s behalf is absolutely crucial and invaluable in an itinerant teaching situation - seeing them only once a week for 40 minutes, I don’t and can’t have the same relationship with them as their classroom teacher. Her staying lets us get stuff done! Good stuff! :)
This is our second to last dance class of the year and in it we are experimenting with new choreographic phrases, working on some dance styles that students are curious about, and learning a Kindergarten / 1st grade dance just for fun. The pressure is off because our rehearsals for performances have passed; the reality of the end of the year is sinking in; a little more “playfulness” is in the air.
There was a ton of footage so I edited it to show the most interesting parts. Here are sections and snippets of:
1) Some Step / Body Percussion we’ve been working on (moving through and alternating between doing it slow and at tempo). 2) An excerpt from an Afro Peruvian dance that I performed and later showed students. 3) ABC: A Kinder / 1st grade dance that we learned without breaking down.
I teach all of my choreography by having students mirror me (I have finally gotten used to this - there are no mirrors in elementary schools), and now since I’ve been in most of my same communities for a number of year, it feels like it just works really well, like we all get our norms and routines and have really come to know each other as students and teachers. We understand how things flow; it all seems to gel for the most part. It feels like NOW, after all these years, we can really get to work! And up the anti challenge-wise.
I say this mainly because as I was reviewing this footage, I was amazed at how well the dancers do with both the Afro-Peruvian phrase and ABC. They have never seen these dances before! And they are picking them up lickety-split! If we can get a dance like ABC down in 3 minutes, just think about what we can now start to do with a whole semester…
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I’m so lucky. I love my job! :)
Have a beautiful Summer 3RD GRADERS! (:-)
*Permission granted by parents / guardians to publish student images.
Transitions are important. This was something my dance teachers instilled in me in college “I don’t ever want to see the movement end, I just want to see a new movement begin.” one of them would say. “No endings, only beginnings” is another phrase I would hear often. Having completed my 3rd full year working alongside the elementary public school calendar, I can say without a doubt that transitions are IMPORTANT; the week that proceeds the last instructional day - that first week of break - is a crucial one for me. It sets the tone for the whole Summer.
I have learned that I need to have social stuff going on the weekend after school ends. I need to be around friends and do fun, celebratory things. And I need to have those things planned and lined up - going from such a structured routine to nothing pressing is weird and makes me feel uneasy. I didn’t handle this well at all my first two years and now I’m learning that I absolutely need to create the structure for myself. And I do that by planning :) By this point I’m usually completely exhausted (physically and mentally) with all of the Spring shows and performances that have taken place, and it feels appropriate to CEL-E-BRATE! I also have the unusual and uncommon (for me) desire to disconnect from work completely. I want to do things that are entirely for me and entirely fun and relaxing.
This year a few friends and I, along with what seemed to be hundreds of SFUSD teachers, celebrated by going to Zeitgeist after the last day of school. The following Saturday I planted some trees in Excelsior with a dear friend and FUF and then I got to see another dear friend of mine perform with his Dad at Freight & Salvage:
…and then I got to watch his Dad’s band, Huston Jones, bring down the house:
The following Sunday I went to Mt. Tam and caught the tail end of Anna Halprin’s 33rd Planetary Dance:
That was the celebratory part :)
After the first weekend, I usually spend about one to two weeks closing out the school year. This involves processing and posting performance media, documenting and posting thank you notes & cards, and thinking through and expanding on ideas collected for blog posts (ideas I didn’t have time to tend to or fully investigate during the year). I also usually write a major reflection about what I learned titled “A few things I learned from my ______ year of teaching.” I also send out a mini digest to colleagues with highlights from the year - doing so helps me reflect on and process the year, and then eventually let it go.
My mind is working a mile a minute the first two weeks after school ends, and at the same time it’s comparatively (to the rest of the school year) relaxed - there is space to truly reflect on it all: what worked, what didn’t, why?, why not? what should I keep and implement next year? what should I let go of? Everything seems like an analogy for everything else and reflections are rolling off my tongue like butter…
Basically this time is golden time and I’ve learned to harness and ride it for as long as it lasts. In a few weeks the school year will be slipping through my fingers, like it never happened. And I will be rolling in the deep of Summer, unable to reconnect with it in the same way I can now, during these precious preceding weeks, no matter how hard I try. In so many things in life, timing seems to be everything. So, I will write and reflect until it feels right to stop. And when this year’s blog has been closed and I transition to next year’s blog, I’ll hope that I was able to capture a fraction of everything my mind, body, and spirit learned this year.
More reflections to come :)
*This is another structure / tradition I’ve begun - I take a picture of myself every year, on the last day of school: it was a pretty fantastic one (:-)
One challenge I encountered this year, big-time, was that of space: not having enough of it during all-school assemblies / performances. There are usually so many students performing (sometimes up to 5 classes at a time - that’s about 100 kids!) that not only do we need the stage, but a substantial amount of floor space in front of the stage needs to be converted to performance space as well - which leaves less space for students to sit and watch. Unfortunately performers aren’t simply displacing themselves - using the space they would normally be using as audience members - our dances require performers to have more space than that. This lack of space is also a problem when classes need to switch - they need space to maneuver and transition.
It’s a great predicament because it’s rooted in students really wanting to participate in the performance process, as both dancers and audience members. But we have to find a solution for subsequent years, especially for my school that have 400+ kids… I want to make sure that the performance experience remains a positive one for all participating. Some suggestions have included holding two shows or moving performances outside, weather permitting. Both great ideas, I think. There is definitely something special about having the whole school together and every grade level being able to watch every other - so as of right now I vote for moving to another venue, even it it means outside….
This is something that’s going to percolate with me over the Summer.
My Perspective-ed Notes & Jottings from this talk: - National Digital Forum - Background: youth workers | participation | getting people engaged - Justin Knapp - Edited Wikipedia 1,000,000 times. - Pushing stuff out and hoping people will come. - Aggregating content. - “Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch” - Peter Drucker - You have to create habitats because habitats create habits. - It’s important to become curious about other people’s work. - To more forward you have to look sidewise. - Intersections: The most popular destinations on the planet are intersections. Google, for instance, bring you there and then pushes you elsewhere. You want to pull people to you and push them onward, be the connector, be the intersection: trust that people know there’s a back button on their browser. - Often, we push a lot of content out but we don’t comment on existing content. - Do you comment on other’s blogs? Do you retweet stuff? But then do you expect other people to comment and retweet your stuff? - Real life stuff - just extended to virtual platforms - you have give to get. - Go to other’s sites, like their content, leave digital breadcrumbs (this also helps with trusted links). - Rework - Use what’s here, now before you think about the future. - Desire Paths - someone has laid down a path but the wider community has decided to go a different way because it’s shorter / more suited to their needs. - Let the community decide the path - cultivate the idea of culture over strategy. - Do you have a cultural strategy around using social media?
* I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one who still old-schools-it with Moleskins and hand writing :)
Cesar Chavez Elementary: Ms. Scotta has a lovely tradition of getting her 5th graders shirts at the end of the year so they can sign and wear them. It’s tough being a 5th grader and going off to middle school. I can completely empathize with the emotionality of it all - I used to fall apart at the end of every school year - both my student’s school years and my own!
Now, with some time and experience, it’s getting easier. It’s a fact of life I’m learning to accept (and even trying to celebrate): things begin and then they end…. it’s all part of a beautiful cycle. And the best one can do is just try to be present and enjoy every part and parcel of the process.