Choreographing Pop Danthology

Last spring I made an offer to the 5th graders:  If any students were interested in forming a group to create a dance to perform in the annual all-school dance performance, I would gladly coach them and help them prepare.  About 2 weeks later, one student handed me a list of names plus titles of the songs they were considering.  Wow! Not only were there about 10 names on the list but they included boys and girls!  Apparently they had already begun organizing at recess and negotiating which moves to which music.

This was an entirely new experience for me. Traditionally, the whole grade had worked during PE on a choreography that I created and that we usually performed at some end-of-the-year event. And while this model proved efficient in several ways, turning the project over to the students to organize and develop unleashed all kinds of unexpected benefits.

So after about three weeks, the group had run into problems.  The boys were suggesting movements that the girls didn’t want to do and vice-versa. And they had changed the music from a summer hit to a popular youtube mash-up. I invited them in at lunchtime to show me what they had. The group had shrunk from the original 10 down to about 8 with a couple of hangers on.  Still I was  impressed with their initiative and bravery.  I listened and watched. There were several good ideas, especially for the beginning, and all of the students seemed to like the music. I made a proposal: Over the weekend I would study the music, think about some possible movements which might fit and then we would come back together on Monday and see where we were.  There were some sighs of relief and a renewed sense of faith that all would be well.

Initially I was overwhelmed with the speed of the music and the constant changes. How am I supposed to choreograph anything to this?  It took a few listening run-throughs before I understood that by listening to the lyrics and getting the mood for each section, the dance practically choreographed itself. Even better, because the kids already knew the mash-up by heart, matching steps to lyrics made all of it much easier to memorize and perform the first 3 minutes and 30 seconds of it. Bringing my suggestions back to the group turned out to be an easy sell. They were happy with the moves and they also knew that time was running out.

Our performance in front of families and students from the whole school community became an instant hit. The crowd loved the music, began clapping as the dancers became more animated and overall, we could hardly have celebrated a more successful experience.

With all the talk in education circles about what kids need in order to be prepared and ready for their next stages of life, I often feel overwhelmed with all the demands to simultaneously increase engagement, rigor, critical thinking, joy, academic outcomes, media literacy, social responsibility, fitness results, health awareness, differentiation, and so on and so on.  Taking a chance on kids by handing over the controls, offering some guidance both in the process and the product, allowing myself to learn a new thing or two*, and having fun with my students – The whole thing made for an exceptional unit of work – in learning, in performing, in collaborating, in accomplishing.  My students and I did more than choreograph moves to music, we created a whole new pattern of interaction that bears repeating, refining and remembering.


*I also investigated Daniel Kim’s story (He’s the creator of the mash-up) which you can see here. Well worth watching in understanding how a highly gifted individual managed and manages his intolerance for boredom.

(Don’t) Fill in the blank

In a recent lesson, after kids completed their warm-up, I had this direction written on the whiteboard: “Get a ball. How many different ways can you find to toss and catch to yourself?”

Four of my 5th grade boys, after working independently for a while, found a way to collaborate, stick with the essential task, and in the process put a creative, dynamic spin on it.  They elevated tossing and catching from skill reinforcement (Ho hum) to Art in the making.  Just watch.

Did you hear that shreik of excitement? That did not come from the assignment itself. Or the use of the equipment. Or from hanging out with buddies.  All that happened because there was space.  There was some freedom.  There was cameraderie. And there was an understanding: risks are allowed, you can make up your own challenge, cooperating may lead to some very cool results.  Those were not all specified in my lesson objectives.  That’s when it occured to me: my students are expert at “fill in the blank.”  Given the opportunity they can create, demonstrate, and facilitate successes of their own making that I would scarcely venture to imagine.

The lesson: Offer more blank spaces and see what happens.  Your students may surprise you!