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.

Structuring a class: ‘bricolage teaching’ or ‘lots of little bits’

Georgia was just telling me about this great teaching method she’s experimenting with, where you do lots of different tasks in a class, but for only a few minutes or a short amount of time each. I’ve been trying the same thing with my teaching partner lately, and it’s been very powerful. Super fun and interesting, but also great dancing and learning and teaching. Gotta really _plan_ your classes like a focussed ninja, though. You have to tie all those little pieces together well.

I think the key is to be flexible, and totally prepared to jettison half your class ‘plan’ if things change direction. If something is fun – go with it! I also prefer to build technical stuff into fun games or little sequences, so we’re not standing there playing with a giant rubber band or something. Instead we’re doing a swing out with Frankie’s shake-it-on-down on 7/8 1/2 and _feeling_ that stretch through our connection.

If I have an overall goal for the class – eg I want to have follows get a bit more connected with the ground – I won’t actually talk about that issue directly. I’ll do a warm up, an exercise that focusses on each person being confident in their own rhythm. eg the follows have to ‘teach’ each partner a rhythm as they rotate. And they have to do this by demonstrating. So they might do it on 7/8 1/2 of an 8 count rhythm, and the lead has to observe, then repeat it back. They may have only 5 x 8 counts to achieve this.
Then they do the same game, except they have to ‘teach’ the leads while doing a swing out (instead of face to face in open). They’ll take the visual teaching/learning calling/responding, leading/following and apply it to their lindy hop.

This game will teach follows to be really confident in their movements, which will get them lower in their bodies. The leads will stop yanking and rushing, and will pay more attention to their own bodies and core. To really get follows low, I might offer follows a couple of ‘required’ shapes – eg lifting your toes while your heels stay down. I might demo this by making sure my butt is out (for balance).
…or you know, whatever.

The goal is to progress through this class from a visual lead-follow warm up where the teacher leads, to a social lindy hop lead-follow, where they each play caller or responder in their partnership, adjusting and figuring out how to do this with different partners.

Teaching: handling distraction and disruption

Someone in the fb ‘teaching swing dance’ group asked this the other day:

Question – How do you handle distractions and/or disruptions

When your students are simply distracted or causing disruptions
When you as a teacher are distracted and/or having trouble staying focused

*Waving to you all from my own little ADHD corner of the world. I’ll respond more personally in comments below.

I read this as a continuation of an earlier discussion about managing excessive talking/cohort distraction.

I missed the point, that she was asking: how do I keep myself from getting distracted. Which is so interesting.

Anyhoo, the discussion continued.

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If they’re getting bored and distracted, you’re being boring. :D
They’re here to dance, not listen to someone talk about dancing.
Instead of hauling their attention back to you and your voice stop talking and dance. I struggle with this because I’m a total show pony. I LOVE an audience. No, Sam, it’s not all about you.
-> move from teacher-centred classes to student-centred classes.

We used to teach in a crowded public bar venue, with lots of ambient noise and crowding. Things we did:
– we do the ‘come in close’ in a circle thing, then say, “Ok, this venue is quit noisy, so when we say ‘come close’, everyone come in close, we’ll talk, then we’ll all scatter again to dance.” Very effective. I like them to come _really_ close. From here it’s quite fun to demonstrate dancing stuff, so they can see how little room you should use on the social floor anyway. And they can see better as well.
-> I still use this technique now in our bigger space.

– Talk less, dance more. So they don’t get distracted, because you only have a minute or so to talk/listen. So instead of explaining how a move works, the ‘we’ll do it three times’ method keeps them focussed.

– “We’ll do it three times only, then you will dance it _perfectly_.” Gee they pay close attention. But this also trains them to learn-by-watching, which means they really _focus_ when you demo.

– Give them the task, _then_ say ‘rotate partners’ and put the music on. That way they can take as long as they want rotating, and you don’t have to fuss with managing noise, distraction, etc. They figure out: if they dick around, they miss out on dancing time.

– If you give them a ‘tip’ or a thing, they have to dance on it immediately. Don’t load them up with three or more things you saw that need ‘fixing’. If it’s lead or follow specific, you also give one to the other role, then they all dance on it immediately. One thing only for each (or both). Then dancing. Less talk, more dance. Less distracting.

– Rather than stepping in to ‘fix’ something you see while they’re all practicing, let them dance and experiment and fix it themselves. If you step in, they rely on you to help, and they lose focus and get distracted. If they get used to figuring it out, they learn focus and patience and can work on a challenge for longer. Your challenge: knowing when to step in before they get dejected.

– Learn the natural patterns of conversation and noise in the room. Give them a task, then let them do it on their own with music (and a partner). If you’ve already shown them how to talk to a partner (eg your demo about how to touch someone), they have the skills to work with a partner.
Let them go. For a _whole_ song with one partner. It’s only 3 minutes, but a lot of teachers _never_ do this!
You’ll see there’s immediately a rush of noise as they try it. Then a lull as they get ‘bored’ and act all ‘there, done it.’ Then the noise rises again as they a) start yapping randomly, or b) start trying again. The random yappers actually stop yapping and eventually try again themselves. Then the noise crests again.
It’s really hard to learn to not step in; learn to hear those crests and troughs, and observe them, and figure out when you’re really needed. I find they rarely ask for help unless they’re really confused. They prefer to work with a partner, or with their partner and a neighbouring couple!
– During this pattern, they learn to stop and restart themselves. When you do all come back together, make sure you point out that you saw people doing this and you loved it: “I saw people get all confuzzled, then stop, say ‘can we try again?’ and then restart. That’s genius.” I often point out a specific dancer or couple who do this really well – I say, “I saw X and X stop, chill, groove a bit, then start in again.” If you do this, rather than saying “When you get stressed, do X, not Y.” They only hear the negative thing. But if you do it the positive way, they realise a) you’re paying attention, b) you trust them to figure out stuff, c) they can trust themselves to figure stuff out.

c is the most useful, because then they learn to focus and stay on track.

-> Anyhoo, I think this is the most important skill ever. For teachers. Let the class get really noisy and rowdy. They want to socialise and talk.

– Don’t rush them to start dancing after they rotate partners. Give them time to do a proper social introduction, to slowly get so they touch each other. Good social skills, good boundary negotiation, but also good vibes.
-> They come to class for each other’s company. So let them have that time. It’s solid gold. It’ll be noisy, but it’s a _good_ noise. And learn to recognise the difference between good noise and antisocial noise.

I really love this approach. I don’t have to stress about being the centre of attention. I let them actually let their partner be the centre of their attention. You know – lindy hop. <3 <3 <3

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The original poster then reminded me: hey Sam, we’re talking about getting distracted as a teacher rather than distracted students. Particularly when you’re managing anxiety and ADHD while also managing a class.

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Rather than finding it difficult to stay focussed, my problem is that I tend to find it difficult to stop focussing, and to switch topics or tasks. Obsessive thinking r us. Great for practicing or working on my own dancing, not good for teaching.

I think Byron’s point about using your partner is really good. I often rely on my partner to give me the ‘that’s enough talking’ sign so I stop. Especially if my brain is racing ahead and I forget to let them practice something 2 or 3 or 4 times instead of just once.

I’ve seen other teaching couples use the 2-teacher vibe in a few good ways: – they tag in and out for managing little chunks of a class – eg Pete runs the big apple warm up, I do the i-go-you-go rhythm warm up, Pete does the next bit, etc etc. That way the one who’s ‘tagged out’ can gauge the overall flow and step in with the next step at the right time.

– one teacher may ask the other a question about what’s happening, to help refocus the class: “So, Sam, are you saying that we should _practice_ more instead of just thinking about this idea?” or even “Can you show me how you’d lead that, Sam?”

– switching between teachers leading bits also helps students refocus or retune, because different people use their voice in different ways, or explain/demo in different ways. -> peeps with ADHD can also get really _tiiiiired_ because they’re on adrenaline overload rushing from one thing to another. So swapping in and out with a teacher can give the tagged out teacher a little rest and break.

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I’ve just been thinking about how we may talk about neurdiversity and students, and the needs of students who are managing adhd, anxiety, depression etc, but we don’t talk about teachers managing these things.
I feel as though I’ve been working with that very limited idea of teachers as somehow homogenous monolithic neuro-same. FAIL. Odysseus’ recent blog post about how to attract and appeal to culturally and ethnically diverse students makes me realise: start with MYSELF, and stop making my own identity markers disappear.