No two days are ever the same as a teaching artist. Some days I roll on the floor singing about animals with preschoolers, and some days I have real conversations about life and college with high schoolers. I might teach on the west side, north side, and south side in one day, eating meals in my car in between. I lesson plan in that car, in the kitchen, and from Dunkin Donuts locations citywide, keeping the choreography for over twenty dances in my head at any one time.
But what rewards the constant movement, constant change, constant unpredictability of this lifestyle? The opportunity to build constant relationships with students over time-- to see them grow, create, and thrive.
I’ve gotten just that chance this year by teaching at Daniel Webster Academy with CDE, where I’ve been with two classes every week for the full school year. In the fall, the kindergarten class did a fun matador-themed dance to paso doble music from Spain, learning to say “Ole!” and play imaginary castanets while marching to the beat. Their performance at the school’s Christmas assembly was a huge hit. This spring, we’ve been putting on our cowboy and cowgirl boots to dance to Mexican tribal guarachero music. All the while, we have explored the brain dance, a developmentally appropriate warm up that goes through natural patterns of body movement, and fun games exploring dance concepts like space, level, speed, and direction.
The journey hasn’t been without bumps. The students face a number of challenges, emotional and interpersonal, and it can be hard for them to leave the outside world at the classroom door. But I absolutely live for the days when a normally unfocused student suddenly dances for the entire class, or the day a new activity I’m trying out strikes a chord and the whole room is full of positive, creative energy. Last week, I tried out some new classroom management tactics with striking results, and my assistant teacher and I left class feeling happy and accomplished.
We’ll keep building our creative community, riding the ups and downs, playing with ideas and with each other, dancing on until summer.
Susanna Hostetter holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Dance from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where she was awarded the David Wick Prize for Choreography. Susanna has trained in modern, jazz, and Latin, and studied West African dance forms in Tamale, Ghana. She has led both semester-long residencies and short workshops in over three dozen Chicago Public Schools over the last five years through Chicago's finest dance education organizations. In addition to her work with students as a Teaching Artist, Susanna is a PomSquad Fitness instructor and member of Desueño Dance Company. It is her joy to spread a love for movement within the city!
I am a Black person. I teach mostly Black and Brown kids. I enjoy teaching in schools where the kids look like me and where the kids can see that I look like them.
It’s always been my goal to help do what I can for Black and Brown communities. I don’t want to create dancers out of all of these kids because I know that dancing is not what they all want to do as a career. However, I do want to create people who can work together. I want to create people who know how to communicate, create and build together. I’m fully aware of how many people outside of Black and Brown communities view these kids. They think they’re trouble-makers. They think they are violent. They think they are hopeless. I know this. This isn’t new to me. However, what I wasn’t expecting was hearing these type of negative things from my own students.
One of my students said that Black kids are harder to teach than white kids. I brought that idea to another one of my classes and some of them agreed. They went on to say how white kids are more well behaved and organized. They said if the class was all white kids, they’d all listen and it’d be a completely different class. I was in complete shock. They really thought that the color of their skin determined their control of their body and mind.
How do you respond to that? How do I, as a POC, look these kids in the eye and go about reversing this toxic mindset? It was absolutely heartbreaking but it did give me insight and clarity on why most of these kids acted the way they do. How can you fix your behavior if you believe because of the color of your skin that there’s no way to fix it? Why work hard to change what seems inevitable? It’s such a frustrating thing because of the way they think and the way they translate everything.
Let’s not get confused, they are a rowdy bunch. They can’t keep still for more than a few seconds, they constantly talk and get bored real quick. They talk back, get attitudes and have to be told several times to do something before they listen. But they’re kids. What kids don’t act like that? So obviously, I have to be stern. I discipline them. I make sure I follow through on any consequences I say they’re going to have. For me, this is instilling good things in them, such as accountability and responsibility.
For them, it’s Mr. Ben being mean or having an attitude or picking on me. On several occasions, I’ve tried explaining that I do what I do because I want them to succeed. I want to prove everyone wrong because these are good kids, great kids. When they trust you, they are so loyal to you and well-behaved. When you compliment them or tell them they had a good day, their faces beam.
When they come together, do a dance or play a game, I see how happy and carefree they are, nothing makes me happier. These moments seem all too rare and far between. It’s tough and there are days I just want to give up. There are days I do give up and just have to stop class a few minutes early. These are my thoughts as a Black person teaching Black and Brown kids who look like me. They trust someone like me the most and it’s still a struggle, which gets me wondering “how do we break down these barriers when we look different than the kids we teach?” How do we go about breaking down stereotypes and mindsets that society puts on us and that we, in turn, put on ourselves?
I genuinely wish I knew the answer but I’m grateful for that experience. I’m grateful that the kids felt comfortable enough with me to open up and share that information with me so I can figure out where to go from there. I have to find a way to allow them to see themselves as good, valuable and capable of change. I need to help them understand that the only thing limiting them is themselves, not their pigmentation. We all have control of our bodies, our minds and once we realize that, only then can we change ourselves and work together to progress collectively.
Mr. Ben is a Teaching Artist with Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble.
Mr. Ben in action at Yates School and CDE's Kids Project Summer Camp
Recently in a dance of 5/6th graders, a paraprofessional told me that the only thing his student has done all morning was participate in my dance class. Talking to him more about the child, I found out that he has a hard time focusing and that when he is in dance, he's a completely different kid. We talked about the strategies that I use in my classes, like learning to find stillness through deep breathing and movement exercises that would be good for him to use before the student has to focus in his other classes.
This is what CDE means when we say we teach beyond the dance steps and the lines in the play. It's about reaching and teaching each child for their specific needs. The shy child might only be able to say one line or stand on stage without being nervous. For bilingual students, we translate scripts so that everyone can understand. In dance classes, we show videos to breakdown stereotypes teaching that dance is for all regardless of gender, body type and physical abilities.
We teach the whole child. We believe in process over product. We believe in investing more time in the classroom and establishing relationships with schools and community centers so that over the years to come, we can see the development in a child's learning.
Executive Director and Founder
What is Cross Lateral Movement & Why is important?
A cross-lateral movement is any motion that requires coordinating movement on both sides of the body. When the movement crosses from one side of the body to the other, it is called crossing the midline. The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa, so moving the left hand to touch the right side of the body activates both sides of the brain. Some movements, such as marching, are cross-lateral movements that require brain-and-body coordination even though they do not cross the midline. Eric Jensen, author of "Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching," recommends that students get up and move every 20 minutes.
Teaching Miss Mary Mack
Above is a video of first graders who learned this complicated yet fun movement pattern to "Miss Mary Mack." I love teaching this exercise to the kids as an assessment of their learning and to see who might have difficulty with more complicated steps like a skip or marching to the beat. Children who lack cross lateral movement often have difficulty with speech, focus, memory and overall body awareness just to name a few. Over the weeks of teaching this, along with other of Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble's "Songs and Stretches" and the "Spelling Dance Warm-up," students become stronger connecting their body with their brain.
The kids have fun. It's a challenge. We normally do it two to three times in a warm up playing around with various ways: fast, slow, with a silly voice or my favorite, like an opera singer!
Try it with your students or at home with your kids have a little fun!
Further recommended reading about the importance of cross lateral movement is at http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104013/chapters/Movement-and-Learning.aspx
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