Figuring out how to teach content in class is lots of work

Lian noted in the teaching swing dance group the other day:

…in the past few years when planning class material, I’ve found it super helpful to focus on HOW we’ll teach it… Will we have them do it solo first, how about shuffling through geography before diving in with footwork, or a progressive series of movement leading to the final concept.

I commented:
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I think this is the most important thing ever. Making a shift away from moves= content to skills = content has been so important for me. From ‘we’ll teach moves x, y, x’ to ‘our goal is x or y this class. We’ll do this game, then this move, then combine the game with the moves in a section to teach this skill.’

It takes ages, but when we work through how we’ll teach, it’s so much better. Especially if you’re working with a new teacher, or if you want to be a better teacher. Breaking down how you’ll teach makes you more self-reflexive, and actively engage with how you understand a move, how you articulate it, how you can take most of the words out, and how you can encourage students to learn by trying.

Super fun. But it really challenges a teacher to try to improve and change their habits.
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I’m interested in the idea of class planning as a discipline not only for its effects on teaching practice, but also for the way it organises labour before, during, and after classes, and also contributes to teaching team morale and relationships. The time you spend planning helps you figure out how you’ll relate to a teaching partner.

But a very important of my current teaching process, is moving from seeing class ‘content’ as a bunch of moves, to seeing class ‘content’ as much more.

This includes lots of different teaching tools, and knowing how they work individually and cumulatively to develop students’ skills:

– Having ‘goals’ for that specific class
eg ‘integrating different charleston rhythms with lindy hop’
That means knowing what you want to achieve before going in there (because you know your students’ needs), or going in there, observing the students, and thinking ‘ok, they need some X.’

– Having fun games that develop skills required to reach that goal
eg some solo work to learn how your body works
I’m beginning to think that the whole class should be treated like a series of games. ie just making classes a bunch of fun challenges and tasks.

– Beginning every class with a warm up that includes key rhythms or shapes that we’ll use in the class later, but set the tone of the class.
eg kicks for charleston, or pivoting on one foot, or syncopated timing, or dancing across two 8s rather than one
This warm up teaches specific rhythms and shapes, but also teaches them how to learn-by-doing (ie we literally say “Just join in; the goal is to get warmed up”), how to deal with ‘mistakes’ and challenges, and how to move on from one step to another, or from one challenge to another without giving up. It also trains the eye (what do you _see_), and the ear (each move takes a phrase, and uses specific rhythms across moves).
NB We all practice our warm ups very carefully, and don’t just ‘wing’ them.

– Following that with a teacher-led exercise or game like I-go, You-go to teach rhythms.
This second game continues the idea of learn-by-doing, and is lots of fun. These two ‘warm up’ games also begin introducing students to the skills they need for later in the class. So in week 1 of the beginner block we teach the ‘basic rhythm’ using I-go You-go. But we might also use this to teach a particular jazz step or skill.
This game can be made more complex/challenging for more experienced classes. eg from week 1 to week 6 in the beginner block, it gets trickier as their skills increase.

Paired or small group exercises which are actually dancing.
eg an I-go, you-go exercise where they echo the teacher’s role of calling the step, but take turns being the ‘responder’ as well as the caller, working in turn rather than together.
This then moves them from ‘doing one’ to ‘teaching one’. They learn to ‘teach’ or communicate a rhythm or shape or musical concept with their bodies in a small group (a pair) which is less threatening. It also teaches them to work with a partner (which is central to lindy hop). This develops skills like communication, visual learning (learn by watching), seeing success as a collaboration not an individual victory or competition (eg they ‘win’ if their partner completes the rhythm successfully).
NB These are NOT isolated ‘exercises’, but actually dancing games, where they are literally dancing and experimenting with movement and rhythm.

Moving to a dance move or figure that employs these skills.
eg a call and response rhythm that happens on 1-4 and then 5-8 of an 8 count swing out.
This is the application of their solo dancing skills to the lindy hop setting. They usually figure out that they’ve been dancing lindy hop all along anyway.

Teaching specific lindy hop vocabulary.
Historic moves are wonderful because they incorporate all the things we value: music, swing, collaboration, etc etc. I try to teach at least one jazz step per class. But I may teach it in a variety of ways. I try to collect ways to teach these steps to keep my brain interested, and theirs. So teaching a jazz step isn’t just about passing on a nugget of knowledge. A specific jazz step teaches other things. eg boogie forward teaches how to dance alone with a partner, dancing in blocks of 8, using half time, experimenting with simple shapes to get interesting styles, how to move through space (including floor craft), etc etc etc. I might teach this step by “Watch me, and when you’re ready, join in” or I might break it down into pieces. Or I might say, “Let’s walk into the circle (big apple style), then back out. Ok, let’s use this timing. Nice, now let’s give it some boogie.” And build up the step from a recognisable real-world movement (eg walking).

Plenty of individual/unguided practice or experimentation time.
They count themselves in (start when you feel ready, or when the music tells you it is time), learning to pause and take a breath, communicate with a partner to figure something out, navigate a crowded dance floor, ask for a dance and how to touch someone, etc etc.
These unguided sessions are ESSENTIAL as they teach improvisation, and other social dancing skills. This is the point of it all.

Giving dancers without a partner specific tasks.
eg explaining how to practice a rhythm on your own, experimenting with size, shape, bounce, groove, etc.
I find that most students figure out how to do this on their own, if you begin a class with a strong solo component. The last thing I want is students looking at their phones or blanking out. Even if they’re not actually dancing, I want them to be watching, engaging, or simply taking a real break or breath and learning to realise when they need to take a time out.

Whole-group demos from teachers
eg we’ll do it three times then you do it. This brings all the dancers together, and they can ask questions and listen to each other. It’s important for teachers to use this time to model how to speak to a partner respectfully, etc etc etc.

Whole group synchronised dancing through a step or sequence.
“Let’s all go together as a team.” Dancing as a synchronised team builds cohort feels, but it also strengthens rhythmic sensibilities and collaboration. They feel where it’s going wrong or right, and they learn to start and stop at a specific time (eg with discipline).

I’ve ended with this last tool, because this is where a lot of teachers begin and end all their classes: teaching a series of set moves that everyone dances together as the teacher counts the time, and then they rotate. I think it’s a nice tool, but dancing it this way in class every class, all the time neglects 90% of the skills you need for dancing lindy hop. Even if you break the step down before they do it, using something like a standard – geography, shuffle through, now add rhythm, now refine the leading/following.

If they experiment on their own, they learn to count themselves in, experiment with leading and following naturally, work with a partner, listen to music and dance in swinging time, learn to hear phrases (when the music suggests they start), take a breath and just stand and watch, retain their social skills by communicating with a partner, etc etc etc.

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