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make your day dance

Dance is to report card criteria as…

July 9th, 2011 · ····

Colors are to numbers
Dreams are to budgets
Flow is to schedule…

Such are possible analogies to highlight how jarring the idea of grades can be to dance specialists focused on inspiration, creativity & collaboration!

My district, Seattle, recently decided to revise the reporting of the arts on the elementary report card. Previously, what’s been available on the report card has been the name of the art form and a ✓, + or -.

Dance: ✓
or Dance: +
or Dance: –

…a highly subjective system that says practically nothing. Does the ✓ refer to behavior or to achievement?!

So revisions have been called for.

I put out a call for ideas & samples from other dance specialists, via the NDEO K-12 Forum, as well as to fellow members of DEAW, in order to gain some perspective, and I got a few responses, all of which seem to have uniform criteria across the elementary grade levels.

In Vancouver School District in Washington State, students in 1st-5th receive two grades for Art, Music, Creative Movement, Physical Education, Social Studies & Science, each on a four-point scale, using letters instead of numbers [thanks to Deb, Dawn & Amanda!]:

  1. Understanding concepts & developing skills [C-consistently, O-often, S-sometimes, R-rarely/never]
  2. Demonstrating lifelong learning skills [C-consistently, O-often, S-sometimes, R-rarely/never], with 10 lifelong learning skills delineated: strives to produce quality work, shows enthusiasm for learning, shows respect and courtesy, cooperates with others, practices self control, follows school and class rules, uses class time wisely,  and completes assignments on time.

At a magnet school in the Bethel School District, Washington State [thank you, Krissa!], all content areas are on a 1,2,3,4 system, including dance. Criteria are:

  1. Participation/behavior in dance
  2. Achievement in dance

From Lynn Monson in Arizona [thank you, Lynn!] is a report card including five criteria, with rubrics for each on a 5-point scale:

  1. Responsibility for Own Learning
  2. Positive Self Esteem
  3. Response to Teacher-directed Activities
  4. Self-control
  5. Social Interaction

My district is aiming for grade-level specific criteria. For example, a kindergartener is graded (on a 4-point scale) on “Names upper case letters” and “Retells a three part story in sequence (beginning, middle, end,” among 12 criteria for Reading. Writing has 11 & math has 13 grade-level specific criteria on the kindergarten report card. Real estate on the report card is a bit scarce, so each arts discipine will have no more than 2 or 3 criteria. The criteria should have:

  1. Endurance (knowledge or skill needed beyond this grade level)
  2. Leverage (knowledge or skill transferable to other content areas)
  3. Readiness (a necessary entry point into the next grade level)
  4. Success (knowledge & skill emphasized on benchmark assessments).

Oh yes, and be meaningful to our parents, as translated into their own language.

Clearly, I hadn’t seen a model for grade-level specific criteria when we went into our working sessions. Here’s the result of our 1st run at the task:

K-5 Dance Elementary Report Card Standards

Skills/Technique Problem-solving Collaboration
K Demonstrates movement in self and general space Demonstrates clear response to directions Moves safely, independently and with a group
1st Demonstrates basic locomotor and non-locomotor movement Improvises with focus and concentration Performs a movement sequence in small and large groups
2nd Performs combinations of locomotor and non-locomotor movements Uses repetition and rehearsal to improve performance Demonstrates a variety of spatial relationships within a group
3rd Performs combinations of movements, using the elements of dance Creates & performs a movement sequence with a clear beginning, middle, and ending Creates and performs a movement sequence accurately within a group
4th Performs movement sequences fluently, using body, energy, space, and time Generates a movement sequence independently to express ideas or feelings Creates and performs a solo within a group dance
5th Creates & performs dances using full body extension and intentional energy Performs with expression and stage presence, demonstrating perseverance Creates, performs, and refines  a dance as part of an ensemble


So reporting for “dance” on the report card will be different starting next year. Fortunately, there will be time to get feedback & revise!  And of course, we’ll need rubrics for each area. TBD.

Meanwhile… do you or your district have grade-level specific report card criteria for dance that you’d be willing to share?

Or maybe you have some different analogies for “dance: report card criteria” that will further the process of integrating dance as a content area in the mainstream of education?

Do share!

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A musical — with dance, of course

July 2nd, 2011 · ·······

My students were thrilled to do a musical! Speaking lines! Acting! Being characters — & fairy tale characters at that! Singing! Dancing!

We were using the musical Character Matters, by Ron Fink & John Heath at the Bad Wolf Press. It’s a great resource: script, teacher’s guide, CD with songs & intrumental accompaniment. A fun play, with jokes (many of which I had to explain to my ELL kids, which was a good lesson too!). Lively music, with great lyrics — and we could search for the rhyming words to help us memorize.

Of course students had their worries…

“What if we can’t remember our lines?!”

“Who’s going to play the characters?!”

“I’ll be scared! What if we forget our lines?!”

“We’ll never be able to learn all the words to the songs!”

And I had answers:

“Yes, you will. You can do this! Each character only has a few lines…”

“Everyone’s going to have a special character, and I’ll ask you for your favorites.  Oh, and it’s OK if boys play girl-characters & girls play boys-characters!”

“Eeew!” Eyes rolling…

“You won’t be scared cause there’ll be 2 or 3 people playing every role, so you’ll have company.  And if you forget your lines, someone else will remember them & help you out.”

“We’re going to practice.  You learn all kinds of things, so you can learn these songs!”

Of course, I had my own worries… how to get the lines & songs learned & still have time for the dancing! The third leg of any musical is the dancing, and I’m a dance specialist… but how to get it all done?!

And I have to say I was even more worried when I read the teacher’s guide, cause it reflects a bit of dance-phobia — not surprising in our society, but nonetheless!  The teacher’s guide says, “Don’t have the students “dance” while they are singing. Making music of any kind while moving is extremely difficult for anyone of any age to do. Moreover, the students are likely to turn away from the audience during their dance, and that, you will remember, is a no-no.” And then there’s an explanation of why the teacher’s guide never includes the word dance without “quotes.”

Oh well. I’m a dance specialist, dancing is what we do all year & musicals are meant to dance. So off we went, worries & all.

The play has 10 scenes. My 2nd graders learned scenes 1, 2 & 3. My 3rd graders learned 4, 5 & 6. My 4th graders learn 7 through 10. Following suggestions in the teacher’s guide, I didn’t assign parts til about 10 days before our performance, but I did tell kids they could go ahead & learn their favorite part. Some chose & learned a part within a week or so, while others only learned their parts after they’d been in their character group for awhile. Everyone had a special character part & there were lots of kids singing all the lines in the music. Having large clumps of kids sing all the parts helped make the lyrics audible during the occasional dancing turn!

It took a lot of time to get the lines & lyrics down. It was valuable time as we analyzed & memorized the script — really aiming for comprehension, seeking out rhymes & repeats, learning how to practice not only our own lines but the cue lines — but even mid-way through I was wondering how am I going to fit the dancing in?!

But the dancing happened…

  • There were 2nd graders who came in at recess a lot, just to dance to the music. This little recess group — all girls — became a dancing chorus during the Goldilocks song. One day Carlos showed up, doing his own favorite hiphop moves on the side, so as we staged the piece, his improv took center stage at the end of Goldilocks.
  • During rehearsals, I encouraged them all to move while they were singing — we didn’t do much sitting-down rehearsal & there was no seated singing. As they moved, I encouraged them to watch each other,  copy the best moves & repeat what worked. Pretty soon, some of the songs had a complete set of gestures — lots of mime, acting out the words. But then, an amazing thing happened… as rehearsals progressed, a number of the mime-ish gestures started becoming exaggerated & abstracted. Precisely the process I would use to have them build dance from gesture! We never took the time to talk about what happened, cause we were way too busy, but it was a beautiful process — and so natural!
  • For a few songs, I worked with a small group of volunteers (willing to give up recess for a day) to create interactive dances.
  • And for a few songs, we choreographed movements for the whole group.

Towards the end, teachers jumped in to help by doing some extra line-rehearsals in the classroom & singing the songs each day. For costumes, I did my usual — telling the kids to wear whatever seemed appropriate for their character without buying anything new. One 2nd grader — Anna — arrived at school on the day of the performance with costumes that she & her mother had more for her whole class: ears for the bears, ears & noses for the wolves! Teachers gave the kids supplies for tiaras…

By the end, all the elements were there. They remembered their lines. They spoke clearly & expressively. They were scared, but they supported each other.  Everyone had a character to play. Oh yes, there were boys playing girl-characters & girls playing boy-characters — by choice. And there was dancing!

What will I do differently next time? I’ll start using the songs for accompaniment to our dance warm-ups earlier in the year, so we’re all familiar with the music sooner — and already dancing to it! But there will definitely be a next time

If you think of any other tips for me, do let me know!


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A great resource: Bad Wolf Press

June 27th, 2011 · ···

It’s great to find a resource that really helps!

Every March I have to start pulling together 6 or 7 dances for an end-of-year performance. Every school has its own schedule and rhythm for performance — based on student demographics, the focus of the school, the parent population, logistics, and money — so I operate with some givens:

  • Our community — students, parents, staff — prefer one end-of-year performance. During the year, some classes do low-key performances for staff-and-students at Monday morning assemblies, but parents are only invited in June (each of our other community/evening events focuses on a different content area: Curriculum Night, Math Night, Literacy Night, Young Authors Day…). So our end-of-year performance is the one chance to showcase all 380 students as well as what the dance program has to offer — movement skills, cultural dances, curriculum-related choroegraphy, and a lot of creative input, collaboration and ownership from the kids.
  • Attendance at evening events is healthy. Healthy means the percentage of kids that attend at night has increased dramatically over the years: at the primary level, it’s gone from 5% to 60%; at the intermediate level, it’s gone from 20% to 90%.
  • But it’s also unpredictable: I never know quite which student will or won’t come at night, so I can’t give anyone a starring role. I can’t even do the star-with-understudy thing, cause both star and understudy might both be no-shows!
  • The performances need to be no more than 75 minutes long. [We actually have 2 performances — one in the afternoon, when students perform for each other, so everyone has a chance to perform, and one at night — when family-and-friends are in the audience.] They need to be short for the sake of the kid-audience in the afternoon, the parents-wh0-want-to-go-home at night, and teachers-who-are-supervising-dancers-back-in-the-classroom while parents fill the audience. So go ahead, do the numbers… each of 14 classes can do a 4-dance, with a 1-minute transition between dances (and I have to come up with structures for 14 different dances!) OR each of 7 grade levels can do an 8 or 10-minute dance. I opt for the latter, so parents can see their own child on stage for more time! But of course, that’s more kids on stage, especially during the afternoon performance: 50-60 at a time, 2 classes per grade level. At night, when some kids don’t come, the numbers onstage are just about right.
  • There’s no funding. Our population is low-income, we don’t have parent volunteers, we don’t have a PTA, and our entire school budget goes toward improving academic achievement, because our kids are always just barely making it. That means I use the materials I have. The most I ever do for costumes is to ask the kids to maybe wear a black or colorful t-shirt if they have one.

So in March, I need to think up 7 dance structures for 50 kids each, with each grade-level dance showcasing a different aspect of the dance program and no starring roles. This year, as the task was looming, I got a tip from Krista Carreiro, a hugely ambitious and dedicated performing-arts-specialist colleague who does musicals. I’ve never done a musical.

She suggested the Bad Wolf Press as a great resource.

I was skeptical. “I don’t play piano! How can I accompany them?”

“I don’t either! But with the Bad Wolf Press scripts, you get a CD of the songs — both with and without the voices, so you can practice with the voices & perform the instrumental version.”

Hmmm. I checked out the website. Lots of 30-minute, curriculum-related scripts. Samples of the songs on the website. Affordable!

I chose Character Matters and Pirates from Grammar Island — because we’re always struggling to find more time for social skills instruction, and we have so many English-language-learning kids. And because there’s a discount if you buy two! My principal agreed to the expenditure.

And we launched into a musical adventure… I’ll follow up with more details about how we did it. But for now, suffice it to say, it was a huge success. The kids loved it! The principal & staff were thrilled. Parents were enthusiastic. It lightened my load, and I enjoyed it — and I’ve already got ideas about how to do it better next time!

Check it out — and in the meantime, I’d be happy to hear about the performance paradigm at your school!


A backstage story

June 15th, 2011 · ···

A story unfolded during the lead-up to our End-of-Year Performance this year, which is hanging with me, wanting to be pulled together. It’s about two 5th grade boys in particular.

Adiel is a 5th grader in one of our regular classrooms. I’ve been working with him since kindergarten & he’s always been a bit of a challenge. He spends most of his recesses inside, doing work that should have been done at home or in class — and sometimes in the office of the intervention specialist dealing with bad choices he’s made in his dealings with teachers & other students. Challenged about his work or behavior, he has a tendency to close his eyes & clam up… it’s like you’re talking to a turtle that’s pulled inside its shell. I noticed this year, however, that Adiel could take movement concepts — curvy & straight pathways, delicate & forceful energy, symmetrical or curriculum-inspired body shapes — and nail them using his own individual style… uprock with a lot of crumping, but totally clear at showing the movement concepts!

An aside: Most of the kids respond as though the concepts we explore demand something different from their favored style of movement… as in, “when are we going to do hiphop?” Not so, Adiel. He’s happy to explore his favorite moves with a new emphasis.

As is Daniel. Daniel’s also a 5th grader, but in a self-contained, special education classroom. Clearly, he’s been identified as needing some extra academic support, and in addition he could sure use some help getting to school! In a given year, he has 20-30 absences & 70+ tardies. He’s had some moments of poor choices & behavior difficulties over the years, but mostly he’s a pleasure to work with — if he’s there.  This year for the first time I was able to use the 5th Grade Classroom-Based Performance Assessment with my self-contained 5th graders.  [Logistical issue — they’ve always been mainstreamed with 4th graders before, but this year they were mainstreamed with 5th graders.] Daniel’s the only student who’s ever taken a short poem (the “Poetry in Motion” assessment item) & expressed it with his breakdancing style. Totally nailed it — 3 images from the poem, 3 different breakdance moves that clearly showed the words he had chosen to express. Perfect score: choreographing, performing & explaining his moves.


…I decided Daniel should have a chance to enjoy his strength by choreographing & performing not only with his own class, but also with the regular 5th grade classrooms. His teacher agreed to allow him extra time in dance class. Adiel & his group agreed to include him in their small group choreography, in rehearsal & performance. Daniel came to several rehearsals & this group of 5 boys got their moves sketched out, including a short “battle” between Adiel & Daniel.

Then Daniel didn’t come to school for 2 weeks. Every day when Adiel’s group rehearsed, they’d ask, “Where’s Daniel?” …and they continued to rehearse without him, perfecting their choreography with 4 rather than 5 dancers. Daniel had strep throat — a good excuse this time — but by the morning of the performance, he’d been out for 2 weeks, missing all the final rehearsals, including the development of a longer unison sequence the 5th graders made up by contributing segments of their small-group choreography to the combination. Morning of the performance, when we hadn’t seen Daniel in 2 weeks, I talked to his teacher & we decided Daniel had best just perform in the piece his own class choreographed.

I delivered the news to Adiel, so he could be prepared for how the performance was going to go. He looked downcast.

“Couldn’t we meet at recess & work him in?”

I returned to Daniel’s teacher, to let her know how much the group missed Daniel. She said Daniel had been disappointed but understood. She & I looked at each other with resignation.

I returned to Adiel.

“So… Adiel… do you think your whole group would be willing to show up at recess? If everyone can be there to work him in, he can hang back during the unison section & still join your group during the small group choreography…”

“Yeah,” he said, “we’ll be there!”

And they were. I overheard Daniel say quietly to Adiel, “Thanks, man!” before they all got to work.


During the afternoon performance, Daniel hung back during the unison section, following along as best he could. During the rotation of small groups, he came out & battled Adiel with confidence.

And at the evening performance? Daniel was right behind Adiel, move for move, during the unison section, looking like he’d never missed a single rehearsal.

And Adiel was leading the 5th graders, holding them in stillness to count them in for the beginning, keeping them on beat & together throughout.


This week, Adiel’s in for recess again, working on stuff that should have been done at home or in the classroom, and Daniel’s probably tardy most mornings, but it’s a pleasure to rerun their performances, both on & offstage, in my mind.

Onstage from Meg Mahoney on Vimeo.

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Performance aftermath

June 5th, 2011 · ··

Today I made it to the exhibit Nick Cave: Meet Me At the Center of the Earth at the Seattle Art Museum — its last day here! I’ve had it on my list to go since before it even arrived, so when I realized today was it, I called a friend, grabbed breakfast & took off.  If you ever have a chance to see an exhibit of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, GO!  They’re fabulous & you need to see the detail work up close. I hope the exhibit you see comes with videos of dancers inhabiting them because it’s phenomenal to see them move.

It’s great to be able to look up & see the world again, in the aftermath of performance…

…which came off just fine. Students were higher than kites. Teachers & principal loved it. Parents’ comments were hugely favorable — and they put ALL the chairs away at the end, which must mean something!

I always like the afternoon performance better, when the kids perform for each other. It’s a long performance because it takes awhile for all the classes to get on & off the stage from the audience.  But not only are the kids hugely appreciative of each other [have you ever watched the quiet enrapture of a kid-audience during “Show & Tell”? …they hang on every word, no matter what the topic!] but they’re a much quieter, more polite audience than their parents.  I also like it better because ALL the kids are there performing.

At night we get a good turn-out, but our demographics are such that it runs about 35% in the primary grades & up to 90% at the intermediate level.  The non-attendees come from families with small children, folks who don’t understand English, religions that don’t believe in dance & music, or parents with night work…

But the evening performance is just plain noisy. Note to self: don’t release the kindergarteners to their parents next year after they perform, because the parents don’t supervise them & they hang on the edge of the stage chatting noisily through the whole thing! Send them back to their classroom like the rest of the classes, to watch videos & play games until it all ends.

But it’s over now — except for the 3 dances that I need to rerecord in order to get a video without the single child in each dance for whom I don’t have permission to video.

On to other things… report cards, submitting scores for the 5th grade assessments, sorting through all the materials in my classroom that wound up in a tangle by the end of the performance… and the world out there beyond the classroom!

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Letting go

May 29th, 2011 · ·····

Today’s horoscope — Today is an 8. Write down your thoughts, even if they don’t make any sense, to make space for the new. You may discover that your skills are worth more than you thought.

On the days when I read my horoscope, my engagement with it lasts all of about 10 seconds, as I cast a thought toward whether it applies to my plan for the day.  Then I forget it.

Today, however, it sort of fits — on 2 counts. First, because writing here is something I do in order to make sense of what I do. And second, because just now I’m in the process of letting go to make space for the new.

Oh, I haven’t actually let go yet — the End-of-Year Performance, which has consumed my time these last few weeks, is still 3 days away. At this point, I’m making the program, arranging the music playlist, creating a backup on my iPod, copying the rehearsal videos onto my hard drive, and writing notes for teachers on how to prepare their class on the day of performance.

But I’m letting go of the kids’ performance. It’s up to them now. Each class has one more rehearsal, with no more changes. Critiques & suggestions have given way to “Have fun!”… “If there’s a problem, improvise!”… “Do your best!” Each class has gone as far as developmentally possible just now…

Kindergarteners… have 2 dances, both based on following musical cues. In the first, set to Pathway Puzzles* by Eric Chappelle, they use scarves for juggling, making curvy pathways & making straight pathways, melting & rising with the musical changes of pitch. In the second, they do The Shoemaker dance, with a different locomotor skill during each traveling interlude (walking, jumping, hopping, galloping, skipping, bear walk, crocodile, frog jump, crab walk, and choice dance). Kindergarteners do this dance every year, so when they start dancing, it’s delightful to see the whole audience of older kids do the gesture part with them from the audience!

This year one of the classes has been HUGELY difficult, so their locomotor skills aren’t at the same level as usual. I’m letting go of that. They’ll enjoy the performance, and next year we’ll continue refining their skills.

First graders… have 2 parts of a dance about weather. First, they sing “Rainbow Round Me” with multi-colored scarves, highlighting the colors for sky (blue), clouds (white) & sun (yellow). Then they put the scarves away & join a 4-person dance group for a very structured improv with 3 cinquains about weather that they wrote as a group:

Tall empty
Stretching reaching widening
Weather crosses the sky

Puffy wispy
Flying in the sky, bringing storms, flattening out
Clouds make many shapes

Bright hot
Rising shining setting
The sun is a star

There are 32 1st graders in each class & both classes perform at the same time.  Every single one of them has an opportunity to leap through general space, while others stay in place. Some of them skip, hop or run instead — but I’m letting go of that. They do look wildly free, which was the intent of leaping!

Second, third & fourth graders… are triple threats this year.  They’re acting, singing & dancing in a musical from the Bad Wolf Press (more about that in another post) — a first for me!  They’ve learned the words, so I’ve let go of singing every song with them.

The class that combines 20 fifth graders, 14 self-contained special ed students & 2 students from one of our self-contained autism classes… is a production including narrators, boomwhackers, ribbon sticks, an earthquake, a tsunami, 3 long sheets of blue plastic tablecloth, 14 10′ streamers on sticks, a cymbal, and 2 rolling blackboards with a village scene on one side & Namazu the Earthquake Fish on the other (painted by the kids of course). In the past week, we rehearsed it down from 45 minutes in length to 9 minutes (all having to do with having their props in the right place & knowing their cues). It’s a recreation of the book The Magic Fan by Keith Baker, and it could well fall apart if there are too many absences on the night of the performance (which is always an issue with our families who speak another language at home or work several jobs). I’m letting go of how nuts I was to allow their dance to get so complicated!

The other 5th grade group… is doing fine!  Their dance is called Night in the Wax Museum. It includes a rap, a shape museum with role models coming to life to speak about their accomplishments (5th graders did autobiographies of important figures earlier this year) , and a reversal where the 5th graders teach their historical role models how to dance “their way.”  They all succeeded at getting their choreography done! But now I’m going to have to let them go, cause they’re graduating. Most of them have been with me since they were kindergarteners doing The Shoemaker!

Anyway, it’ll all be over within a few days, with graduation & summer vacation following in a few weeks.  Then, judging by how much time has been going into the prep, there’ll be space and time for something new!  And that’s a good thing. Maybe I’ll get a hint from my horoscope about what’s next — or maybe I’ll figure it out by writing down my thoughts.

*The link for Pathway Puzzles takes you to volume II of Music for Creative Dance by Eric Chappelle, which inexplicably doesn’t include Pathway Puzzles, but honest, it’s on the CD!


My other life

May 23rd, 2011 ·

I haven’t written much about dance education this year. 16 entries, in the same time I wrote 42 last year. It’s not because I don’t think about it. I have lists of thoughts I mean to translate into communication: Carly’s blog, dance for boys, new DVDs & resources I’ve found, LXD, inspiring TED talks, integrated lessons from Arts Impact, a performance by an autistic boy in Britain

This year I’ve often found myself thinking, “When am I going to get back to my own life?” My work, my blog, my garden, family & friends.

I was thinking it yesterday as I was sitting in the emergency room with my mother… doing her laundry & dishes… giving away theatre tickets for last night… ignoring my to-do list for the upcoming performance… deadheading the flowers in her garden.

But then I thought, “This is my life. There’s nowhere else to be.” This is my other life. For the past few years, I’ve been the main support on my mother’s journey into her late years — not a path anyone would choose, least of all my fiercely independent mother. She was herself the caregiver for my grandmother — and was determined not to have anyone have to do the same for her. But it’s definitely a journey a person can’t — and mustn’t — do alone. And I’m grateful there are things I can do to make it easier for her.

Oddly enough, it’s a path that’s sort of lonely in the same way that being a dance educator in a public school is.  There are other people doing it, but we’re each in it alone. I know this from other people who reach out — like Jane Gross, whose book A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves was reviewed in the Sunday paper this morning. I should find time to read it.

Anyway, it’s my life just now. Bittersweet is a good word. And enlightening. I’m gaining insight about memory, as I watch hers dissolve. About myriad ways we control our lives, as I see her having to let go. And about the tenaciousness of personality, as she continues to be her stoic, optimistic, cheerful & gentle self.

I’m lucky — in so many ways. My mother is herself & she knows us. She’s living in a community that supports her as she changes. She has a dear friend and neighbor to spend her days with. And I have huge support at home.

…and I have another life, as a dance educator, with kids and classes and thoughts to distract me every day. Just not much time to write and communicate.


Lest anyone think it’s a straight path…

April 4th, 2011 · ··

I’ve had some pretty consistent successes, in my 2nd year of dance for students with Autism. But there are days…

Friday last week, the class fell apart. There were a lot of absences, from colds & such, so only 5 students out of the usual 8 were even available for class. Of the 5, only one and a half of them were there in mind & spirit: Samir was back & in good form after a 4-day absence, generally joining in, and Joey was with me about half the time. Adriel spent his time studying wall posters, worrying the edges of them to loosen the staples holding them up. Marty went after various props & tools on my shelves. Kelsey melted down in the hallway outside, collapsed in a sobbing heap. She never arrived.

The instructional assistants were also off. My most wonderful support wasn’t there at all. Another assistant wound up escorting a student from my other autistic class to PE, after he mistakenly came to my room. When she arrived 10 minutes late, she chose to model good participation without intervening with any of the student wanderers. It was a good indication of how dependent a good class is on the teaching team, rather than just the teacher!

What to do? Back to square one: hula hoops with a long spell of soft music. No verbals. Modeling engagement & exploration. A sit-down clapping pattern to end. A smiling goodbye. And hopes for next time.


Stunning silences, astonishing pauses

March 30th, 2011 · ·

So here’s the post that’s been in my head for a couple of months, even though I’ve been too busy to get it down.  Now’s a good time for it, since I’ve been reflecting today on what it was like when I started teaching students with Autism.

The stunning silence happened back in January. I was working with all of my students on percussion, so my students with Autism were drumming too. Drumming with them involves a lot of disorganized noise. We worked on playing & stopping, playing & stopping, playing & stopping, but the stopping didn’t happen much. We worked on taking turns & listening to each other, but taking turns required moving the drum away from a few kids when it wasn’t their turn. We worked on rhythms, playing a simple rhythm over & over & over again while some of them came in & out of the groove. It was in the second week of drumming that a stopping moment came & they all stopped! There was absolute silence. And it happened again. And again. And again. That was a good day.

The following week, when we returned to dancing, an astonishing pause came in the middle of a “freeze” dance. The music stopped & they all stopped moving! Several were frozen with tension & intention, clearly having made their body stop. Others looked sort of tentative, almost like they had stopped by accident, with their internal juices still flowing, but on the outside they were no longer traveling. They were stopped. And it happened again. And again.

Nowadays, most days are amazing. Because we’re dancing together, as we never did last year…

  • During a partner rhyme, there’s one boy who has always done it with me, while others ignored us or did something alone. Lately, most of them are paired & moving with the rhythm.
  • The older class has an activity with an elastic band, where one student dances freely in the middle while the rest of us pull the elastic into a giant circular space for dancing. They take turns being in the middle, letting the circle shrink in order to change dancers.
  • During our closing yoga, I look around & all of the students are doing something related to the position.

There’s a long way to go, but we’ve come so far!



Structure: students with Autism

March 30th, 2011 · ··

Still thinking of how I got started teaching dance to my students with Autism…

I was asked how to structure a class or lesson. But for the first year-and-a-half, the structure of my classes for the autistic students was totally different from my other lessons for kindergarten through 5th graders. I mostly alternated structured activities with unstructured activities — we’d do something that involved lots of modeling & visuals & verbals on my part and then we’d do something with very little direction. Exercises… a pause dance with scarves (pauses didn’t necessarily happen)… an obstacle course where they take turns… free time with hula hoops.

Nowadays I’m able to plan a lesson that teaches a particular element of movement (such as tempo, or moving in different directions, or axial vs. locomotor movement).  I use activities my students are already familiar with but vary the emphasis.

As I plan successive classes, I try to use a lot of repetition, with a new twist or a new activity each time. Repetition is their friend, and “something new” fascinates them!

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