Dancing the Story

It’s no secret that I love dance. And so I’m always excited when I manage to find some more opportunities for dance at my school. We have two auditioned performance troupes this year (post stage challenge), but what I’m always looking for are opportunities for anyone to get involved in dance, and for students to explore their own choreography.

So this term, when we were putting together our curiosity clubs (student opt-in groups based on our overall theme for the term), I jumped at the chance to use dance as a context. Our theme this term is justice and control, and so I put it to the students that these contexts could be explored using dance.

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Students planning the purpose and narrative arc of their dance.

One of the most powerful ways to raise awareness and to get people thinking about issues is by telling stories. I’ve always believed in the power of telling stories. And this is fundamentally what dance is about. At its core dance tells stories. And sometimes telling stories without words is the most powerful way to communicate. I love words, but sometimes they get in the way and sometimes they are just not enough to convey the depth of the moment.

 

So I have a group of 24 students (mostly girls, but two boys – it’s a start at least) who are exploring the idea of persecution through dance. The first couple of sessions we spent talking about the idea of persecution and what it means. Students then brainstormed examples of persecution in current world events and throughout history. Following this, they organised themselves into small groups in which they would work on their dance. Each group chose an example of persecution that they wanted to explore. One group is looking at refugees, two are looking at the Holocaust, two are looking at the French Revolution, and two are looking at Malala and girls’ right to education. For some, there was a decided lack of knowledge on the issue they had chosen, so their first step was to start with what they knew, then explore what they needed to know to start creating their dance.

 

Once they had an idea of their context, they then had to think about the purpose of their dance. What were the emotions and values they wanted to connect? What were they hoping their dance would achieve? This then enabled them to move into thinking about how they were going to do this, and look at developing the narrative arc. The narrative arc is an interesting thing to discuss in dance, because unlike in a novel or even a movie, it doesn’t need to have closure or resolution. Good dance storytelling challenges us, leaves us on the edge of our seat, puts us out of our comfort zone, or reaffirms what we believe – so it’s okay to leave part of a story untold. To leave the pregnant pause, or the moment hanging, to miss the beginning because we want to highlight the end. Dance is an art and art is about challenging boundaries.

Music editing - such an important part of a dance!

Music editing – an important and often forgotten part of dance.

Once they had a rough idea of their narrative arc, it was on to thinking about music choices. We mostly use a contemporary dance vocabulary in our dance programme here as it has the greatest scope for creative story telling and is the most accessible for people with out formal dance training, but also has huge possibility for extension – plus it is the best fit with the type of stories they have chosen to tell. I talked to the students from my own point of view about choosing music, what to look for and think about. By directing them to a few typically wordless artists/composers (Drehz, Nathan Lanier, Olafur Arnaulds and Audiomachine – for those wondering), we were able to get away from the whole but this is my favourite pop song issue. Some still really wanted to use songs they knew and loved, so spent some time looking at the lyrics and whether these supported their narrative arc – in some cases yes, in some cases no, and in some cases some very interesting discussions! Some of the students chose to put together a few pieces of music and so learnt how to edit this with Garage Band. It’s such good learning for them, as this is exactly the process I follow when I am working as a choreographer.

Exploring the different levels and body bases of movement and developing ideas.

Exploring the different levels and body bases of movement and developing ideas.

Our third session got into choreography after a brief discussion about the elements of dance. So far I’m really impressed with the choreography I’m seeing, it’s quite visceral and emotive (some groups more so than others). We’ll have a couple more sessions on choreography and then they will think about costuming and if we get to it lighting.

Choreography in action

Choreography in action

I love seeing them start to really think about how to show their ideas physically, and coming the term after Stage Challenge, I can see the hugely positive impact Stage Challenge has had on their ability to tell a story through dance. The other thing I really love about this process is that it is exactly the same as the one I follow as a choreographer – they are actually doing exactly what industry professionals do, which is such wonderfully authentic learning. Now I just have to hope that some of them are performance ready for the end of term Performing Arts Evening!

 

 

 

 

Modular Learning

I keep finding it hard to write a blog post. Hard to find time to stop and actually write a reflection. Which is not to say that reflections aren’t happening, just so often lately they don’t end up getting written. Actually, when I say lately I really mean the last year and a half. When I first started challenging my pedagogy and the way I did things in the classroom, I found that writing was really helpful, and easy to manage, but as I’ve become more settled with being unsettled, I’ve found my writing has tailed off. Which is a shame, because I know it is a really useful tool to help me process things.

At the end of this term, it will be 2 full years since I started teaching in a totally integrated style, and while it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve certainly never wanted to turn back. One of the things I love most about the way I do things is that it is constantly evolving in response to the needs of my students (this is the 3rd class I’ve worked with in this way).

This year I have 29  year 7 and 8 learners. As with most classes I have a real mix of students. They are a very lively and outgoing bunch (for the most part) and have such a huge amount of energy. They love sport (first time I’ve every had a class that loved sport so much), enjoy art and LOVE singing. Most of them will give anything a go at least once and as they will tell you – they are highly motivated by food. Seriously, we even had to include it as part of our class values at the beginning of the year – we value food. They crack me up regularly and they are COMPLETElY different to the class I had last year.

As with the previous two classes I’ve had, we base our integrated learning around two modules. These modules are a combination of two main subject areas (others might be involved but are not the primary learning focus) based around a context. One is also maths and something else based, and one is always English and something else based. Most of our learning is worked into these modules. Extra things such as languages, te Reo and various other projects that are happening around the school i.e. this term wearable art and science curiosity clubs, syndicate arts opt-ins make up the rest of our timetable. The modules are inspired by the way they do things at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, but I’ve adapted it for my context. You can read more about how I started this here. And how it develop here.

Usually I give modules equal weighting – i.e. a 50/50 split. Once, last year, I disastrously tried to fit in 3. Turns out two is plenty for a term. I generally work on a term by term time frame, mixing it up each term to keep my interest and my students’. This term I’ve mixed things up a bit, trying a 30/70ish split for our two modules. Instead of a module A and a module B we have a big module and a small module. The reason for this is primarily because one of the projects we are working will start to cross over into English as well as maths and science when the students get into some information report writing. So I thought rather than limit the scope of the module, I’d extend it slightly. Like I said, always adapting…

So anyway two modules this term – Small Module: Stars and Seasons: Exploring poetry and the night sky. This module focuses on English and Science (you’ll see there is quite a strong science focus this term – quite deliberately). We are looking at what happens in the changing seasons, and how this affected by the movement of the planet. Students are exploring poetic language and metaphorical devices to express their understanding of each season. We are also including some work around Matariki as part of this. As with all good intentions, this hasn’t quite gone according to plan. With so many disruptions in the first half of term due to Stage Challenge and all manner of other cool stuff we haven’t managed to complete this as early as I wanted to, but it’s wrapping up and will hopefully be finished by the end of next week. I’ve also found it challenging to balance the amount of writing the students need with the science concepts I wanted to look at. Probably a lesson for me in not over planning.

Our Big Module has got the students super excited at the moment – Playing Houses: Design an Eco-House. This module focuses on English and Science/Technology. Students are designing their own eco-house following the design process, and researching and inventing their own technologies and scientific principles to include. The maths focus is geometry and measurement with a particular emphasis on shape, scale, perspective, area and volume. The science/technology focus is on researching and developing understanding of ideas in science with a focus on sustainable building practices. It’s hard to believe just how highly engaging this is for my learners. The last week has seen them drawing their houses in 3 dimensions from an isometric perspective (a particularly challenging feat when your house is not a simple cube – and most aren’t!) and then begin looking at floor plans. This week we have been looking at the different shapes used within our houses and the advantages and disadvantages of such shapes in building. The depth of thinking has blown me away. Students were identifying things about their design (and mine) that I hadn’t even thought of, such as the way a curved roof would minimise exposure to the wind and allow better dispersion of water across a green living roof. Our next step with this is to look in more depth at placement of houses, positioning and the best angles for getting maximum sun for passive solar heating, and then move on to planning and researching and then writing about a specific technology that the house uses and the creating gardens.

As you can probably guess from my enthusiastic descriptions – I am particularly enjoying and excited about the big module, though I’m also really looking forward to seeing the rest of the poems come together too. I’ve set myself a goal to blog more – so expect to hear (read?) more about how these modules are progressing soon.

 

Pause to Reflect

It’s week two of the holidays and having gone into school today (mostly just for Stage Challenge rehearsal), I’m starting to get my head back into it all. There’s so many things I’m excited about this term, but before I write about them, I want to reflect on the term that has been.

Term one’s are always busy, but last term felt busier than most. There were a lot of new things for me last term. New classroom (with quite a different space and orientation to be last – despite being only 3 doors away), new syndicate, new syndicate leader (who was also new to the school), and most important of all, new learners.

We had the usual things that term ones come with, camp, our 12 hour fundraising run, athletics day and so on, but those (while totally awesome) aren’t the things that stand out for me. There are two things that really stand out. One is student leadership, and the other is student voice.

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I run Stage Challenge at my school – we do it every two years and this is the second one I’ve run. I started the first one as a second year teacher on a suggestion from one of our DPs (now principal). I love it, but boy is it a lot of work. The first year was hard, but this year has been so much easier (so far) though still lots of work. I have a lot of awesome teachers who are working away with various groups of students on lighting design, backdrops, and fundraising, but even more awesomely (totally a word by the way) I have an amazing group of students working alongside me to make Stage Challenge happen. These students have spent so many hours choreographing, fundraising, packing costumes, rehearsing students as well as actually dancing themselves. It’s been awesome to see their leadership grow and watch how the other students respond to them.

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I’ve also seen some awesome student leadership starting to happen where a couple of my more energetic boys have taken on teaching the class Football; planning and running drills and workshops for the class and me. Imagine how stoked they were when they found out Football is one of the school sports for next term. Headstart anyone?

 

Student voice is really important to me, but I often find that to give student the level of self-determination and voice that I’d like to can be really overwhelming for them at the beginning of the year, especially for the year sevens. It definitely has been a steep learning curve for some of my students in learning how to make decisions about their own learning, but it’s absolutely been worth it – and that’s only after term 1!

Last term there were opportunities for student voice/choice in their World War Projects – where they could choose the topic and the creative project or action that resulted from it. And there were opportunities for student voice/choice in their 5 Minutes to Save the World actions, students also had a choice between two different maths projects depending on their interests.

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All in all I think the element of choice/voice was really appreciated by my students, though at first they just saw it as more work. Once they got into it further however they were much more engaged in their learning. I think though that I could have provided a lot more supported structure around some of the necessary skills for the projects. I’d like to integrate a better conferencing/workshop structure into this to more proactive in anticipating what’s needed – and I’ve pretty much got that sorted already for next term.

I want to think more around the idea of enabling constraints too. I think some of the tasks were too open to really produce amazing things. I had really good success last year with our Geek On Projects were student could study/research/create anything they wanted as long as they produced a video at the end. The results were amazing. Similarly limiting or banning some modes of presentation (I’m looking at you powerpoint) led to Hunger Games dances (I wish I’d filmed this – it was amazing!) and Divergent board games being created in our literature unit. It was difficult to place these constraints though as it was a syndicate wide task were doing, but something to investigate more for this coming term.

I think the maths projects worked fantastically well this term, the students really enjoyed applying their mathematical skills to something practical, either designing a new layout for the classroom, or creating an orienteering course around the school. And the fact that were are putting these into practice this term, testing out the obstacle course and choosing our favourite design elements to try in the classroom really got the buy-in from the students.

So I think my two things going into next term are looking at how I can create stronger support structures for enabling student choice/voice and enabling constraints.