The GWT Blog

Part 2 of 3 Collaboration in Elementary Schools: The Role of Engagment

Posted on June 07, 2011

By Jan Duffy
Jan Duffy

In the previous installment of this series, teacher Jan Duffy introduced us to her incredible 2nd and 3rd graders. Together, Jan and her students choreographed dances for the school’s spring recital. Jan was amazed not only at the intelligence, focus, and creativity of her 7 and 8 year old students, but also with the power of collaboration in inspiring and enhancing their excellence of their work. In this blog, Jan continues her story, focusing on she keeps her students engaged as dancers and as “thinkers.”

As I typed away, and cut and pasted and deleted countless versions of this blog, I kept coming back to what I wanted most to know myself-“Why was the “Beatles Fans” class different?”  What was so special about them that gave them “an edge” over all the others?  I’m not the kind of person who sits back and congratulates herself on a job well done; this wasn’t Me-this was US-together- but there’s no denying that this class overall developed a more advanced form of understanding almost right from the very beginning-Why???

Was it because several influential leaders in the class entered 3rd Grade with a full year of collaborating with constructivist 2nd Grade teachers Chris Andres and Tami Hurst, whose Whole Child philosophy of education is so much like mine and Roberta Taylor’s?  Very possibly, since 3rd Grade is the year most children begin to focus more on being like their “cool” peers, but I’m also convinced that what makes dance “cool” is the fact that I try to teach for personal, interdisciplinary understanding in almost every single thing I do.

That’s the main thing I do that’s different from a lot of dance teachers-I teach to make “Thinkers” out of my students, and possibly a few choreographers-not just dancers.  Because of that, I don’t teach any part of class exactly the very same way, twice in a row, ever.   Not even in their warm-up sequence!  This helps to engage the students immediately-they know they have to pay attention to follow the movements.

The barre exercises in ballet may go in pretty much the same order, but we do usually do them center floor, and still, the patterns, and sequences, and number of repetitions are always a little different. I like to do the exercises in a different order each class, to avoid “boring” repetition.  I also “get tricky” if I see that someone isn’t watching me closely enough!  I lighten up all the brainwork and visual training by adding surprising improvisational moments too, right in the middle of technique, if I feel there’s just no energy coming back to me from the class, or their attention might be wandering.

Even if my students are just following along closely because they’re hoping I’ll do something funny right in the middle of a “serious” exercise, they're still learning the importance of paying attention to pick up visual cues quickly -without me having to say a word!   From the children’s perspective, that makes paying attention a personal choice-one that has a positive pay-off.   If the dancers aren’t engaged and never see the point-if their learning isn't personal enough-we’ll never get anywhere!

I also use ‘real” music-and a wide variety of it- so the kids get exposed to more than what they hear on the radio on the way to school, or what they hearing in music class. In the same class period I may run through 5 to 6 types of music: classical, world music from various cultures, pop the kids like-though I have to check the lyrics and the intent of the lyrics too, or look for a Kids Bop or a super clean version from Wal-Mart.  But I also use a lot of pop and rock they haven’t heard before too: oldies from the ‘50’s through the ‘90’s, musical theater show tunes, jazz, swing, electronic music-even sound effects sometimes-you name it.  Keeping the dancers musically “on their toes” to where they seldom know exactly what's coming next helps maintain their interest and focus.

I try to lay down the choreographer’s way of thinking in my students’  brains right at the beginning of the year, and keep that going throughout the year.  Every time I teach a step, the students get 1-20 minutes to “experiment” with it-they have to add their own moves to whatever step or combination I’ve taught or reviewed that day.   That’s how I get them to drill the step into their own heads- imaginatively.  Most of the kids have so much fun they never even notice they’re practicing-much less working up a sweat doing it!

I always say my teaching style is more related to what I think Vaudeville must have been like: I’m the Performer and the students are the Audience-if I don’t keep them engaged by being ready to change my act at a moment’s notice, before my “audience” gets bored or restless, then the equivalent of rotten tomatoes is going to be thrown at me, and if that happens often enough-I might as well consider myself out of a job!  And that’s why, as it unusual as it may sound, Improvisation, whether structured or free, with props or without, is an important part of every single one of my classes, whether I’m teaching ballet or modern or any other type of dance-from age 3 to age 18-it's not just the way I work with Primary School students.

I love dance, but what’s more important is that my students come to love dance too-as quickly as possible- each in their own individual way.

It’s kind of a backwards thing to do-empowering mere children to feel and to act like choreographers and powerful creative thinkers before they’ve mastered the10 years worth of dance technique that it takes to make a professional dancer, but it works.

When I accomplish that, they have a personal basis of comparison with which to more closely identify with me, which is important-once we're "family", it's much easier to interest them in everything else I have to teach them.

If we stay together long enough for them to figure out how to work for themselves, that is, to stay intrinsically motivated long enough to make through the 7-10 years they’ll still need to study technique, all of the rest really does, eventually, fall right into place-and they wind up with what it takes to start a career in dance.


Name: Howard Gardner

Posted at June 08, 2011 at 11:43:53
Comment: Thanks, Jan, for part 2 of a highly energizing set of postings. I particularly like the fact that you are focusing on dance and yet at the same time are mobilizing a variety of cognitive aspects or, if you will, intelligences. This flexibility in teaching/coaching is certain to involve/energize more students more of the time-- and it also demonstrates the linkages among different skills, faculties, and dispositions. I used to think that Opera was an art form that mobilizes the most intelligences but I can see that dance is clearly 'in the running' Best wishes Howard Gardner

Name: Jan Duffy

Posted at June 08, 2011 at 11:24:02
Comment: Thanks, Howard, for all of your guidance and inspiration over the years-even when you didn't know you were providing me with any of that. We both had a big laugh last summer at your Project Zero book signing when I told you that to Me you'd always been like "The Pope of Education"-despite the fact that you're Jewish and MI Theory isn't a Dogma!" Now you know I wasn't kidding!

Name: Roberta Taylor

Posted at June 09, 2011 at 07:08:35
Comment: I was excited to read Jan Duffy’s first installment, but her second post is even more powerful. I understand Jan questioning why the “Beatles Fans” class was so successful. When something magical happens with our students’ learning, a good teacher needs to ask “Why?” and “How?” I think that Jan should accept more of the credit. Her teaching style is amazing! She is constantly involving her dancers in their learning, giving them ownership. Their learning is not about her, it’s about them. She is a facilitator and a modeler of knowledge, and then she gets out of the way and allows the students to think and problem solve for themselves. Thinking is the key. There have been numerous times when Jan has come to me (as a classroom teacher) and said, “Trust me. I’m the dance teacher, but whatever you are teaching in the classroom…please share it with me. I will help the students understand the concept through dance.” A good illustration of Jan’s ability to use dance to teach other subjects is when the “Beatles Fans” were studying geometric polygons in my classroom. Jan had my class working in groups and using their bodies and these huge rubber bands to make polygon shapes. Yes, Howard, Dance, under the tutelage of Jan Duffy, will give Opera a run for being the art form that mobilizes the most intelligences.

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