Dear Diary

How journaling enhances the high school dance class experience

At Rhode Island’s Providence Academy of International Studies, dance teacher Marty Sprague’s high school students are exploring movement qualities. A small group shifts into slow motion as if pushing through pudding; another group investigates what it means to pop and twitch; and a third group explores the difference between flinging and floating. The classroom vibrates with chatter and movement. Then Sprague calls “time” and the students head back to their desks to think, reflect and write about what just happened. One student writes about the connections she made with her group. She also notes that another student jumped when he should have fallen to the ground, but, she writes, “Overall, I loved my dance performance.”

Sprague, who has been teaching at Providence Academy since 2003, knows that most of her students aren’t on track for professional dance careers. Instead, she uses movement to teach critical-thinking skills. Two of her chief tools are pen and paper. “Writing is thinking,” says Sprague. “And when students reflect [in writing], they have a record of their growth and of what they learned. It makes the creative process visible to them.”

In today’s high school classrooms, where the importance of test scores and college admittance rates outweigh pointed toes and perfectly executed arabesques, critical thinking is a prized commodity. Movement triggers this process; journal writing makes it concrete.

At the beginning of each semester, Sprague, who teaches three periods of dance to mixed-grade-level classes, explains that journal writing will be a crucial component. “It’s really important that you set up your expectations early,” she says. Sprague’s students maintain a notebook of reflections, which they leave in the classroom. About four or five times a week she stops her class a few minutes early and calls the group together to write about their experiences. She gives the students an open-ended prompt, which can be as simple as “Why do you think we’re learning this?” [see sidebar for more prompt ideas]. With this question in mind, her students compose a few sentences responding to the day’s work, such as an exploratory group movement session covering shape, floor patterns or weight sharing.

The fast pace of Sprague’s 52-minute classes doesn’t give her many opportunities to interact one on one. Journaling helps her better understand what her students are thinking about and how they’re thinking, allowing her to monitor their progress and the depth of their learning. “When I read even their short three-to-four sentence responses in their journals, I think, ‘Wow, this kid’s got it,’ or ‘Hmm, next class I better think about this because a bunch of students are wondering the same thing,’” Sprague says.

Martie Barylick is a former English teacher who now teaches a yearlong arts elective at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, New York. The course includes music, theater and dance, and Barylick team-teaches four sections—one for each grade level—with the school’s music and theater instructors. As in Sprague’s classroom, journaling and other reflective writing are integral to her approach.

Among their many writing assignments, including performance critiques and choreography proposals, Barylick’s students compose in-depth reflective self-evaluations about four times a year, and her students periodically write anonymous evaluations of one another. (To ensure considerate feedback, a teacher reviews the response before the evaluated student receives it.) Before her students begin writing, Barylick leads in-class discussions, demonstrating the types of ideas she wants them to tackle—both questions about the exercise or unit, as well as questions about themselves (for example, “What did you learn about dance?” and “What did you learn about yourself as a dancer?”).

Barylick’s and Sprague’s students journal in class. While Sprague’s students write, she slowly wanders through the classroom reading their responses, sometimes jotting a note in the margins of a student’s journal. Or she may affix a sticker, a simple way to give positive reinforcement. Barylick also tries to comment on most of her students’ reflections. “Kids look for my check marks and underlining,” Barylick says. Feedback lets students know their comments were read; a question probing why a student felt a certain way or a smiley face next to a meaningful observation keeps students motivated and engaged.

Both Sprague and Barylick include journaling and other written assignments in their students’ final grades. Neither worries much about grammar, punctuation or spelling when they read reflective writing; instead they’re interested in what’s going on in their students’ heads.

One of Sprague’s favorite assignments is having students write letters to their parents. “They write a response to a question or about an activity we’ve done that week, explaining it to their parents,” Sprague says. Before the students take the letters home, Sprague reads them, adding a comment to each. “Then the parents read it and write back to their students on that paper.” The assignment builds the parent-school connection, and it demonstrates that the learning in dance class goes far beyond mastering steps. DT

Journaling for All Ages

Marty Sprague and Martie Barylick say their journaling exercises could be adjusted for middle- and elementary-school–aged children. They suggest very young students could draw rather than write their responses.

The Creative Spark

Marty Sprague often uses prompts to guide her students’ journal entries. Questions should allow students to explore their thoughts on the page. Here are a few suggestions for students working on a group choreography module:

—What did you do on your dance study today?

—How did you and your group explore the movements and decide which versions/variations you are going to use in your dance study?

—How long is your dance so far? What are you going to do next?

—Is your dance study complete? Are you and your group ready to perform? Answer why or why not.

—What do you like best about your dance? What would you change, improve or add?

 

Lisa Traiger teaches dance appreciation and writes about the performing arts from the Washington, DC, area.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Branislav Ostojic

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