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!

 

 

 

 

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School as Creative Space

Creativity

I’m a dancer, well more specifically I’m a dance teacher. And therein lies a fundamental difference. As a dancer I spent years training my body to follow patterns of movement and find both beauty and function in form. But as a dance teacher, I spend my time choreographing – creating. And it’s been here that I have found meaning in dance.

Marketers: It’s time to reinvent creativity

The performing arts are regarded as creative endeavors, but what we don’t always realise is that creativity is not inherent in any of these art forms – it’s a mindset and something that must be given space to develop. If a dance only ever learns what they are taught and never get’s a chance to choreograph – how much creativity are they really practising? Similarly, a musician exposed to the best of classical and modern music is not necessarily creative if they can only play but never compose. What creativity needs in order to thrive is opportunity, and it has not traditionally been then case that students are given time deliberately set aside to be creative.

Ken Robinson on creativity

But I believe schools can and should be creative spaces (see Sir Ken Robinson‘s talks for more detailed, eloquent and well researched reasons than I could give) because creativity is important. It’s not only what brightens our lives, and makes for great performances, it’s what keeps us trying new things, it’s what leads to innovative solutions, and new ways of doing things. And most importantly it feed our inner selves. In Kaupapa Maori, they talk about the mana atua, the divine spark that resides in all of us. Opportunities for creativity feed that spark.

You can’t use up creativity; the more you use, the more you have - Maya Angelou @QuoteResearch

So we now we know creativity needs opportunity to thrive, but we also need to recognise the breadth of areas that it’s possible to be creative in. I have seen students excel in creativity on the soccer pitch, seen brilliant creative reasoning in mathematics, and watched students argue the most intricate details in amazingly creative ways. If we believe that creativity is possible in any field, then we are starting to understand creativity as a mindset. As a mindset, or indeed a disposition, creativity grows in response to practice. Just like years of dance training strengthened my body, years of choreography have developed my creativity too. Practice comes in the form of activities designed to help students think beyond the mundane and into the novel. It’s a question asked by the teacher, but left answered or the thought that starts “I wonder if…” The final thing creativity really needs in order to thrive is constraint. An enabling constraint to be precise. Something which provides a limitation to work around – the creative challenge if you will. Sometimes simply a context, at other times a more explicit requirement.

Creativity vs. Art.

Just to recap. Creativity needs:

  • Opportunity
  • Recognition
  • Practice
  • Constraint

Creativity Poster - Andrea

So what does school as a creative place look like to me? It’s a space where student’s ask questions, solve problems and explore ideas. It’s multi-modal and highly interactive. It engages students in creative development. It’s supported by discussion and exemplification of the creative process by students, teachers and industry professionals. It acknowledges that creativity exists everywhere. It’s supported by structures that enable understanding – the SOLO taxonomy, systems thinking – and see everything as part of a whole. It’s developed and practiced through processes that foster ideation and iteration – design thinking, future problem solving. It’s a space where students can learn through doing and trying and failing upwards and failing forwards and starting over and turning the whole thing upside down. It’s acknowledging that there is never going to be one right way.

Dispositional Thinking, Changing the Game

 

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the importance of developing students’ ability to think beyond themselves and beyond knowledge as the be all and end all. In fact I’ve been thinking about it so much I signed myself up to give an EduIgnite talk on it at the Emerging Leader EduIgnite Evening in Wellington at the end of the month.

It’s about developing dispositional thinking, and in researching and reading about dispositional thinking as I write my presentation, I’ve realised something important. Dispositional thinking is a game changer, and for me to might just be the game changer.

Dispositional thinking is about changing the focus from learning being something you are good or bad at, to something that is learnable and changeable, something that you can practice and improve; moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It’s about developing the skills that support learning and are, at the same time, invaluable in 21st century workplaces.

It means that as a teacher my practice no longer centres around increasing students’ knowledge. Instead I focus on skills, strategies and concepts. If they can Google it in 5 seconds flat, is it really something I need to spend a whole lesson teaching? So, we deal with the contextual, the ungoogleable – and through those contexts we uncover learning, together. Sometimes we miss things, so we loop back and take a second look, sometimes we screw things up, so we talk about where we went wrong. But mostly we ask a lot of questions – questions that aren’t so easy to answer.

In the process of exploring these contexts and asking questions, my students are developing skills through learning in action. It is practical, but at the same time theoretical and those two develop naturally, interwoven sometimes, and deliberately made separate at others. The ideas don’t come before the practice, they come alongside, with and through the practice.

Our learning is becoming increasingly holistic, allowing more opportunities for creativity, problem solving, and collaboration. And I can see the effect that this focus on teaching to develop learning dispositions is having on my students’ confidence. My learners are more articulate than they were at the start of the year, they are more resilient, they are more creative, and they are far more open minded. And yet I wonder is it enough? How can we achieve greater depth, allow for more creativity? Increase collaboration? Develop a sense of wonder and a need to adventure in their learning in our students?

Reflecting on the development of my students’ learning dispositions has solidified my belief in the importance of dispositional curricula, thinking and learning in the classroom, and luckily for me the New Zealand Curriculum agrees mandating a three-way focus on values, learning areas and key competencies (dispositions). But I know I’m only at the beginning of this journey, with so very many things yet to explore, to refine, to uncover, discuss and reflect on. I don’t yet have the answers but I do have the questions. So many questions.

 

Communities, Tribes and the Learning Renaissance

“What is a community?”

That’s the question we’ve been asking as a class and as a school this term. My class are looking at this from a few of perspectives:

  1. As a community of learners, working together to develop our learning muscles.
  2. As a community of hackers, building, hacking and creating our learning space to work most effectively for us.
  3. As part of our Community Perspectives module, looking at the way events affect communities and how we hold differing perspectives depending on the communities we are part of.
  4. As part of our Vital Stats module, looking at the way individuals within sports communities use statistics to make decisions.

As part of our discussions in the Community Perspectives Module, my students came up with 10 principles which they felt were important parts of what it takes to be a successful community:

  • People
  • Communication
  • Time
  • Respect
  • Common point
  • Ownership
  • Commitment
  • Environment
  • Collaboration
  • Trust

Firstly, I’m super impressed with the language these 11, 12 and 13 year olds came up with. Secondly, I think they’ve hit the nail on the head. And finally I think the way the came up with these was totally in keeping with our communities theme. Individually they came up with 5 or 6 each, but together they’ve got everything covered.

So naturally, all this talk of communities has found its way into my thinking. What does it mean to be part of a community of educators? For me it means:

  • working together with others to achieve better outcomes for students
  • feeling like I have ownership and am part of a something important to me
  • being challenged, extended and made a better teacher through collaboration and the support of others within my community.
  • working alongside my colleagues to achieve something bigger than myself

I’m lucky, I’m part of multiple communities as an educator, I’m part of a global and national community of connected educators – we connect, engage, support and challenge each other and most of the time we do this online, through Twitter. I’m also part of my school, team and of course class communities, but it’s the first and last communities I want to talk about today.

Recently I watched Seth Godin’s TED talk about The Tribes We Lead. In this talk he speaks about the way we can affect change through connection. According to Godin, our world is organised into tribes and has been since long before recorded human history began. Tribes enable us to connect with others and feel that we belong. A tribe is a group of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other. In  many ways this reflects the definitions my students created of communities. When we unpacked the word together in class we identified two root words that make up the word ‘community’, ‘common’ and ‘unity’. In a community we should be working together (unity) for a shared (common) purpose.

So what does all this have to do with education, aside from being an interesting discussion in a class? Well, I think it can all be defined in one simple hashtag. #edchatNZ – the little hashtag that could. There is no doubt in my mind that #edchatNZ has changed me, as an individual, in my philosophy of teaching, and most noticeably in my teaching practice. And I know it has done so for many people. Not only has it become my community – my tribe – it’s inspired me to take the awesome things I’m learning back to my school, and back to my tribe of learners. With all these new ideas and challenging concepts, not only am I questioning everything I’m doing, I’m teaching my students to do the same. It may be time consuming and hard work and drive other teachers in my school up the wall, but I can see the benefit in my students. They don’t accept status quo just because it’s also been status quo, they’re not sucked in by media and they don’t cave under peer pressure (well as much as is possible for 11 – 13 year olds). They desperately want and need to understand why we do things the way we do, and if they can see the logic or the rationale behind something and agree with it, then they are behind it 100% and boy do they give it their all.

Last week a came across a retweet on twitter talking about a learning renaissance rather than a revolution.

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For me, the students I have this year and the way they approach their learning is this renaissance in action. In his talk, Godin speaks about the way we create change, and he asks 3 questions:

  • Who are you upsetting? (Because if you’re not upsetting someone or something you’re not challenging the status quo)
  • Who are you connecting with?
  • Who are leading?

The first question serves as evidence of change or lack thereof, but the last two is where the change really happens. When we connect with others we are bringing together a multitude of ideas, talents, creativity, and capable hands that can work together to affect change. But what about leadership? How does that fit into the picture?

The #edchatNZ community began with a lone nut – the wonderful Danielle Myburgh. As she started to share her passion a community started to form around her, it grew and began to connect in multiple and diverse ways becoming a tribe, and now with increasing momentum, it’s affecting real change in education communities and schools around the country. But at the same time, it’s also empowered each of us edutweeps (twitter educators – education + twitter + peeps) to return to our own schools and classrooms and lead change there.

So how do we do this? How do we lead change and build a learning renaissance? (I love that phrase so much more than ‘revolution’).

We live in age now where it’s no longer good enough or even effective to try and sell an idea, instead we need to tell a story. Godin describes an ongoing cycle:

This cycle appeals to me and I think it is a good way to reflect on what we are doing to be agents of change within our own learning communities. I know that I am really good at making changes for my own learners, and I’m certainly getting better at connecting with my tribe but do I tell the story of what I’m doing?

I have no doubt there is the beginning of a learning renaissance happening in for my students, but I’m not yet telling that story effectively and if I want to help lead a movement and create a culture of inquiry and innovation within my school I need to be.

So how I can do this?

This is the part I’m still figuring out, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Talk about with my students and build their language of learning so they can talk about it with other students and teachers
  • Invite others into my class to hang out and get a sense of the way we’re mixing it up in room 3
  • Blog more often
  • Blog more deeply – less of the surface stuff more of the challenging and questioning stuff (like this post)
  • Share my blogging, I communicate well through words, it’s always been my natural medium, so I need to use this and I need to be willing to put it out there – especially with colleagues at school
  • Keep tweeting, cause magic happens on twitter

So to finish, I’m going to leave you with a question:

How are you telling the story of the education renaissance?

Developing Student Leadership

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about our expectations of students’ leadership, and how we can help them to come into their own as leaders. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, middle school is such an important time for students in terms of creating their own identities. They are challenging who they were, negotiating who they are and dreaming about who they want to be. For some students, being a leader is an important part of this dream of their future self.

With both year 7s and year 8s in our classes, we work with a tuakana/teina model. Our year 8s are our tuakana, our big siblings, and the year 7s, who are new to our school are the teina, the little siblings. This model, based on Kaupapa Maori theories of education, has an inherent focus on leadership. Our tuakana are our schools role models, and leaders (Bishop, 2001).

At the end of year seven our students get the opportunity to apply for leadership positions for the following year; these positions cover all sorts of things, from flag raising, to sports referees, to performing arts leaders and librarians. The students submit CVs and cover letters to apply for the job and are then short listed and interviewed. At the beginning of year 8, students then take up these roles. 

I love that we have this opportunity for our students, and I love the way we take them through the process of applying for a job in an authentic and meaningful context, but this is only one side of leadership. This is formal leadership. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how encourage informal leadership. The kind where students take initiative and take responsibility for something without being asked, show their maturity and stand up for what they want. I’ve seen some awesome examples of this in action this week, so I thought I’d share a couple.

Last week our 4 syndicate captains came to us at the end of a syndicate (teachers’) meeting and said that they had made some changes to our fitness programme they’d like to try. We’d been suggesting to our kids that week that if they had any ideas to let the captains know, but we didn’t expect how much the captains had taken this on board. They had reworked our fitness routine completely  – making it way harder and actually a little bit brutal but the students LOVE it! They stood up and explained it to the syndicate, they ran it, they demonstrated it and at the end they lead the syndicate through a reflection of the new programme. All of this without any teacher prompting – that’s authentic leadership and learning in action!

Two of my very capable (but with the potential to get bored, distracted and disruptive very quickly) boys have taken on some extra responsibility in creating a soccer skills programme for the class. The are both soccer (or as we are calling it in class to prevent the soccer/football argument – Fuβball) mad and spend every lunch time playing. Earlier in the term I asked them whether they would be interested in teaching the class, partially as a extension task for them and also because I wanted to steer them towards positive leadership roles within the class. Well, the boys have absolutely taken to it and planned and delivered a fantastic lesson last week for 45 minutes. They lead the class and me through it and I barely had to step in with the classroom management. They’re all set getting ready for the next one, and I’ve already got other students lining up to take responsibility for teaching the class a new sport in the next 3 terms. Win! 

References 
Bishop, R. (2001). Changing power relations in education: Kaupapa Maori messages for mainstream institutions. In McGee, C., and Fraser, D. (Eds). The Professional Practice of Teaching. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press