Monday, September 15, 2014

how DANCING makes me a better TEACHER


As some of you may know, the “Co” in “Calamity Co Dance” stands not for company, but for “Collaboration.” Or it might stand for “Collective,” depending on whom we’re trying to impress.

And if you’ve ever been to or in one of our shows, you know that we aren’t even kidding around. For example, whenever I organize an improv piece, I try to get the dancers to share their ideas. They’re freakin’ brilliant artists and if they’re willing to tell me what’s on their mind, lord knows I’m going to use it so we have a better piece.

Collaborating outside my usual discipline is my fave. When you’re suddenly working with a band or a visual artist that has never been in the dance world, suddenly you’re opened up to possibilities you wouldn’t have considered. For example, we can make pieces where the end of the piece is variable, like when we’ve worked with Scott Danek. Or, the band might give tasks to the audience, like when Rose and The Colors Run made their epic audience-interactive piece. Or you end up getting every person to create a drawing to share, like when we worked with Shannon Reynolds (and you can see those pictures here in a post from a few weeks ago!).

Anyway, collaborating is obviously great. As an extension of that, I’m also a really huge proponent of collaborating with … your own damn self.


You might know that in addition to being a dancer and choreographer and weirdo event organizer, I’m also a high school math teacher and music-maker. I swear to god that it’s not that I’m running around haphazardly doing these things poorly (I mean, I’m admittedly not the greatest drummer that’s ever been in One Happy Island), it’s that when I get into something, I get INTO IT.

The reason that I bring up my obsessive and unable-to-chill-out personality is that each interest/passion/job/etc has helped me to get better at each other thing that I do. So I’m planning to write a little series of posts about I’ve collaborated with my own self. I’m calling it: “How ____ makes me a better ____.”


Today, I want to talk about how DANCING makes me a better TEACHER. Dance is the thing I’ve done the longest, and teaching is currently the thing I do the most. Of course, dancing taught me about hard work, and got me to count to 8 a lot, and forced me to interact with people, all of which came in handy in my first 4 years of being a math teacher. But what I’d like to talk about here is what I have learned about the way (good and respectful) dance teachers treat their dance students.

When I was student teaching, we had to teach our own classes and also had to spend a period each day doing something else. Most people spent time in special ed or ELL classes, because they were making smart professional choices about licensure and their resumes, but I happened to be working at a public school with a modern dance program. Brenda Divelbliss at CRLS was kind enough to let me TA in her Honors Choreography class, which not only let me get an awesome dance warm up every single afternoon, but also gave me the opportunity to watch how a teacher interacted with students in a non-math class.

Kids have to take math class. It’s a requirement for graduation. Teachers are aware of this. So, many teachers treat the people in their classes as students that have to take math, but don’t expect them to deeply engage with the content.  Math teachers call the people in their classes ‘students.’

But in dance class, teachers call the people in their classes as ‘dancers.’

This is SO DIFFERENT. I was so glad to be able to observe Brenda teach her class, so that I could see how this played out in a public school context. She called her students ‘dancers’ or ‘choreographers,’ and assumed that they personally wanted to become better dancers and choreographers. And, while I’m sure that it was partly that these students had chosen to sign up for an advanced choreography class, I really saw a group of teenagers who were personally invested in creating the best pieces that they could.

I had never ever seen that in a math class.

Following Brenda’s example, I make a point of taking my students seriously as mathematicians and problem-solvers. I know that they probably won’t all go on to pursue PhD’s in abstract mathematics. That doesn’t mean that they can’t, at present time, be fully engaged in the math that they are creating and exploring. I refer to them as “mathematicians” and talk about how they will have work that they’ll be “proud” of and will want to “show off” to their families – yes, I say that out loud to a bunch of teenagers in math class, and I’m not even joking about it.

I think it’s working. My students all put together a portfolio of their best works at the end of the year, and write a reflective cover letter for it. They literally start sentences by writing “I have grown as a mathematician by ….” I mean, I’m not saying that I’m the world’s greatest math teacher. But I can say that I adopted the attitude that my dance teachers had for me, and that I saw Brenda present to her students, and now my students seem to be a lot more confident and take more risks when they’re solving difficult problems.

Anyway! That’s that. That’s a little part of how dancing has made me a better teacher. If you happen to like reading about math teaching, I do have a blog totally devoted to that subject – (It’s a Salt-N-Pepa reference, obviously).

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