The GWT Blog

Part 1 of 3: Collaboration in Elementary Schools: The Power of Many

Posted on May 25, 2011

By Jan Duffy
Jan Duffy

Jan Duffy is a lifelong educator and has been a teacher at Woodward Academy since 1991.  A frequent poster on our GoodWork Toolkit Facebook page, one day Jan wrote about a recent dance performance:

“My Primary School Dance students, (Grades 1-3), recently presented their annual Spring Dance Concerts and of the 10 pieces of original choreography performed, no less than 7 pieces were co-choreographed by the students and me. Although those 7 pieces took a month longer to finish than the other dances, I think the empowerment the children felt when they performed those pieces was worth every extra minute! I don't know a way to prove how much more they understand about what they learned as compared with other young dancers, much less as compared with other students, but I believe there's a difference. One that every teacher who appreciates Whole Child, authentic instruction can find a way to relate to, and build upon.”
(Complete posting at:

We asked her to tell us a bit more about it.   Her response was so enthusiastic and thoughtful that it was far too long for just one blog.  We’ve divided it into three installments:  1) an introduction (below); 2) a discussion about the importance of engagement and 3) some thoughts about the collaborative process of GoodWork.

On May 1, 2011, 157 very excited young boys and girls in grades 1 to 3 took turns performing on stage in our school’s theater to the delight of their family and friends.  While this recital has taken place for the past 18 years, this year was different. What was remarkable about their program this year was that 6 of the 10 original children’s ballet and modern dances presented, were collaboratively choreographed!  The students in the 2 nd Grade Ballet classes made up 2 of their 4 dances with me , and all of my 3 rd Grade Modern Dance classes made up their dances with me.

Since 2007, when I began teaching full time at this private, independent day school, I’ve collaboratively choreographed at least one 3 rd grade modern or modern/jazz dances each year, but never this many dances - and never with such young students!  It may not sound like such a big deal to those of you who teach authentically - who routinely present the collaborative work of your students - but I’m talking about some very young dance students.

That these 7-9 year old dance students all co-choreographed with me such lengthy pieces for their ages is somewhat of a feat when you consider that the formula I use myself as a “fast” professional choreographer is this one:  1 hour of choreography equals 1 hour of music-just to make up all the movement!   These children’s dances were completely co-choreographed, memorized, cleaned, added to, rehearsed, cleaned again, and rehearsed in costume two or three times in our classroom before we ever went to the theater-and almost all of the work was accomplished in two 20-30 minutes sessions of their 40 minute bi-weekly classes, over a period of 14 weeks.

To me, looking back on it, the fact that I even attempted it is pretty amazing!  After all, when you boil all that math down, and we’re talking about young children making up those dances with me, and getting them ready for performance in just 14 hours!  The piece' de resistance' was a suite of modern dances collaboratively choreographed by one of my 3rd grade classes to four of their favorite Beatles tunes. Before, During, and Between the dances, the kids arranged and rearranged 13 small folding chairs in various formations, and through their movements-with the judicious addition or subtraction of several small props- managed to successfully create in turn a "a book-seller's convention", "three limos and a sportscar", "the sun", and a "stadium style rock concert". They brought down the house!

Even though their levels of ability, experience and actual technical prowess were no greater than any other class, as individuals, and as a group, this group seemed to intuitively understand how to seamlessly fit their contributions into the work as a whole.  Whether with a partner or a small group,  or as a class, the children worked with “the big picture” in mind to create and extend our movement phrases together, and did so much more cooperatively and professionally-and with more artistic integrity-than I’d ever experienced with a group of young 8 and 9 year olds in over 20 years.  Why was that?  As I began typing this, that’s what I wanted to know, and that’s how this blog post grew so long!  It’s not easy for me not to speak volumes about what’s been my greatest passion in life now for almost my entire career-empowering kids by helping them become leaders and learners just by helping them choreograph.  More on this in the next installment…


Name: Jan Duffy

Posted at May 31, 2011 at 06:30:14
Comment: Sorry I didn't catch a mistake in this article before it was published. In actuality, out of my four Second Grade Ballet classes, just 2 of their 4 dances were collaboratively choreographed by the students and me, but all 4 Third Grade classes made up their recital dances with me. And while the choreography was mine, both of my 1st Grade classes made up the original stories we used for their Ballet dances. One of my Third Grade Modern classes made up 2 separate dances with me, which they ended up performing back to back, as 1 piece of choreography. Another of my Third Grade Modern classes performed one suite of 4 dances! I mention this to explain the discrepancy in the numbers reported. Sorry for any confusion!

Name: Roberta Taylor

Posted at June 03, 2011 at 11:37:20
Comment: I agree that the cooperation and thinking skills it took for 3rd graders to create/and perform the dances for the Beatles tunes were amazing! It is also my belief that what these students learned in their dance class carried over into their academic courses. I say this as their 3rd grade teacher. This was a classic example of how teaching the arts helps students with critical thinking skills and problem solving. Out of my class of 17 students, 13 took dance with Jan Duffy. Because of all the benefits I saw from those 13, my hope is next year the whole class takes dance! Kudos to Ms. Duffy and the dancers!

Name: Jenna Duffy

Posted at June 04, 2011 at 10:09:44
Comment: Very cool! Congrats mom!

Name: Missy

Posted at June 05, 2011 at 04:18:49
Comment: You are AMAZING!!! Thank you for inspiring young minds! """""Love, Missy

Name: Sherry Gary

Posted at June 05, 2011 at 08:23:52
Comment: Jan Duffy is one of a kind! Not only is she creative, but she is secure enough to let the children participate in the choreography of their dances. She does not need to control the production of her recitals. The end product is the children's buy-in to the quality and enjoyment of their recital.

Name: Stuart Gulley

Posted at June 06, 2011 at 11:32:49
Comment: We are grateful for all Jan does to live out our mission of championing student success, whatever a student's learning style and skill.

Name: Lou Randall

Posted at June 06, 2011 at 12:06:37
Comment: I witnessed the amazing dances these young people performed. One had only to the look on the faces of the children to see the joy and pride they took from what they and Jan accomplished. A wonderful example of what children can do with encouragement and leadership. Way to go Jan!

Name: Jan Duffy

Posted at June 06, 2011 at 02:17:12
Comment: Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment. Whether family member, friend, colleague, or "boss" I'm grateful for your support, and for the freedom I've always been given at Woodward Academy to unofficially "field-test" Howard Gardner's ideas in all my classes over the past 18 years. Thanks, Howard, for continuously challenging and inspiring me all these years, even when you didn't know you were-and thanks Margot and Lynn for being as excited about what my kids are learning as I am, and giving me this opportunity to share.

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