Typhani Harris | September 2014

Building a Class Where Everyone Wants to Be

On Monday I entered a brand new classroom.

In a brand new school, a brand new state, and with nervous anxiety, I welcomed my brand new students.  I knew whatever I did on this proverbial first day of school would not only set the tone for the year. But, it would solidify my place in this new school culture.  I had to build my teacher persona, my classroom reputation, and a new dance vision. All within the first hour.

The first day of school is so critical to the success of the class. And with a new group of students, I knew I would be tested.  I received comments like “so, you’re the new dance teacher” and “what are you going to teach us”.  I tapped into lighthearted humor and high expectations.  By the end of the day I received comments like “everyone’s talking about you miss” and “how do I get into your class”.  So, I analyzed what moved students from skeptical hesitation to welcoming and comfortable curiosity. What are the necessary steps to ensuring acceptance as I build this new program?

I found high expectations, attainable vision, and an honest personality are keys to attacking the first days of school.

High Expectations

High expectations are imperative for any educational situation.  Students like structure, and value teachers confident about student success.  I spent the first day of school discussing my syllabus. This included classroom policies and procedures, acknowledging how some things may be different from previous years for these students. This school labels arts classes as semester long courses. And, at the end of the semester produces a “review”.

So, I must take these students who have never danced before, and get them on stage in 3 months. This is definitely a grand goal, especially since some of the students came in explaining how they didn’t actually want to be in building a class. Essentially, they were just thrown in there.

With this in mind, I explained to students that it is expected they be part of the review. And if they preferred to not perform, they certainly may work the concert. This alleviated some of the push against being a part of building a class for those particular students. I tried to get students excited about being on stage in 3 months, and set up the way each week would run.

Also, I began the leadership process. It is so important for the students to feel like they have investment in the course and the day-to-day process. Students volunteered to be leaders, and I started their responsibilities right away.  I ended building a class with students writing on a post-it, what dance meant to them. Along with, their favorite songs. The second day of school, I taught an upbeat fun cardio to get them excited. In doing so, I used their favorite songs as a background to their movement.

Attainable Vision

The culture of every school is different, and this first week has allowed me to take inventory of this new school culture.   In doing so, I have realized that I need to involve the students in the creation of an attainable vision for the program. The students come from all over Brooklyn, and have various backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of them want to go to college, but some of them are struggling with credit recovery in order to graduate.

So, how do I get them excited and invested in the commitment of dance, and furthermore how do I convince them that their dedication to the arts will help them to achieve their dreams?   My vision is that these students spend more than just a semester in dance, and that they learn to value dance, but moreover that they are able to use the skills learned in dance to make them successful in the future.

Honest Personality

Like most adolescents, these students can see right through fakeness and intimidation, so it is important to be real and honest with them. One activity we did the first week to get the students to open up and to start fostering the family environment was “a walk in my shoes”.   Through the metaphor of a shoe, students commented on everything from what labels they like to wear to what brings tears to their eyes. I usually begin the share out so that the students can see that I am a human being, not just someone who is going to evaluate them. Within minutes students began sharing personal stories about their lives and we as a dance family began to slowly grow together.

The first week went by so fast and was jam packed with the beginnings of a new dance family. I am so excited about working with a great department, collaborating with the core teachers, and building strong relationships with in the dance program.

Piquès & Pirouettès

Next Week: Common Core

CCSS & Dance: using the common core standards as inspiration for dance literacy

Arts integration is extremely valuable in the core classroom, but what about integrating core subjects into the arts classroom? How can the use of the Common Core ELA standards foster dance literacy?

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.