Using Collaboration to Engage Middle School Students in Dance

MIDDLE SCHOOL DANCE

Teaching dance in a middle school was an adventure like no other. All of my research and years of experience teaching in other settings didn’t quite seem to prepare me for the challenges (and joys) of working with this population. While dance can have tremendous benefits for middle school students in K-12 schools, I found that my usual teaching style wasn’t effective in this setting. Teaching middle school dance required that I rethink my approach to dance education, especially when it came to collaboration.

There is no question that dance can have a tremendous impact when introduced into the curriculum. In “Evidence: A Report on the Impact of Dance in America’s K-12 Schools,” we learned that dance can have many benefits in the school setting. Dance can:

  • Offer opportunities to engage different kinds of learning styles, especially kinesthetic learning (p. 10)
  • Allow for multiple perspectives (p. 11)
  • Encourage sustained attention (p. 12)
  • Enhance learning in other subjects (pp. 13 – 18)
  • Offer neurological benefits (pp. 37-46)
  • Assist in the development of empathy (pp. 44-45)

However, I quickly learned that simply offering a dance program or classes to middle school students does not guarantee a positive impact in the school setting.  If middle school students are not engaged in their dance classes, then those benefits are lost.

From my personal experience and in my research, I found the following reasons why middle school students may not always engage in their dance classes:

  • Students are experiencing rapid physical, social, cognitive, and emotional changes that may affect their feelings toward physicality, movement, and expression and result in an an evolving, fluid sense of self.
  • According to the California Science Teacher Association, “They want to know how what we teach relates to them, not as people, but as tweens.” Many students cannot find a direct connection between dance and their everyday lives.
  • Students are discovering sexuality, which can make physicality and movement both intimidating and exciting.
  • Also according to the California Science Teacher Association, “Adolescents seldom stop to contemplate. They storm through life.” Because of this, they go on to say, middle school students are, “easily bored.” The repetition and practice needed to learn and refine dance technique can be tedious for this age group.
  • Students are experiencing a growing awareness of peer and societal pressures. Middle schoolers are more susceptible to peer and societal pressures that indicate dance is not cool or exciting.
  • The social dynamics in middle school are constantly evolving. Given students’ growing awareness and peer and societal pressures, these changing social dynamics can impact how a student feels about dance on any given day.
  • Students have a complex relationship to authority figures at this stage of development. They both need and resent guidelines, boundaries, and rules set by teachers and another authority figures. This can make leading a dance class with students of this age challenging.

Using Collaboration to Engage Middle Students

Based on my previous teaching experience in the Higher Education and Private Sectors, I knew that collaborative dance activities often prove useful in helping to engage reluctant students. Collaboration in the dance studio can:

  • Allow for differentiated learning
  • Allow for students to help and support one another
  • Provide safe opportunities for self-expression, improvisation, discussion, and risk-taking within the context of a partnership or a small group, rather than in front of an entire class
  • Help students develop social skills and navigate the social landscape

Most importantly, collaboration is student-centered; that is, it takes focus off teacher as “authority figure” and allows the students to take ownership of the class and their learning.

Is Collaborative Dance Always the Answer in Middle School?

After just a few weeks in middle school, I realized that my tried-and-true approaches to collaborative dance were not working as well in this setting as they had in others. I found myself questioning the role of collaboration in the middle school dance studio. Why do collaborative activities not always lead to increased student engagement in the middle school setting?

  • Students are wrestling with their identity, which can impact their ability to work cooperatively with others, and the emphasis on socialization in the middle school setting can interfere with productivity while working in collaborative groups.
  • Social dynamics in middle school can change from week to week, which can make long term collaborative activities difficult.
  • Some students just don’t like dance, while for other students, dance is everything – the tension between these two extremes can be overwhelming in middle school.
  • No matter how you differentiate, you could be asking for trouble. By grouping students by interest or skill level, you can accidentally alienate those without strong interest or skill. Creating more diverse groups can lead to tension.
  • Without the familiarity of desks, chairs, and other classroom boundaries, students can be more likely to push behavioral boundaries as well.
  • Students’ strategies for dealing with physical, cognitive, or social differences may or may not be developed yet. Without these skills, students can have a difficult time working in diverse groups.
  • Students’ brainstorming, trial-and-error, feedback, and revision skills may or may not be there yet. Without these skills, students can have a difficult time engaging in long-term collaborative projects.

I knew, from my past teaching experiences, that collaboration can work in myriad environments. It was clear that my activities weren’t working in this particular setting, however. I spent significant time and effort considering how I approached collaboration with the students. I made the following determinations:

  • A student-centered approach is a collaborative approach.
  • Responding to individual and group needs is an act of collaboration.
  • Collaboration involves keeping the needs of the students at the heart of the class, ahead of any one teaching style or method.
  • Collaborative activities are only effective when they enhance the learning. Insisting on group work or collaboration when it does not make sense for the learning goals often backfires as it feels disingenuous or irrelevant to students.
  • Individual work can be more of a collaborative challenge during this stage of development and in this educational setting than group work. As students learn to work effectively on their own, especially given their fluid identities, and they begin to share their work with others, they will learn powerful lessons about self-expression and respectful communication.
  • Setting and enforcing boundaries creates the potential for a safe, collaborative atmosphere. While middle schoolers will complain about teacher-driven boundaries, they secretly know they really need them. It is my job as an educator to honor their immaturity as much as I honor their maturity.

In order to try to make this theoretical approach a reality in my classroom, I had to remind myself of some very basic tenants of teaching. The following mantras proved helpful:

  • Listen. (Do much less talking.)
  • Observe. (Do much less judging.)
  • Model. (Do much less assuming.)

I’m still working on applying this reflection into my teaching practice. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’d like to share a few of the activities that I implemented as a result of this reflective practice, as well as some thoughts on why each one worked (or not).

EXAMPLE ONE: A BAROQUE-ERA SPECTACLE ACTIVITY

  • 8th Grade
  • Curricular Theme: Community
  • Essential Questions: How was Baroque-era spectacles the cultural, social, and political values of the people who created and performed it? What does it mean to modernize the dances and spectacles of the European Renaissance? How can we reflect our own cultural, social, and political values through artistic expression by modernizing the dances and spectacles of the European Renaissance?
  • Project Description: Working as a class, choose a myth or folk tale that can serve as an allegory for a contemporary issue, just as King Louis XIV used the myth of Apollo to show his rise to power over his dissenter. Create choreography, music, and spectacle that relate the myth non-verbally.
  • Why it worked
    • Introduction to King Louis XIV through discussion and video provided context
    • Student-selected working groups –props, sets, music
    • Character-created choreography was comfortable for students
  • Reflection for next time (What would I change?)
    • More teacher direction
    • Integration with Humanities faculty to highlight curricular connection
    • Follow student lead – scale up or scale down
    • Monitor social dynamics – get support when intervention is necessary
    • Set clearer expectation for choreography – how can I safely push them out of the comfort zone
    • Schedule – how much collaboration is happening in other classes?

EXAMPLE TWO: FOSSE-STYLE DANCE WITH A TWIST ACTIVITY

  • 7th Grade
  • Curricular Theme: Identity
  • Unit: Famous Choreographers
  • Unit Essential Question: How have some well-known choreographers used dance to express aspects of their identity?
  • Short Project Description: Be inspired by the videos of Bob Fosse’s dancing and choreography and create your own short Fosse-inspired dance with a partner or own your own!
  • Materials needed: A piece of clothing or accessory that is significant to you and can be used as a prop in your dance, such as a scarf, hat, jacket, gloves, sports equipment, ribbon, bag or purse, etc. Think about something that makes you feel special, important, or good about yourself, like wearing a hat and gloves made Fosse feel more secure about his appearance and helped him find his choreographic genius!
  • Why did it work?
    • Accessibility and familiarity of Fosse’s film and stage work
    • Connection to curriculum (identity)
    • Connection to “tween” experience
    • Collaborative Design – student driven, teacher designed
    • Option to work individually, with partner, or with small group
    • Expectation of individual expression, even if working with group
    • Scaffolding, clear expectations, written brainstorms and checklists, teacher feedback throughout
    • Class ownership – they controlled the pace and timing of the activity through their enthusiastic response to the project
  • Reflection for next time (What would I change?)
    • Explain and model “special items” in advance
    • Make space and time for discussion and manipulation of special items
    • Support student interest in lighting, design, and filming further with more facilities and time investment

EXAMPLE THREE: PROTEST DANCE UNIT

  • 8th Grade
  • Curricular Theme: Community
  • Unit: Protest Dance
  • Essential Questions: How do individuals and communities use dance to respond to, raise awareness of, promote, or protest against issues that matter to them? Why do they choose dance? Why is dance an effective tool for protest?
  • Part 1: Learn a variety of protest dances from instructor.
  • Part 2: Watch your assigned video of a dance from the “One Billion Rising” protest movement. Learn the choreography and determine how you want to teach it to your classmates.
  • Part 2: Be inspired by the dance you taught and those you learned from your peers. With your group, decide on a cause you would like to raise awareness about through the creation of a protest dance. Create a 2 minute dance with appropriate costumes, music, and scenery/props to help you get the message across.
  • Why did it work?
    • In part 1, students were introduced to “real world” applications of protest dance, making the topic and the project feel relevant
    • In part 2, students took ownership of the material through the process of teaching
    • Part 3 provided an opportunity to make a personal connection to the material
    • The unit tied into their Curricular Theme, without being repetitive or too like other projects
  • Reflection for next time (What would I change?)
    • More time for discernment of cause, and more teacher support during process of selecting cause
    • More instructor feedback during creative and rehearsal process
    • More time for reflection on the effectiveness of the dance in raising awareness for the cause, and revision based on the reflection
    • Clearer expectations about the incorporation of sets, costumes, props, etc.
    • Allow for smaller, self-selected groups or individual work and/or spend more time on strategies for dealing with different work styles,  opinions, or dance experience
    • Provide a formal performance opportunity

A final thought: Throughout this process, I realized that I had to treat myself as I would treat any fellow collaborators, and to set the same expectations of myself as I would have for others as well. These include:

  • Lose the ego.
  • Fail with integrity.
  • Admit mistakes with good humor.
  • “Ask for what you need.” (A very wise mantra at the school in which I was teaching.)
  • Start each class new.
  • Let others surprise you.
  • Be a real person (they’ll know when you’re not.)

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