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.


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!





Building Learning Power

At my school we practice building learning power, Guy Claxton’s innovative approach to learning to learn. Personally I think it’s brilliant. It builds students’ dispositional thinking to enable them to experience success in their learning. It gives them strategies that they can use to negotiate difficult situations in their learning and elsewhere in life too. It builds on the key competencies, adding a richness and depth that I find really engaging. Plus it has given our school a common language to work with as we learn, grow and explore.
I’ve been practising building learning power for the last 3+ years now, and I can really see the positive benefits it has had with my students. However I wonder whether I have taken it deep enough. Yes, I use the language, but have I really allowed it to change my teaching practice, to filter down into ALL of my conversations in ALL learning areas ALL of the time? Probably not. That’s a big ask. But I can look at my progress, and I can hold this as an ideal to work towards. (Yes, that’s me, forever the optimist!). I love the phrase that teachers at HPSS use – ‘warm and demanding’, by which they mean being kind, compassionate and approachable, but also having high expectations of students, staff and selves, and finding ways to raise them up so that everyone achieves their potential.
So how am I being warm yet demanding?
Firstly by not shying away from tough questions. My students this year, seem to be taking a bit to wrap their heads around the type of questions I’m asking – not so much of the what, where, who or when, but rather why and how might we? I also believe in reciprocity – if I’m going to ask my students tough questions that challenge them to actually think about their ideas, rather than just remember information, then I need to take their questions seriously too.
I need to have high expectations of my students and myself. I need to communicate these clearly but gently, and make every effort to help my students reach these expectations. My expectations need to be a realistic stretch for my students and they need to be differentiated so that they can all experience success.
I need to be kind, compassionate and considerate and gentle with my students, other teachers and myself. I need to place value, and spend time helping my students to tend to their Hauora, their wellbeing, and of course I need to be approachable. I need to ensure that my busy-ness doesn’t get in the way of spending time getting to know my students, particularly in the mornings, which is so easy to do!
I need to ensure I create rich programmes that are engaging, require critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, innovation, while giving students scope for some self direction. And this brings me full circle back to Building Learning Power. By moving beyond a traditional knowledge dissemination model of education, we allow students more freedom to develop their dispositional thinking, to learn how to be learners, what works for them and what doesn’t. To fail and grow from it. To wonder. To question. To try. To succeed.

Epic #edchatnz Reflection

Wow! What a week. Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the first ever #edchatnz conference organised by the amazing Danielle Myburgh and her extraordinary organising committee. It was a mindblowing experience and I took so much away from it. I also really enjoyed sharing it with my mother, @majessti as we’ve never spent time together as colleagues.

Friday started with a plenary session from Danielle Myburgh and HPSS Principal Maurie Abraham – both of whom I really enjoyed hearing speak. I then headed off to Dianne Cavallo‘s session on Design Thinking in the classroom. I spent a good chunk of time discussing ideas with my mother in the middle session before finishing off the day with some time spent in Steve Mouldey‘s class and then attending the unconference session.

I felt like I got into a better groove on Saturday and starting with face to face #edchatnz was the best way ever to start a day.  Mark Osbourne‘s session on Modern Learning Environments was equally awesome and after morning tea I headed to Ros Macheachern‘s session on teaching and learning at HPSS. I finished up with Lea Vellenoweth‘s workshop on building a restorative culture and of course the day officially ended with a final plenary from Karen Melhuish Spencer and then Danielle wrapped everything up beautifully

I loved everything but the stand out points for me were definitely sitting on Steve’s class and Ros’s workshop, and coming back to school they have certainly been the ones that have influenced me most.

So, the big question – the question really – is what do I do with all the awesomeness now I’m back at school?

Easy – take the leap of faith (thanks @boonman for the inspiration to do this).

On Monday night I sat down with the curriculum, photocopied every level 4 page and started scribbling and highlighting – finding links with “Communities” – our term 3 theme. Yes, I already had plans in place but they weren’t quite doing it for me or (as it turns out) my students. They lacked an overall cohesion, but once I started going through those curriculum areas with a highlighter things started to come together in a big way. Once highlighted I cut up the curriculum (photocopies – not my actual curriculum doc – don’t worry!) AOs and started to group them. I’ve loved the idea of multi-curriculum area modules since I first heard HPSS staff talk about them, and seeing them in action on Friday only made me more excited. I really believe this is a powerful way to teach.

So I grouped my AOs, and suddenly all these awesome connections became apparent. Everything just clicked. I developed 4 modules – two maths based, two English based for the term. Just like HPSS I gave them names – we’re currently working on Community Perspectives and Vital Stats, and will then go on to Trading Me and Persuading Me later in the term. I developed little blurbs for them a la HPSS and set learning objectives just like I would with any unit plan. Only this time I didn’t put them into my old planning template – this time I tried something new. Ros had given us a copy of the HPSS planning template and the focusing questions and visual layout made a lot of sense to me, so I reworked it into a version for me school (well, just for  me at this stage – but one of the DPs is very interested in it and how we could use it across the school).

Community Perspectives Module Plan

Community Perspectives Module Plan

We are a Building Learning Power School, which means we use Guy Claxton’s approach to developing learning muscles. As a staff we see this as an extension and an expansion of the NZC’s key competencies, so it was obvious to me that Claxton’s teaching toolkit would form the centre of the planning as it underpins what we do as teachers. And I added a few things – particularly looking at diverse learners and focusing on Kaupapa Māori principles of education.

I knew that I wanted to focus more on coaching students in their learning, something we’ve been talking about a lot more as a school lately, and I also wanted to spend more time on concepts and developing conceptual understanding. The SOLO Taxonomy has provided the perfect vehicle for doing this – and my students have responded really well to it. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Finally I wanted to hack up my timetable. As an intermediate classroom teacher, I have a lot more scope to do this than some. We have 3 blocks of 90 – 110 minutes each day. Typically a school day at my school starts with English in the morning and our syndicate does fitness just before morning tea, maths in the middle block, and the other curriculum areas packed into the afternoon. Friday’s have always been a little bit different. I knew in order to maintain our school’s strong focus on literacy and numeracy I would need to ensure that the number of hours spent on maths-related learning and English-related learning would need to remain the same, but I wanted to allow for a more organic flow to the day. Our afternoon’s are pretty full this term and work around my release to teach dance, assemblies, and syndicate rotations. Where I could make changes was in the morning. So now my timetable looks like this:

My new timetable

My new timetable

Monday and Thursday we spend all morning on an English-related module, Tuesday and Wednesday are maths/science-related. The introduction of my time has formalised what used to be ‘finishing time’ and also gives students some scope for their own passions – something they’re very excited about (thanks HPSS for the name). As syndicate we’ve decided to go from ‘fitness’ to active recreation which again gives the students more choice, and also removes any connotation of physical education, which isn’t always as active as we’d like – this is about being active! Learning Focus is an opportunity for us to develop learning skills, solidify our understanding of the SOLO taxonomy and explore what it means to be a Building Learning Power school in more depth.

So, what do the students think of all this?

Well, we’ve only had two days of working with the new timetable and module structure, and already they love it! I’ve had so many students come up and say how much they like having time to really get into one context/topic – even some of my quiet, less opinionated students have come and talked to me about it. One of my students who doesn’t always find learning easy and is VERY shy too came and told me how much easier she has found the new way of learning with a huge grin on her face. Teacher win!

And what do I think?

I love it. Of course it’s going to be a work in progress and will need refining, but everything is and my students know that as much as I do. But even on the first day it just felt so right and I came away on an absolute high like I haven’t felt in months. I loved having more time to go deep and not being constrained ‘maths time’ or ‘English time’. The depth of thinking I saw in that first lesson was so sophisticated – I actually felt guilty that I hadn’t given them opportunities to reach these depths sooner! The language students were using to discuss communities and they concepts they were coming up with really validated what I was doing.

Now I just can’t wait to continue!

Hack Your Class

This term I am really excited to participating in the Hack Your Class Project hosted by the wonderful Claire Amos from Hobson Point Secondary School. Claire’s introductory post gives a really good overview of the whole idea and there’s also a lot of great resources in her holiday reading post. I’m looking forward to working my way through the reading list (once Stage Challenge is done with almost every waking moment).


Reading through the tentative timeline has got me so excited – all the things I’ve been thinking about and starting to explore are in here – deepening e-learning, maker culture, design thinking, universal design for learning… Seriously I’m geeking out about this so much right now!


I’ve also been thinking about the things I want to hack in my own classroom. My maths programme has been top of my list since the beginning of the year and I’m slowly starting to get it to a place where I’m happy with it and I’d like to blog more about the hacking process and how the students are finding it.


The other big one I want to hack is my physical space. We have good-sized classrooms with masses of class and wide double doors that open out on to this crazy huge shared learning area (effectively doubling our space) which is an amazing space to work in, but in the classrooms we’ve still got a lot of old school furniture – single cell desks and the dreaded tote trays. So my class and I have started looking at how we can make our space more flexible and reflective of the way we actually like to work (all while spending absolutely no money!). Definitely a lot of hacking going to happen here!


I’ve also found myself a performing arts hacker buddy @ginippi – yay for finding another dance teacher in NZ who’s actually on twitter.


Can’t wait to get started! How will you #hackyrclass?

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.


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.


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.


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.