Throughout my teaching career, I have been responsible for developing curriculum and methods for instruction, assessment, and performance experiences for students of all ages and relationships to dance. Each has featured objectives and outcomes, scope and sequence, and alignment vertically and horizontally with feeder programs. Yet the work itself continues to evolve and change. It isn’t that I am necessarily teaching different “stuff”- steps, concepts, experiences, truths. Instead, my intentions for teaching these things have shifted to reflect the students, the purpose of their study, their needs as people and as artists, and ultimately to reflect the power of my discipline through authentic experiences representing the “real” field of dance.
In other words, I have moved from training dancers with rigorous physical and intellectual exercise to guiding people to think, express, empathize, communicate and demonstrate their knowledge through the great equalizer of kinesthetic knowledge- the universal language of dance. My students may not be as technically proficient as other dancers their age but their potential to create and “be” is significant. The sophistication with which they “make” and “talk” about dance, ideas, and art is impressive. Their knowledge goes beyond labeling and imitating. They think and they do.
Identifying the layers: dance v. Dance, me v. we
In terms of movement vocabulary, there is a natural progression of ideas that directly correlate to a progression of movement. In general, things start small and get bigger, complex, and elaborate; not unlike study of any discipline. As a performing art, the usual assumption is that the product, “the dance”, is the objective and the outcome; that the aesthetic artifact is the intention of the study and the demonstration of skill is the proven test. However, in that scenario, the process is discounted and therefore the product cheapened as well.
In the dance world beyond recreational and/or competition studios, dance really becomes a method of investigation. Everything from technique to composition, history to performance, becomes a process of research. Dance IS the liberal art- covering the broadest spectrum from the science of movement and brain function, to the details of communication and narrative, to contexts of ideas historically, aesthetically, socially, musically and expressively. The arts, including dance, serve as a catalog of our human history told through multiple perspectives and not just that of the victors, as is often the case in the history books.
In light of this, I have started looking at the big picture for the bigger picture- searching for the ideas that relate to the real world, real experiences, and real material that will be included in standardized tests. I have started considering near everything as a story- not one to be judged but evaluated for its degree of truth, meaning, and potential. Not only has this method added more interest for me as I teach children (or adults) to dance and about dance, it has led to dynamic class experiences, and memorable choreography projects and performances.
My curriculum is a product of my experiences and my understanding of myself. By nurturing my sense of being- that of an artist, a reader, a writer, a learner and how I have arrived at this place- through my experiences presented first within dance but later as an extension of it into many different fields and investigations, I am able to work at a human level inviting kids to try on new things to see how they fit and adjust accordingly. Likewise, I am able to treat them as other people and not lesser beings. I ask for their cooperation and their help rather than demanding.
The process of creating, presenting, and responding: Me, We, Me
In my middle school dance classes, we have recently been using portfolios to track technical and participation trends for each student, their technical/composition/performance feedback, and their observations (developing their “eye”). These portfolios include their notes as well as the notes I model for them regarding various aspects of our coursework.
Regardless of which aspect of dance we are exploring, we have been following a Create, Present/Perform, and Respond process. I have been using two methods to guide our conversations and their self-assessments each designed to gauge our progress and our thinking in ways that support our self-concepts, our sense of responsibility to the group, and our ability to evaluate, well, anything. For technical work, we have created a rubric for the segments of class and the purpose of those segments. For their compositional/observation exercises, we have created prompts: I notice, I wonder, and I might.
Most recently, we began composition assignments by analyzing movement they were given to dance. Students then re-organized the movement based on their analysis. Next, we watched works by master choreographers to see and possibly “borrow” their solutions to similar problems we were experiencing. We are now reorganizing movement again based on these new findings and will soon perform and respond formally, although this has been happening rather informally every step of the way. Finally, we will link this work to social contexts. While we have been examining the master works based on their choreographic principles, each of the pieces also offers important social commentary and adds a very intense layer to the question that started this investigation: “Does Dance Have Limits?” By the end, I hope we have identified how and why our collective work reflects limitations (and/or freedoms) imposed upon us, our community, our culture, our nation, etc…..and maybe we will edit the work in light of our collective stance.
So how does this influence change at the building level? we v. We
I am a teacher in search of a community.
When entering a new teaching environment, I start looking for like-minds and I invest in those relationships. So far the most compatible colleague in this building is a special education teacher for grades K-4 who is progressive in her philosophy, approach, methods, and expectations. We started collaborating during a block of time dedicated to arts integration and the result has been some wonderfully productive co-teaching and furthered partnership. We share some logistical similarities- sharing students with classroom teachers, having to be specific and attentive to the blocks of time we have, and we teach multiple age groups. Seeing her approach to layered concepts for multiple ages has inspired and informed how I organize concepts in my own classes, including the middle school dance courses. Although I suspect we both have been teaching for some time for mastery over skill, over the course of the year, we have re-evaluated our objectives and outcomes to develop depth and degree of comprehension.
The single most impactful element to our work has been looking at broad ideas to reinforce through all subject areas. Topics such as progression, accumulation, symmetry, and now cycles. We have examined them in her classroom, in my classroom, and in our shared time. Students that are deemed our most challenged are now doing some of the best thinking in the building.
Next, I anticipate that when we have this joint process firmly poised in descriptive terms, we will share as best practice and as a suggested path of direction for other partnerships within our building and/or district.