Building Joy and Grit

New York City’s highly successful Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance

Dance students in action at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

As she looks back over her past nine years as director of dance for New York City public schools, Joan Finkelstein has a lot to be proud of. In a city that has no shortage of dance, bringing the artform to schoolchildren might seem easy. But her task wasn’t just to make sure all public school kids were exposed to dance. It was to provide students with a sequential, standards-based, arts-focused dance education. Now, almost a decade later, New York City students are delving deeply into choreography, technique, critique and analysis, documentation and dance history.

When she took the job, Finkelstein knew that she’d have a wealth of dance talent to work with. The trick was to give all the dance teachers working in the city’s schools a shared sense of direction. She began by forming a committee of dance educators and members of the city’s larger dance community to develop a Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance. The document provided public school dance teachers with a common reference point, structure and benchmarked dance goals specific enough to make sequential learning possible, yet broad enough to allow individual teachers to develop lessons based on their passions and strengths.

But encouraging a unified dance program to take root and grow took more than a document. It was necessary to gather the city’s far-flung dance teachers so they could learn from one another. Again Finkelstein formed a committee—this time to plan professional development workshops. Over the past nine years, 60 of these workshops have been given. “Dance teachers are often alone in their subject area in their schools,” says Finkelstein. “They need that bubbling up of ideas that comes from having a community, a shared language, connections.”

Joan Finkelstein

The most recent workshop, held in early June, focused on the hula and Polynesian culture. Teachers analyzed effective methods of learning and teaching the technique, including where to find additional resources and guest artists. The workshops also emphasize practices that are a priority for the Department of Education—backward curriculum design or the common core standards. Teachers come away armed with Blueprint-aligned tools, including lesson plans, strategies and assessments.

Thanks to the Blueprint, the city’s dance educators are also better able to assess their students, since, without shared goals and a sequential plan, it was difficult to meaningfully evaluate progress. High school students who have completed a dance major sequence, for instance, now take the NYC Comprehensive Dance Examination to evaluate performance, choreography, research and general dance knowledge. Those who pass (including a written test) and have at least 10 dance credits receive a Chancellor’s Arts Endorsed Diploma.

The Blueprint also helped the city secure two competitive grants in 2010, one of which, Investing in Innovation, was given to only three arts education organizations. The $5.5 million from both grants pays for a five-year study to develop assessment tools and strategies and to translate the results into effective classroom practices. “The question is how can data enlighten teachers about what their students need,” says Finkelstein. “For example, maybe your students are great at picking up combinations but can’t create work, or maybe they understand how to use space but not dynamics.”

The real success of the Blueprint is perhaps most evident in the increasing ranks of dance teachers. Since inception, the number of public school dance educators grew from 135 to more than 200—despite the economic downturn. Finkelstein is a tireless advocate in this regard, continually explaining dance’s value to principals whose hiring budgets are tight. She proactively sends NYC principals the resumés of all newly certified K–12 dance teachers and repeatedly follows up with any school leader who expresses interest. Once new teachers are hired, they are welcomed into the fold with both support and resources. Rookies receive two years of mentoring from an experienced dance teacher, subsidized continuing education and a tool chest that includes books on a variety of dance topics, DVDs, Move Cubes, a Laban chart and notation cards.

With this kind of success, one wonders what more Finkelstein might hope to achieve as she enters her second decade in the job. Not one to think small, her goal is to provide every primary public school child in the city with a high-quality, sequential dance education and every older child with the option of choosing dance in the upper grades. “It’s their right,” she says. “We are in danger of becoming a society divorced from our bodies. Dance isn’t only physical. It’s an expressive artform. It requires higher-order thinking, teamwork and effective, repetitive practice. Disciplined dance study builds grit, which is lauded as a prime component of success. Joy and grit—dance builds both.” DT

Janet Weeks is a former Dance Teacher editor who is earning a degree in early childhood special education from Hunter College.

Photos by Catherine Brikke, courtesy of NYC Department of Education

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