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!

 

 

 

 

Developing Critical Thinking through SOLO

One of my big focuses for the year with my class is around developing critical thinking. In particular, this was a big focus last term as we worked on our eco-houses. It was also the focus of a recent observation by my syndicate leader. We use the ARA Pathway coaching framework for our observations at school, which is really helpful in enabling teacher reflection. As part of this, we set a follow up goal, for where to next, and part of my goal was to blog about critical thinking, as this is always a good opportunity for me to reflect and process ideas.

 

In term one, I visited the local college, to have a look at a science lesson and see what our students are heading to next. The thing that really struck me was the way the teacher actively talked to the students about how they could use the language of SOLO to deepen their thinking and explanation. I’d used SOLO in previous years, but hadn’t really taken my students through the language of it this year. We started using it to form success criteria in term one with a book/movie comparison, and I built on this in term two with a piece of writing we did around significant family members for Matariki and as part of an empathy building focus (something we’re definitely working on as a class).

 

Using the SOLO symbols on the board with levelled success criteria helped my students to see the progression of ideas and the relationship between them. I start with multi-structural, because by the time we get to looking at the actual explanation through writing, student’s already have an idea of what they are looking at. Acknowledging this with my students – actually pointing out that they have already passed prestructural and unistructural stages – seems to instantly give them a positive jolt, an ‘oh yeah, I can already do that, so I’m part way there’.

 

The thing I really like about using SOLO in this way is that it forces me to really tease apart what I am looking for in regards to critical thinking – how easy is it to just say ‘I’m developing their critical thinking’ without actually really being clear on how you are doing that. This in turn makes it clear for the students what the process of developing their critical thinking looks like, and in turn has led to much better writing/explanations of their ideas.

 

I’m still very much developing my understanding of SOLO, but I definitely think that getting in and giving it a go has really helped me come to terms with it and I can see hugely positive benefit it is having with my students. I guess now I am wondering where to next with it as so far I’ve mostly focused on it through explaining ideas in writing (it’s been amazing for developing students’ ideas strand). I’d like to try it in different contexts. With our modules for next term, there will be good opportunity to continue it in writing as we look at persuasion and cause and effect around global issues, as well as looking at static image, film or debate to present ideas. I can see how I could use it really effectively to help support students through starting to unpack cause and effect of some of the global issues they are passionate about. I’m also interested to see how I can use it to support learning in our integrated maths topic to do with fuelling athletes. Not quite sure what that looks like yet though.

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.

 

Exploring Themes

This term we are reading the book ‘The City of Ember’ by Jeanne DuPrau. We’re reading this as part of a focus on dystopian fiction over the year. Our school wide, year long focus for 2015 is sustainability, so this is the sense through which we are exploring dystopia – as sustainable (or otherwise).
The City of Ember is a particularly interesting read with a sustainability lens. The book opens in the prologue with the builders of the city discussing how long the city will last and how people will know when it’s time to leave. We then fast forward a couple of hundred years to a classroom where the class 8 students (equivalent of our year 8) are waiting to receive their job assignments. We follow two main students as the begin their jobs, and lives as adults (yes, at 12, and yes, that blows the students minds!). As they settle into their responsibilities as citizens of Ember, they discover that the city is not built to last, and in fact was never intended to last. Things are falling into disrepair and one day, the lights will go out for ever.
You see Ember is a city in darkness, though we do not know it at the beginning Ember is built deep underground and sustained by electricity generated from a hydroelectric generator that uses water from an underground river.
We’re about 4 chapters in at the moment, and the students are really enjoying it. In our literacy focus session yesterday, we explored some of the imagery and themes a little bit deeper.
We started off with 3 portions of text from the book, which described what Ember looked like and how it worked.
Students then had to discuss the question – ‘What sustains life in Ember?’
They came up with all sorts of ideas:
But eventually, we distilled them down to one main one – electricity. Without electricity there is no light, no warmth. This led us into a discussion about themes and ideas that run through books. We focused on the idea of light v. darkness and talked about how this links into the citizens’ greatest fear – that one day the lights will go out and com back on.
We used the text to look for evidence to support and back up our ideas and talked about how we can use quotes from the text to support this.
I then asked the students to discuss why the city was called Ember, and to make connections with all that we had discussed that afternoon. They came up some really interesting ideas that I hadn’t even thought of (I love it when that happens!).
We then took one of two phrases/themes – either the word ember or the theme of light versus dark and using a limited colour palette we created quick images that represented this. On the back of these we then wrote a list of words or phrases or ideas that we associated with the picture.
We will use this to build understanding of metaphor and simile over the coming weeks.

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.

In Class: Introducing Grit and Growth Mindsets

Last week, I introduced my students to the idea of a ‘growth mindset’ and ‘grit’ today. It was interesting.
I began by writing the two words on the board and asking the students to think, pair, share about what those phrases could possibly mean. It took a bit of unpacking, and quite a lot of persuading to get some discussion out of them (they are a VERY quiet class). I can see that’s something we’ll need to work on this year. But we started to unpack what the terms actually meant. The students seemed to get growth mindset a bit more readily at first, but grit quickly caught up.
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The initial brainstorm

We talked together about how it can be hard to have ‘grit’ or a ‘growth mindset’ all of the time, and how we often find this easiest when we a re pursuing our passions. On big sheets of paper I had written 3 questions:
What are you passionate about?
What ‘lights your fire’?
What do you care deeply about?
Students then had 5 minutes to answer each question by writing their answers around the question on each piece of paper. It was lovely to see the things that are important and get to know them a bit better. Of course there were lots of expected answers – sport, family, animals, food, but there were a few unexpected ones too – wifi being top among those! I shared my answers with the students, explaining that reciprocating is really important to me (education, design and the people in my life, respectively if you were wondering). I then talked about 6 things I had written on the board under two headings, 3 Things I believe and 3 Things I Know.
3 Things I Believe:
  • Failing is good. Failing forwards is even better.
  • Everyone can succeed.
  • Life is as good as you make it.
3 Things I Know:
  • You all have huge potential.
  • I will work my butt of this year to make learning work for you.
  • Fun is essential.
I’m not sure how much the students have taken it on board yet, I suspect they won’t really until they see it in action, but for now I’m just going to keep saying it and doing it until it does sink in.
Collaging

Collaging

We finished off by creating either a brainstorm, a collage, illustrations or a list showing what we understood by those two terms. The searching and finding of images and discussing with their friends really helped to solidify their growing understanding, and, given how reluctant they are to talk at the moment, was also a great way for me to check their understanding too.
Half a week later, it’s been interesting to see them start to take these concepts on board, while I haven’t heard the terms come up in class, I have definitely seen them in action. Can’t wait to get more in depth with these concepts over the coming weeks!

Something for the Week

Oops! It’s Tuesday night and I’m just publishing this now…. Nevertheless here are some interesting educational goodies from my meanderings around the internet over the last week.

Modern Learning Environments in NZ Schools – 3 excellent Case Studies

I’ve been hearing great things about this book – #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman

14 things that are obsolete in 21st century classrooms

Exploring ‘grit’ and growth mindsets with yr 7 and 8 – Kerri Thompson

I really want to read this book

Former colleague/tutor teacher, Jason Ataera talks about leading change within schools