Monday, February 16, 2009

Using Journal Writing to Solidify Concepts in the Dance Classroom

In 1997, I began my graduate work in Dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I had just completed my undergraduate degrees in English and Dance, and was eager to explore the connection between choreography and writing. Little did I know that twelve years ago, a seemingly unimportant assignment for school would so profoundly steer the course of my teaching a decade later.

I've always been interested in writing, so it would seem natural that I began work in my Graduate Seminar class on an annotated bibliography of dance writing books. Specifically, I was looking for texts that would solidify my hunch: artists that write articulately also choreograph articulately. While I didn't find the exact source that I was looking for, I did discover a lot of "how-to-write" books that seem applicable for "how-to-choreograph." After I completed the semester-long course, I promptly filed my rather large bibliography into a closet and forgot about it.

About three years ago, I began to think of ways that I could reinforce the movement goals I was teaching in my modern dance technique classes. If I was introducing a new movement principle, like how to easily connect the head to the tailbone in a contraction, I wondered how I might reinforce this concept so that students had a better understanding of its application to dance. One way to reinforce the concept was to ask students to find images of curves in nature or other areas of their life not directly related to dance. Using my earlier research in dance writing as a foundation, I also decided to ask my students to write about the idea of connecting the head to the tailbone. I provided an open-ended prompt that was sure to make them think, but more importantly, it would make them process their feelings about the subject matter. For example, one week we focused solely on integrating the head with the rest of the body when dancing. That week's journal prompt began, "with my head, I...." Students were encouraged to write not only about what they may physically do with their head, but also what they felt about their head. Interestingly, some students wrote that they spend very little time thinking about their heads, and that this lack of awareness probably came through in their dancing. They took for granted that their head was an important part of their dancing body. After all, it just always remained on top of the spine, in charge of thinking about or directing movement.  

I began to introduce my movement units with more and more journal prompts. After a ten minute writing session, I'd ask if any students wanted to share a particularly lucid passage or discovery from their journals. Many students wrote about feeling uncomfortable "emoting" in class. They were not accustomed to noticing their feelings as they relate to the movement principle in dance class. However, those students who identified a level of discomfort in their journal writing were also able to quickly move beyond these emotional blocks and experience the dance class in a deeper way. 

Not all of my students love the journal writing process at the beginning of a new unit in dance. They'd rather get up and move, break into a sweat, and feel a sense of accomplishment at how hard they pushed their physical selves. But these same students who show restlessness when writing have begun to make huge discoveries about themselves too, which is probably why they are reluctant to process life through their journals. Whether students love or hate journal writing, all are encouraged to write using their authentic voice, or what bell hooks calls the "engaged voice" in her text, Teaching to Transgress. Students are to "communicate... by choosing that way of speaking that is informed by the particularity and uniqueness of whom [they] are speaking to and with" (11).

This fall I introduced a unit based on Irmgard Bartenieff's Yield/Push. At the beginning of the unit I asked my students to respond in their journals to three prompts: When I yield, I..., When I push, I... I am a yielder/pusher because.... Students were encouraged to reflect on the physical properties of yielding and pushing, and then to determine ways in which they yield or push through life. Finally, I asked them to identify themselves as yielders or pushers. Not surprising, some students immediately identified themselves as pushers. They push their way through life, friends, school and very rarely compromise or yield to a situation. Some people didn't realize how much yielding they do in a given day, and this revelation explained why it was so hard for them to perform sharp, accented movement in class. Students were able to identify their way of navigating through life and then apply it to their strengths or weaknesses as dancers. 

I've begun compiling a list of journal prompts that could be used by dance instructors in various classroom settings: as part of a technique class, a choreography class or even a dance theory class. Here is a brief sample of journal prompts from the list:

With my head, I...
In my pelvis, I...
The scapula relates to the pelvis because...
My arms are important when...
I feel... (and then later after dancing or improvising) Now I feel...
I get frustrated when I...
Energy comes up from the floor, through my body, and...

I'm currently teaching a beginning choreography class, and as part of the classroom activities, each student is required to have an artist journal. We use these journals not only as a place to perform writing exercises, but also as a place for them to note interesting things about their surroundings or their lives... things that could eventually become motivations for their choreographic work. Because I value the artist journals so much, I give students a significant amount of time at the beginning of the semester in class to decorate their journals. I want them to feel a connection to the journal so that they feel proud to share their innermost secrets or creative ideas in it. 

I will continue to create and collect journal prompts that can be used in the dance classroom. I hope to include the prompts as part of a book about journal writing in the dance classroom sometime in the future. If you have questions or would like more information about journal writing in a dance class, please don't hesitate to contact me!

Differentiated Instruction

We often think of things happening to us. We get stuck in traffic. A sudden wind gust destroys our perfectly-coifed hair. The copier dies just before we are to print off important documents. These things (each a frustration) happen for reasons seemingly beyond our control. Each incident slows us down, disrupts our routine or simply tilts the balance of things in our lives so that it feels like the odds are stacked against us. We may end up rolling our eyes, sighing loudly or even worse: cursing.

Perhaps this is the ways that students who struggle in school see classrooms that aren't differentiated. As the teacher announces the lesson for the day, the students instantly sees the same pattern emerge -- a pattern that doesn't work for him or her, and never has. The teacher introduces the topic of the day, writes notes on the board, gives the class a culminating assignment, and then the bell rings. Class is dismissed. The troubled student gets lost in the routine. He or she simply shuts down. After all, this is happening to him or her. The teacher's approach to the material is seemingly beyond the student's control. In the end, the student doesn't get ahead. He or she just falls further behind. The same old, same old doesn't work for this student, and it never has.

A differentiated classroom gives students the chance to experience learning in a new way. Varying lessons so as to cater to individuals in class gives students a chance to have control over their own education. The lesson doesn't simply happen to the student. The student chooses the best course of action for his or her learning. Better yet, differentiated instruction allows the teacher the opportunity to design a lesson for a student's strengths or weaknesses.

When I first began using differentiated instruction in the dance classroom, I was skeptical of its applicability to my subject matter. How would I be able to vary the outcome of dance phrases or choreographic studies? How would I be able to differentiate the information my students needed while also honoring the long pedagogical tradition of dance?

I began with baby steps. I tried differentiating the movement material in a dance technique class.

First, I taught an extended movement phrase to students in my Intermediate/Advanced Modern Dance class. All students learned the phrase together. Then, I selected certain students who I believed needed an extra challenge to perform the extended movement phrase at a quicker tempo. Students who felt that they weren't ready to perform the more advanced version of the phrase continued to perform the movement in smaller groups at the original tempo -- until they were ready to move on to the faster version.  Finally, I encouraged two students (who had already performed the movement phrase at the faster pace) to perform the combination on the other side; they were asked to transpose the phrase with no assistance from me and to perform it. By the end of the exercise, I had a small group of students performing the original movement phrase as it was initially taught, I had a medium-sized group of students performing the phrase at a slightly faster tempo and I had my two most advanced students performing the phrase at the faster tempo on the other side. This example of differentiated instruction did require me to spend extra time in class explaining my expectations, but it worked. The students felt that they were learning at a pace that was appropriate for their ability, and more importantly, they felt in control of their learning. 

I have since used differentiated instruction many times in my classroom. I've created challenge stations. I've organized small groups of students based on ability, not "like-ability." I've even varied the product with which students demonstrate their understanding of a specific subject based on experience and skill. I like using differentiated instruction. I like giving students choices. I like giving them a sense of control over their own education, and I know they like it too. How? Quite simply, I see students engaged in class and demonstrating a more sophisticated understanding of the material. They are empowered.