Monday, May 16, 2011

How taking a Dance Class Made me a Better Art Teacher

Today I made three students cry.
Well, I didn’t make them cry. They just cried. Little kids do that. They cry. A lot. Working with students who are barely five through age twelve, I have made my fair share of students cry for various reasons over the years.
Common reasons for crying include: anger at me or a classmate, frustration at the assignment, or just plain ‘ol, ‘I miss my mommy’ syndrome.
Actually, all three happened today.
If a student is angry with me or another student, it is usually a combination of needing to learn to share, a bad attitude or bossiness to blame. Sharing the crayons is a skill everyone should learn in kindergarten, or at least have an understanding of by second grade…if a little boy doesn’t understand, or want to share, then a fight breaks out and I have to step in and make someone take a cool down or a time out.
This is what happened today.
If a student ‘misses his mommy’ and it is May…well, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ll give you a hug…I’ll pat you on the back…but kiddo, its time to grow up a bit.
This is what happened today.
If a student expresses frustration at a project or a set of instructions, I usually do my best to encourage him to keep trying, get assistance from a friend, or I provide a bit of help to give them some success and some confidence so they can tackle the other steps.

But sometimes, my encouragement, redirection, and assistance can do little to curb a meltdown. Sometimes kids just have bad days.
This is what happened today.
Generally, when I explain a project to kindergarteners, I do one of three things:
1.     Demo everything and then give them the supplies…some tend to get lost if there are too many steps but it gives me a chance to let the artists get to work and help the challenged overcome the challenges.
2.     Demo half, let them work for a few minutes…struggle to get their attention….demo the other half (whilst doing my best-song-and-dance to keep their attention so that they aren’t cutting their neighbor’s hair as I demonstrate how to attach, affix, or adhere something to their lame little masterpieces)
3.     Demo step-by-step….each step of the project, broken down so that everyone is doing everything at the same time…completely leaving the slow-pokes in the dust and slowing down the speed-racers to complete boredom.
In my experience, it is completely exhausting to demonstrate everything step-by-step because it is difficult to keep their attention, especially the creative ones that just GET it….they get bored.
However, EVERYONE’S project is successful…they ALL look JUST like MINE.  

With this method, some get frustrated, and it is difficult to work one-on-one with someone who falls behind, because it is my job to keep going, the entire class is waiting for everyone else to cut the corners off a square for the spider’s head.  This is where I see the most room for tears of frustration.
This is how many of the lessons at the beginning of the year are organized; it helps ensure that everyone is successful.
Alternatively, some projects allow for the half and half method…for instance, if we are drawing and then painting, it just makes sense to explain the drawing information first, let them work and then once everyone has completed step one, stop and explain the directions for finishing the painting.
This is how many of the projects in the middle of the year are organized, in order to give everyone a chance to work at their own pace, but still keeping everyone moving from one step to another.
Whenever I demo everything all at once, I usually try to repeat the first step, right before handing out supplies…but someone always gets lost. It is difficult to recall everything in the correct order.  

This is how many lessons at the end of the year are organized in order to give the creative ones a bit of a chance explore the finished product a bit further and interpret the instructions in a way that allows for some creative freedom.
Generally, whenever someone gets lost or frustrated by my instructions with the step-by-step method, I think, ‘If you aren’t sure what to do, look at the finished product….you obviously haven’t created the eyes on your bear….how hard could it be to figure out what comes next.’
I offer assistance, but I just don’t GET why they don’t GET it!
Today in dance class…I had a bit of a revelation about my students and what they may or may not understand.
 I totally GOT how some kids just don’t GET art….they just don’t see what I see.
They can’t look at the finished product and make assumptions about what needs to happen next.
Some kids just don’t connect with visual art the same way that I don’t really connect with dance.
Dancing does not come naturally to me. I don’t have a background in dance.
Apart from the random dance parties in my living room, which require no real skills or rhythm; up until January of this year, I had never really been to a dance class.
My only experience with dancing was a bit of two-stepping at a barn warming in high school for FFA. Anytime I try to two-step now, I have to be completely reintroduced to it as if I’ve never done it.  I don’t naturally have the ability to pick up a little line dance here or a salsa move there. I just don’t.
Whenever I see an instructor do a simple combination of moves…I usually just stand there with my mouth hanging open for a bit. . Confused. Befuddled. Stupified. Bewildered.

 I have to ease my way into a dance with an awkward thrusting or jutting of my arms and legs in a manner that is not rhythmic or beautiful in any way. I try. I really do. But my body just doesn’t move like that. And it is frustrating. I want to move in a way that is beautiful…but I just can’t. Physically. Mentally. I cannot connect with music the way that other people can.
I still try. In fact, the very act of trying makes me a better teacher. Feeling that same frustration with myself, and my instructor (who definitely is not to blame) helps me understand what my students experience whenever they are trying something new for the first time.
I would definitely recommend this to any beginning teacher. Take a class or learn a skill in which you are not naturally talented or have ever experienced before….in order to understand how frustrating it can be to someone who doesn’t quite ‘GET IT’.
Many of my students have never used scissors, glue, paint or markers before using them in my art class—just as I have never been exposed to dance—I shouldn’t expect a masterpiece…just some experimentation…I should expect my students to ease into an artwork with a bit of thrusting or jutting of their arms and legs in a manner that is not rhythmic or beautiful in any way.
Confused. Befuddled. Stupified. Bewildered. I GET that now.

I really do love my job. You can read more funny and serious stories here, here, here, here and here.


Maria Ontiveros said...

What an awesome post! As a teacher, it really touches me. Thank you,

Kate said...

What a great post. So true.

One of the best activities I ever did in education classes, where I really got to feel a little bit of how my students feel every day, was the day my teacher passed out a paragraph written the way a dyslexic student might perceive words--lots of reversals. "Oh, this is what the kids might see...I get it," I thought.

Then, she told us that we were going to try to read it. "Oh, we'll see how frustrating it can be for them...I get it," I thought.

Being the good student that I was, I buckled down and laboriously started working out the words. Then, the first person she called on read so quickly and fluently that I couldn't believe it. What?? I'm smarter than her! How come I can't read this so quickly?

I started straining to catch up, to get ahead, but I just couldn't read it as quickly as some of the other students. Very frustrating. Why was it so easy for them?

It was so easy for them because only half of us had the dyslexic version; the others had the same passage written normally. And THEN, I got's not so much the struggle to read, it's the struggle to read something that's SO EASY for the people around you. The Why can't I GET this? I got it.