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make your day dance

Blue eyes, brown eyes

August 19th, 2008 · No Comments · Tags: ···

Yesterday was the first day back. Not students, but professional development. Professional development has become problematic for me. As a dance educator, it’s rarely for me. If kernels of wisdom and ideas for new approaches were fish, then I drag my net through a lot of water in order to catch a few I can keep. Yesterday, there was one big fish…

In a workshop with Dr. Martha Bireda on “Student and Family Empowerment,” I was among 50 some teachers. Asked whether we had seen the video “A Class Divided,” maybe six raised their hands. If she’d asked whether we’d heard the story behind the video, I would guess all of us had. Most teachers, most people, have heard of the lessons that took place in a 3rd grade class in Iowa in the late ‘60s, involving blue eyes & brown eyes. In teaching her all-white youngsters about discrimination & stereotyping, teacher Jane Elliot devised the blue eye/brown eye experience, during which those children with blue eyes were privileged members of the class, while their brown-eyed classmates were branded as slow, mean, and troublesome. Going into the experience with her excited, happy students, she was clear about its purpose: “Let’s try this…” The students debriefed at the end of the day, and the second day, roles were reversed. People who know of the lesson sequence probably also know that within 15 minutes of the beginning of the experiment, students were displaying serious emotional responses, and by the end of the day, both behaviors and cognitive abilities of the children had changed.

Yesterday I saw video footage of the third year of Ms. Elliot’s lesson, which was aired on Frontline as “A Class Divided.” It was stunning. Hearing results of the blue-eye/brown-eye lesson doesn’t measure up to seeing them. Teacher education programs should never settle for informing pre-service teachers about the results; they should show the documentary.

To understand, you must see the children respond emotionally to their experience of being demeaned, faced with limitations and low expectations. These were privileged children who were just “trying on” discrimination, but their faces and bodies spoke anger, humiliation, frustration, powerlessness, resentment, withdrawal, disbelief, and aggression.

And the big fish for me? I’ve seen these faces in my classroom. My students aren’t trying it on. This is their life. They have no relief.

So what do I do? What can dance education do, in response? Dance class, complete with the license it gives students to be creative, improvisational, somewhat rowdy, and highly energetic, is often an opportunity to express or purge negative feelings. But in order to get there, students have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to create and improvise, and to corral their feelings enough to be rowdy and use their energy within safe parameters. So this is my frame as I plan my starting lessons, map my curriculum for the year, and fine-tune classroom management. To plan classes so I can really see my students’ faces… to create activities that bring everyone along… to keep the students that show these faces in class. To try to help. And to help them understand what they’re experiencing.

Another good point of yesterday: meeting & greeting all the folks I spend my year, but not my summer, with – the adults that people my building and whom I depend upon all year for moments of sanity, chances for venting, opportunities to problem-solve. They’re good people, and I depend on them. We share a path.

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