The Ballerina Mathematician

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 09 2011

Dance Class > Math Class

I think my lack of updates over these past few months (read: entire school year) shows you how crazy my life is.  However, I don’t want to start with the craziness.  I want to start with what I love: my dance class.

In October, I started teaching an after-school dance class twice a week open to all our middle schoolers.  Each class is about an hour and 15 minutes, and I have a core group of about 7 that come faithfully.  I have found such joy in teaching this class!  We cover everything I know–ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap, hip hop, choreography, creative movement, even Tinikling (a traditional Filipino dance) and college-level Laban Notation.  My students are eager to learn and willing to try anything.  They’re uncoordinated and have little body-awareness, but a couple have real potential and they all make up for it in spark.

Recently, we performed in a showcase I set into motion with all the other after-school organizations.  They were performed three pieces: Tinikling, a breakdance duo one of my 8th grade boys choreographed with a sixth grade gentleman under his wing, and a Broadway jazz dance (complete with top hats) to music from A Chorus Line.  The Tinikling was a hit. It’s done with PVC pipes (“bamboo sticks”) being banged together in a set rhythm while students jump in and out, turning and hopping.  It’s exciting to watch and my kids had it down pat! I was so proud of them for putting themselves out there (some were onstage for the first time ever) and for working hard right up until the last minute, practicing backstage to make sure they got it right.

As for infusing dance and movement into my math class, that has not been as successful.  I had my students make the slope formula (y2 – y1/x2 – x1) with their bodies at the beginning of the year, and that was neat and fun, but they haven’t remembered it.  I think I’ve finally figured out a good lesson structure for math, and most of the time it involves simple explanations, reviewing of basic skills, and no movement-related “ideas.”  That’s fine with me, because my kids are stunningly behind (of course) and I’m still overwhelmed with work, with all my creativity going towards my dance class rather than my math class.

As for education, my two biggest frustrations this year are these:

1. Students in my school district are not held back. Even if they miss upwards of 110 days of school (as one of mine did last year, and is set to do again this year).  Even if they make 0% average grades in all their classes.  Even if their behavior involves violence, drugs, and inappropriate outbursts.  My students are going to 9th grade no matter what, and they come to me with a shocking lack of understanding of previous material.  If they can’t read, if they can’t add, DON’T send them on to the next grade!  It makes for unmotivated and unprepared kids. It seems so obvious to me, and yet it continues to happen.

2. My school has NO discipline policy. I work at that school of horror TFA stories.  Students have lit up a joint in class and been simply “talked to” about it.  Students yell “f— you” in a teacher’s face and nothing happens.  Fights sometimes elicit a “behavior plan” and rarely suspensions, but mostly the students are back in class the next period.  Students freely roam the halls during the day, and don’t listen to teachers like me who tell them to get to class.  Consequences are rare, inconsistent, and honestly quite laughable.  We have to come up with our own systems, and it’s near impossible to keep them afloat with no “final straw” consequences or support.  To put it simply, it’s hard.

Some surprising things I’ve realized:

1. I have students who don’t think it’s possible to halve an odd number.  I’ve been told half of 3 is “zero” or “nothing” or “there’s no answer.”  It’s surprising that as an 8th grade teacher I have to come up with an impromptu mini-lesson on how to divide.

2. I have students who break the stereotype of their Free and Reduced Lunch label.  They have iPhones, designer color contacts, and laptops.  I don’t understand this.  Others are missing jackets in winter and can’t afford a new binder. How are they all under the FRL label?

3. 8th grade girls can be SASSY! One female student asked me pointedly if I knew she’d been to court for hitting a teacher. One of my favorite girls asked me why I smile all the time when I know everyone hates me.  Another held up a finger when I asked her a question and told me to hold on because she was trying to remember some song lyrics.  These are the nice versions and comments, expletive-free.

4. I ended up having a “miracle kid” story, even though for months I thought I would be the only CM without one.  The change happened after winter break. The boy who used to lie down across my chairs in the back of the room, cross his arms and refuse to speak or move is now working hard every day in my algebra class.  He used to hate me and tell me to stop caring, but through a combination of many adults supporting and encouraging him, he’s doing well and even won a school essay contest.  I couldn’t be more proud of him, and it’s lovely to see him work hard each day and ask me for updates on how he’s doing in class.

Overall, my teaching life is definitely much easier and happier than the first semester, but it’s still tough and overwhelming.  I look forward to taking dance classes for myself over the summer, traveling to Europe for the first time along with my boyfriend, and starting the second year full of the hindsight I’ve gathered from the first.

One Response

  1. Wess

    on #1 on odd numbers above– Today, one of my tenth graders was adamantly trying to convince me that negative numbers couldn’t exist because nothing could be less than zero. it’s INCREDIBLE how much you can just NOT KNOW about math.

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a dancer's adventure in teaching math

Middle School

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