Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Becoming Intermediate

It's time to ask someone to come in and take more pictures of me teaching
Last week I came home from teaching feeling very discouraged. This post is all about how I worked through that.

I've learned that when I'm discouraged with a class, it is never the students' fault. They are doing their very best and I appreciate and respect that. Demanding that they "work harder" is never a solution; instead, I must work smarter.

But I cannot take all the blame when a class goes poorly either. I accept a large portion of it, but there are always factors beyond my control. For example, last week:

  • school started. Kids never do great in dance class the first week of school. The transition is too great to expect them to bounce into the studio with the same levels of energy and focus that they had the class before. This will even out on its own, but for some students it takes up to a month to really have a handle on the new schedule.
  • the class in question is the biggest I have ever taught. There are 25 students enrolled. Part of my discouragement is that I simply cannot have the one-on-one time with each student the way I am accustomed to. Fortunately, I have two wonderful assistant teachers in the class so I know each student is getting the attention they need.
          Settling down 25 kids takes quite a while, too, and I've found I need to be stricter with                
          this group than I am accustomed to. I used to wonder how teachers developed the 
          ability to be strict without being mean (and, let's face it, some just settle for mean) 
          but now I think it's something developed out of necessity. Does the fact that I'm 
          learning this now make me a real grown-up?

          Taking a break for a drink of water/using the restroom simply takes TOO LONG with 
          25 students. We only have one drinking fountain, and all of center work can be lost to 
          waiting in line for a drink. There was an easy solution here: the girls now bring water 
          bottles and keep them in a set area of the room. Everyone can get a drink quickly, but 
          I still get to control when the drink break is. That way I don't have an eight-year-old 
          guzzling 64 ounces of water and needing five bathroom breaks. (Bathroom breaks are 
          a big problem in this particular class. We'll tackle that in a few months.)

          Even with a short water break, organizing 25 kids into rows was a headache and a 
          half. Some girls insist on always being in the front, others just have to be center, and 
          then there are always a couple who will hide outside the room until I notice they're 
          missing. So, and this is the very best time-saver I've implemented so far, I assigned 
          spaces for center work. We still rotate rows and a new row starts in front each week, 
          but just knowing where they will be for stretches has magically made that transition 
          so much smoother.

Okay, enough of the factors that were beyond my control. Let's talk about where I screwed up. I forgot that this class is transitioning into being intermediate dancers. Becoming intermediate isn't just about learning harder steps. The expectations of technique and decorum are much higher, the play:work ratio changes, and the dancers are expected to handle more layers of information. At our school, this is also the level where class exercises and music are no longer set. Students must learn new combinations all throughout class and no longer have auditory cues for what comes next. Not only does this require increased focus, it will really highlight whether or not the students have been connecting the words with the movement. And, ideally, by the end of this year students will be able to perform combinations without a teacher dancing with them.

None of this comes naturally to students. The biggest job I have this year is to teach these students how to be intermediate dancers. And I expected too much from them last week. The weren't overly successful (they weren't horrible either, they just didn't look as good as I know they are) because I haven't taught them how to take a harder class yet. So I've made some changes.

The technical aspects of the combinations weren't off. My class was well-planned. But I've simplified the demands of learning new material with each class. First of all, I only change the class after we've done it four times. I feel like that still gives the students practice learning combinations quickly but also leaves enough repetition to promote mastery. Right now I am using the same music every time we dance a class but I plan on using new music with a familiar class in a few months. I am also performing each step with the dancers so that they have someone to watch if (when) they forget what they're doing. My goal is to have the dancers performing without visual cues by mid-spring.  By the end of the year they will be processing an intermediate amount of information.

I don't think that some of the students really understand that the combinations are changing. (These kids are only eight. Before you write them off as clueless, remember how on-the-ball you were at that age. That always helps me be more patient.) A tendu is a tendu is a tendu, right? So what if you can tendu in more than one direction or with a different musical accent? That's the disconnect that is causing trouble in class right now. If you think you know how to tendu, you aren't going to pay any attention to my jibber-jabber about the details. (Important details, like how many to do before stopping.) 

I know many excellent teachers who approach this disconnect verbally or academically. They explain to the students the importance of paying attention, they have contests to see who the best remember-er is for the day, they make standing in the front row for center practice a reward for paying attention at barre . . . And I have seen teachers shame students or threaten to demote them a level if they didn't catch on more quickly. I tried a different approach and am thrilled with the results.

Each time I explain an exercise, I make the students step away from the barre and hold their hands behind their back. I've tried just one of those at a time, but it's so much more effective if I do both. For some reason, this keeps their minds mostly-engaged. The improvement was immediate and impressive. Of all the things I've done in class lately, I am most proud of this one. It is so simple, so fast, and everyone feels good about themselves.

I evaluated progress after tonight's class, and I feel so much better about where the class is. I tell my students that it's okay to learn through making mistakes, and this time it was my turn.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Back in the Swing of Things

Okay, so my blogging took a summer break too. But I'm back! And here's where I'm at:

  • I think this article has good information on dealing with ankle sprains. You've probably already found it on your own, but I wanted to make sure.
  • The beginning of the school year is always a little jarring to me as a teacher. We start our year at our studio at the beginning of August so I have a couple of weeks with the kids before school starts. Everything is humming along and then, BAM!, school starts and their poor brains just aren't used to it. Progress is pretty limited for the first month or so. It's okay. It has to get hard before it gets better.
  • Intermediate classes are hard to teach because you are teaching the kids how to take class--it's their first time without a set barre, or set music, and the expectations get a lot higher. I'll write more about this soon, but this transition is rough on everyone in the room.
All in all, I am very happy to be back. I love my job!