This post by member Lori Ayotte was first published in 2017.
Teaching high school sophomores how to use an apostrophe can be the bane of my existence. Sometimes, I cringe when they plant commas willy-nilly in their essays.
English teachers lament how after weeks of writing instruction, some students do the opposite of what we have taught. Occasionally, a teenager’s rewrite winds up worse than the original. Some pupils master a skill in one assignment, and, in the next, struggle to execute that same skill.
My perspective of the learning process changed when I learned to ballroom dance at age 38. I rediscovered how it feels to be a beginner in a new discipline after being a veteran in front of the classroom.
Teaching the art of writing can be frustrating. Learning the art of dance is equally as daunting, however.
To dance well, I had to master the rhythmic equivalent of writing well. In composing a compound-complex sentence, for example, I have to use commas properly. In dancing, I have to insert proper punctuation with my body as I move to the melody. Once, during a cha cha, I moved without pausing and my teacher commented that I had just “danced a long, run-on sentence.”
For me, that was an epiphany. I now use what I have learned as a dance student to shape my practices and philosophies as a writing teacher.
My passion for dance began when my grandmother introduced me to MGM musicals with screen legends such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelley. I loved watching the glamour of the sweeping ball gowns and the sophistication of the smoothly-paced foxtrot. As a toddler, I’d grab my raincoat, pop open an umbrella and prance around the house, belting out “Singing in the Rain.”
It’s challenging to awaken students’ passion for writing when many dread it. In my classroom, providing a variety of writing approaches eases this fear. Some teens love free writes, but others quake in the face of open-endedness. Those who crave creativity but need structure enjoy mimetics, such as a personal essay that mirrors Charles Dickens’s famous paragraph of contrasts: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Students who hate personal writing can explore the life of someone they love by conducting a one-to-one interview and reflecting upon it. More practical-minded teens eagerly approach my resume unit; they are sold on real-world application. For those who shun writing altogether, composing digital videos or drawing comics can be a first step toward telling a story. Each of these modes fits under the vast writing umbrella, and each can spark an appreciation for the craft.
Bad Writers Can Improve
As teachers, it’s dangerous to assume that bad writers will not improve much. Before I took lessons, I was a bad dancer. Friends compared me to Seinfeld character Elaine Benes, not only for our petite stature and curly hair, but also for her dance moves as a “full body dry heave set to music.”
During my first dance lesson, I thought, “I’ll be lucky if I last six months.” (How often do we hear some students say, “I’ll be lucky if I pass”?) Soon, I learned the basic steps of several dances, which gave me an elementary vocabulary with which I could move around the floor: a box step, a back rock, an underarm turn. I loved it. With practice, I improved, eventually performing in recitals and competitions. Thus, with effort, our weakest student writers can become competent too, and it is important for teachers to recognize even the smallest writing progress as major gains.
Respecting the Learning Process
As I continued dancing, a basic vocabulary was not enough. Technique played a greater role. Just as an essay cannot properly stand without certain elements – an introduction, body paragraphs, a conclusion – I could not properly stand without a proper frame and connection with my partner.
It is impossible to learn everything at once. I learn a new step, and minutes later, I forget it. I work on hip movements weekly, but I still struggle to execute them naturally. If I focus only on hips, I may momentarily forget about arms or footwork.
I have discovered that when a student works on one skill, a related skill temporarily weakens. At times we may feel as if students are stagnating, but that is how any learning happens — with advances, stalls and backtracks along the journey.
Six years after that first lesson, I have become an advanced dancer, at last wearing ball gowns I once would have merely admired. This transformation happened because I practiced between five to 10 hours every week. I estimate that I have already been dancing for a few hundred hours more than my 10th grade students have sat through ELA classes in their academic lives. ELA addresses reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, so my students have spent a relatively small amount of time specifically on writing and grammar. I can’t expect mastery or even proficiency in many writing areas – my students have not yet committed those skills to their brains’ muscle memories.
Now when I read my students’ essays, I am more empathetic. I innately understand that they are novices who need hundreds more hours before they can carry out all components of writing: content, detail, organization, style, spelling, grammar, tone, voice, word choice, sentence variety. Now I give them much more time to write in class – where I can guide them — and much more variety in assignments so they can continually practice and play with words. I also write with them as often as possible so I can understand how long it takes to come up with a topic or the best way to organize our thoughts to suit the prompt.
One of the best professional development activities I’ve experienced had nothing to do with pedagogy or my content area. Dancing has taught me how to learn and, thus, how to teach.
Lori Ayotte is a 10th-grade ELA teacher at Sharon High School in Massachusetts. She also teaches a graduate course for teachers in writing instruction. She has been published in The New York Times, Rhode Island Public Radio, English Journal, and The Sun Magazine.