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Preparing Your Classroom for Movement

This is an excerpt from Elementary Dance Education With HKPropel Access by Janice E. Pomer.

Some elementary schools have a dedicated drama or dance room and a specialist teacher who works with students once or twice a week or a physical education teacher who dedicates a portion of their classes to dance every year, but in many elementary schools, the classroom teacher is expected to provide all the arts programming, including dance, drama, visual arts, and music.

That can be challenging, especially for teachers without an arts background, but it’s a huge benefit for students who are active learners. Integrating the arts into students’ daily routine engages active learners, and when the themes for art exploration intersect with areas of the curriculum, students who may not excel at written or oral assignments have an opportunity to shine. Teachers regularly tell me how pleased and surprised they are when they see students who struggle academically thrive in dance and other active learning situations.

Integrating dance and creative movement into the daily curriculum means teachers must find ways to transform their classroom space or find an alternative venue where their students can move safely. Kindergarten and grade 1 classrooms are designed with open areas and can be easily reoriented to provide greater space as needed, but for teachers working with older grades (and larger students), providing a safe, open space to work in is an issue.

As a guest artist visiting schools for over four decades, I’ve observed dozens of teacher strategies for transforming classroom spaces for dance and drama lessons. I’ve been in classrooms where the first 10 minutes of my 45 to 60 minute session has been spent with the teacher and students chaotically moving desks, chairs, boxes of books, and other accumulated stuff, while in other classrooms, the desks are moved and the floor is swept in two minutes. The teachers whose classes are in the latter group know the key to transforming crowded classrooms into open space is planning and teamwork.

Each teacher does it differently, but here’s the basic template for grades 2 through 6:

  • In the first week of school, practice transforming the room into an open space and engage students with simple dance and drama exercises.
  • By transforming the classroom during the first week of school, you’re letting students know that dance, drama, and embodied learning activities will be a regular occurrence.
  • If desks are in rows, assign each row a color and a specific side of the room to move their desks and chairs to.
  • If desks are in pods or small clusters, two pods can have the same color and area to move to.
  • By using colors, and not numbers or letters, there’s no assigned order. Red can move first, second, or last. When designations aren’t sequential, everyone has to pay attention—no one knows when it’s their turn to move.
  • If the classroom is on the second or third floor, highlight the importance of lifting the desks so as not to disturb the class below.
  • Lifting means teamwork; two people lift a desk, they each lift their own chair, together they lift the second desk, and they’re done.
  • The desks should be placed as close together as possible and create straight lines along the perimeters of the room.
  • Chairs should be placed under the desks, not on top, as chairs can fall from the vibrations of jumping and other vigorous movements.
  • Have a broom and dustpan available (some teachers have two brooms) for volunteers to sweep the floor so students feel comfortable working at low levels.

A classroom can be transformed into an open space.
A classroom can be transformed into an open space.

Dancing Outdoors

Another option is working outdoors. Schools with lots of property and year-round access to the outdoors regularly hold classes outdoors, while communities with inclement weather tend to use the outdoors less. (There are inspiring exceptions, including a physical education teacher in Toronto, Canada, who takes his primary classes outdoors for their lessons all year long. The school community makes sure every child has a snowsuit and boots if families are unable to provide them.)

What you need when working outdoors:

  • Cell phones and small, lightweight portable speakers make teaching dance outdoors easy. You can carry your sound system in your pockets or small bag.
  • If you’re working on asphalt, you’ll need sticks of sidewalk chalk (the chalk for classroom use is too thin and fragile). Designate the work space with chalk. Use the same area each lesson, and in time your class will stay within the work space without needing it drawn out.
  • If you’re working on a grassy field, you’ll want to use props to clearly delineate the working space. Use the same area for each lesson.
  • Establish a system for getting your students’ attention. Use a whistle, flag, or obvious position (standing with both arms reaching overhead) to let your students know it’s time to stop and listen.
  • Bring a marker and a few sheets of flip chart paper to record students’ ideas.
  • If you’re working on asphalt, you can use the chalk to write student ideas and word lists on the ground, photograph the lists, and download or project the photo for future reference. I prefer paper because you can post it on the wall once everyone’s back in the classroom where it’s easy for students to add their ideas between lessons.
  • Your students can do their journal entries outdoors; put pencils and all the journals in a basket so they aren’t lying on the ground or being blown away, or do them after you’ve returned to the classroom. I prefer returning to the classroom and giving students five minutes of quiet time to notate their dances or respond to the journal entry questions.
  • If your school doesn’t have schedule for outdoor classes, start one. Post it in the staff room. You may inspire other teachers to start taking their classes outdoors.

Every learning situation is different; what works in one school may not be feasible in another, and what works with one group of students may not resonate with another.

More Excerpts From Elementary Dance Education With HKPropel Access