The Kids Excel program in El Paso inspires students in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The audience sitting on the gymnasium floor of Western Hills Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, fidgeted and squirmed. A few minutes into the Kids Excel dance performance, though, the fidgets and pokes began to mimic the arm movements of the dancers up front—the Western Hills fourth-grade class—as they leaped, twirled and threw their hands in the air. “Kids Excel! Kids Excel!” shouted the performers and much of their elementary-aged audience.
It is this infectious enthusiasm that drives the Kids Excel El Paso program, which uses dance to inspire curiosity, set high expectations and encourage self-discipline. “We’re using art to stimulate our students, to engage them to a point where minds are turned on,” says Gemtria St Clair, a former ballet dancer and executive/artistic director of Kids Excel. The approach has been so successful that FEMAP, a health and community development organization in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, contacted St Clair in the spring of 2008 about starting a similar program across the border.
“Send me a dance teacher,” said St Clair, who regularly trains potential Kids Excel instructors. FEMAP selected one of their staff members, Zulema Galindo, who has a background in folklorico, contemporary dance and ballet. In the fall of 2008, Galindo spent two weeks apprenticing with St Clair. The teachers kept in touch and last spring, Galindo shadowed St Clair in the classroom and behind the scenes, as St Clair coordinated a dance performance. In September 2010, Galindo began teaching more than 200 low-income students in Ciudad Juárez, a city that has become the epicenter of an increasingly violent drug war between Mexican drug cartels. Galindo now makes weekly visits to El Paso, where she observes St Clair teach the same curriculum she’s implementing in her own classroom.
When Galindo travels to El Paso, St Clair, who speaks some Spanish but is not fluent, relies heavily on nonverbal communication to demonstrate teaching techniques and classroom management methods. “Interestingly, the work is not really about talking,” she says. “It’s about doing and showing.” When necessary, other Kids Excel staff members serve as translators, and they are developing a Spanish version of the Kids Excel curriculum.
Both Kids Excel and Galindo’s program use the National Dance Institute (NDI) curriculum, which operates within the school day. Students learn fractions by experimenting with tempo, describe movement with adverbs and metaphors and move like liquid, gas and solid molecules. Furthermore, NDI techniques ask students to self-assess, meet standards of excellence and demonstrate focus—all valuable skills back inside the core classroom.
“The idea is that the success that they experience within an NDI program is going to spill over into every aspect of their life,” says Tracy Straus, NDI’s associate artistic director. In addition to her work with St Clair, Galindo spent five weeks in New York and Connecticut last summer, training with NDI and observing lessons in schools and summer camps.
NDI programs, which are free of charge to participants, target low-income students who have little, if any, firsthand experience with the arts. In El Paso, Kids Excel reaches 2,220 students in 26 schools; every fourth-grader in the schools attends a weekly 45-minute class. The sessions are upbeat and fast-paced. “There’s a whole bag of tricks for keeping children interested while they learn,” says St Clair.
Working with St Clair has exposed Galindo to an entirely new way of working in the classroom. “The first time I went to see Gemtria, I was struck by the rhythm of the class and her natural, expressive way of working with the students,” Galindo says. Unlike more traditional teaching methods, the approach allows students to make decisions and act as leaders, whether by asking them to demonstrate a step for the rest of class or perform a solo in a school performance. Galindo has learned to make teaching less formal, to use humor and to find ways to make every child feel successful. “I love what the class gives to the children,” she says. “In Juárez, the children are very stressed. In this class they can find something that lets them forget for a while what’s going on.”
“We’re trying to reach children who are challenged and troubled,” says St Clair. “You have to learn how to engage and motivate and inspire and bring those children along with you.” She trains Galindo and other instructors to assess qualitative details: How much fun are the students having? How much are they sweating? How engaged are all members of the class?
Asking for such complete commitment slowly changes the way that children perceive themselves. “As teachers we can kneel down in front of a child and say, ‘I’m not giving up on you,’” says St Clair. “That may be something they’ve never heard before in their lives.” DT
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Minnesota.
Photo by Mario Galindo, courtesy of FEMAP