In the Middle of Something Great: Using Collaborative Dance to Engage Middle School Students

A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of attending and presenting at the 2014 National Dance Education Organization Annual Conference, held in Chicago. I spent an amazing few days attending sessions on dance and neuroscience, eurhythmics, Language of Dance, dance archeology, and more.  Personal highlights included demonstrating for a ballet class led by Jane Bonbright and Helene Scheff, attending a workshop presented by Ann Hutchinson Guest, and of course giving my first professional conference presentation.  Below, you can read some of what I shared in my session, “In the Middle of Something Great: Collaborative Dance in the Middle School Setting.”

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“In the Middle of Something Great: Collaborative Dance in the Middle School Setting”

Introduction

If you had told me ten or even five years ago that I would be teaching dance to middle school students in the K-12 setting, I would have had a good chuckle. In graduate school, however, I had the opportunity to intern at the National Dance Education Organization, where I was exposed to new avenues in dance education. I had the privilege of researching and co-authoring “Evidence: A Report on the Impact of Dance in America’s K-12 Schools,” which was published by NDEO under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Through this experience, I learned about the many benefits of dance in the K-12 setting, and the potential impact of dance in schools. I became interested in seeing these benefits for myself, so when I was offered a position teaching middle school dance at The Lowell School, I accepted it eagerly.

The Lowell School, an independent school in Washington, DC, is committed diversity, individuality, inclusivity, and active, collaborative learning. The motto of the school is to “strengthen minds, ensure equity, and honor individuality.” Dance is a required weekly course for all students, from pre-primary to grade eight. The middle school program is a relatively new one, and I had the opportunity to design and implement the 7th and 8th grade dance curriculum.  It was an exciting challenge.

Rationale

I began teaching at Lowell in the fall of 2013, so this report covers my experiences in the first year and a half at the school. I am in no way an expert teacher, but I think it is important hear from novice teachers. I had read many books written by experts in the field and talked to experienced teachers as I prepared for and began teaching my middle school classes. I tried my best to implement their ideas and suggestions on curriculum design, lesson planning, and assessment, but I did not yet have the skills needed to successfully do so with this population. More resources are needed to help new teachers as they develop basic classroom management and student engagement skills.

Additionally, much of the available literature did not seem applicable to the contemporary middle school populations. Today’s middle schoolers are truly a unique group. They are increasingly screen-centered and tech-savvy, and exposed to more mature content than ever before. However, they do not have the same opportunities to develop the social and emotional skills to handle such content because of the heavy tech focus. Teaching this group requires a special knowledge and skill set, and resources to help new educators in the development of such middle-school specific teaching techniques are needed.

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Benefits of Dance in the School Setting

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.

Why Don’t Middle School Students Engage in Dance Classes?

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.
  • Students are experiencing an evolving, fluid sense of self, related to the physical, social, cognitive, and emotional changes they are undergoing.
  • 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 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.

In my case, there were a few other challenges that prevented students from always engaging in dance classes:

  • My classes were very diverse, in terms of the students’ physical development, skill level, and interest. This diversity made lesson planning and small group exercises difficult.
  • Divergent attitudes toward dance permeated throughout the classes.
  • I have a part-time position, consisting of 5 teaching hours a week. This limited time with the students can prove challenging when it comes to learning about and forging connections with students.

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
  • Offer dynamic learning opportunities that move at students’ pace
  • Provide safe opportunities for self-expression within the context of a partnership or a small group
  • Help students develop social skills and navigate social landscape
  • Offer opportunities for improvisation, discussion and reflection within the safety of a partnership or small group

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.

Before we elaborate further on the pros and cons of collaborative dance activities, it is important to define the term “collaboration” and elaborate on its uses in the studio. The dictionary definition of collaboration is: Working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. There are a number of dance activities that involve collaboration. Throughout my career as a dance educator, I used the following collaborative dance activities:

  • Working with others to solve a movement problem
  • Working with others to create a piece of choreography
  • Working with others to learn, revise, or manipulate existing choreography
  • Working with others to research or present materials
  • Working with others to teach new knowledge or skills to another group
  • Working with others in an improvisational or play-based scenario

But, as I quickly learned: Middle School is a whole new world.

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 the K-12 sector as they had in others. I find 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.
  • The social emphasis 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.
  • If the activity doesn’t feel relevant, most students just won’t engage.
  • Students’ leadership skills are a work in progress at this age.
  • Some students just don’t like dance, while for other students, dance is everything – this tension 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.
  • “The dance studio can feel like the Wild, Wild, West.” A colleague brought up this analogy, and it has stuck with me. 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.

There were other specific challenges that proved challenging to student engagement in my middle school classes.

  • Collaboration isn’t novel in Progressive Education, and students can get just as burnt out on collaboration as they can on “banking” or any other teaching method.
  • My favorite collaborative activities didn’t always tie into the curriculum clearly and neatly, and in a school with an integrated curriculum, missing that link makes can material feel all the more irrelevant for many students.

So, what’s next?

I knew, from my past teaching experiences, that collaboration works. It had become clear that my activities didn’t work in this case. I was left wondering: What would happen if I took a more collaborative approach to collaboration? I termed this approached, “Holistic Collaboration,” and it involved:

  • A multi-layered approach to collaboration, beyond any one type of activity
  • Changing the way I thought about my role in the studio, the school, and the community
  • Changing the way I design, implement, and manage the dance curriculum, the class activities, and school-wide attitudes and cultures surrounding dance

For each layer, I reflected on a number of questions that considered how I could better collaborate with those involved. The first layer I considered was the school’s administration.

  • Why does the administration think dance is important?
  • What are their expectations?
  • How can I honor that while also doing what I know is best?
  • How can I make sure I receive the support I need?
  • How can I advocate for dance within this population?

Next, I considered the faculty of the school and my role on the team:

  • Where do I fit within the amazing arts team?
  • What support can I get from the academic faculty?
  • What can I contribute to the entire teaching team?
  • How can I advocate for dance within this population?

The next level was the families within the school community:

  • Do the families think dance is important? Why or why not?
  • What are their expectations for an in-school dance program?
  • How can I communicate effectively with them so that the understand the role and impact of dance in school?
  • How can I make sure I receive the support I need?
  • How can I advocate for dance within this population?

I spent the most time and effort considering how I approached collaboration with the students. First, I thought about the role of collaboration in student-centered education. 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.

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 continue to prove helpful:

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

Using these mantras in my teaching, was able to reflect deeply on the effectiveness of different kinds of collaboration in my studio. I came to the following conclusions:

  • Use collaborative activities when they will enhance the learning.
  • Do not use collaborative activities just because they’re hip.
  • 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 that will prove very useful in more traditional collaborations.

A practical tip for using collaboration with middle school students:

I learned early on that for collaborative activities to work, boundaries must be set early and enforced often.  Setting boundaries creates the potential for a safe, collaborative atmosphere, but it is only enforcing boundaries makes the potential the reality. 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.

Finally, I began to consider myself as a collaborator in my own educational endeavors. 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 Lowell mantra.)
  • Start each class new.
  • Let others surprise you.
  • Be a real person (they’ll know when you’re not.)

I’m still working on applying this research and reflection into my teaching practice with middle school students. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’d like to share a few of the activities that I have tried over the last year and a half, 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

One Last Bit of Food For Thought

“If none of your learned or researched methods work, then maybe spinach isn’t the veggie for them.” – Kwame Opare

When dance just didn’t work, I had to consider other options. What else is in the movement cornucopia? I found some success incorporating activities centered around:

  • Drama
  • Mindfulness
  • Yoga
  • Improv Games
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