Summer in Canada has been amazing. And hot. Very hot. On another, what seems to be typical hot and humid day, I take the subway and bus towards York University, where I will have my very first interview for my Moving Educators research. I’ve already been exploring Toronto, Canada, and I have to confess I kind of fell in love with the city (and area) already. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Canada is a beautiful country with very warm and welcoming people. Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt is certainly one of those people. When I arrive at her spacious office she greets me with a hug and a smile and I immediately feel very welcome.
Fisher-Stitt is the Associate Dean (Academic) of the School of the Arts at York University. With a background as a ballet dancer for the National Ballet of Canada, a technique teacher and dance researcher, she has great knowledge of dance and education. At York she has, among other positions, also served as Chair of the Department of Dance and as the director of the MA/PhD Program in Dance. That makes her the perfect person to talk to about how to move educators.

 

Arts in Ontario education
After we exchange memories of the Dance and the Child International conference of last year (in Copenhagen, Denmark), I tell her my story and she immediately starts searching for articles that could help me with my research. First, she brings me up to speed on the Canadian educational system. In Canada, every province has its own curriculum. I’m surprised, but it also makes sense. Compared to where I’m from, this country is huge, which means it must be very hard to have just one system. The Ontario K-12 (Kindergarten – 12 grade) curriculum states:
Education in the arts is essential to students’ intellectual, social, physical, and emotional growth and well-being. Experiences in the arts – in dance, drama, music, and visual arts – play a valuable role in helping students to achieve their potential as learners and to participate fully in their community and in society as a whole.
In this introduction it becomes clear that according to the curriculum, all four art subjects should be integrated in education. It also describes the subjects separately, so there’s a full section on dance:

 

Through exploring dance and movement, students will develop an understanding of the art form, themselves, and others, and will learn about the lives of people in different times, places, and cultures. They will develop practical artistic skills, critical analysis skills, and a variety of communication skills.

Toronto

Teaching dance
The curriculum also describes what the government expects from teachers:

Teaching is key to student success. Teachers are responsible for developing appropriate instructional strategies to help students achieve the arts curriculum expectations, as well as appropriate methods for assessing and evaluating student learning.

 

It’s possible for a school to hire a dance teacher, but Fisher-Stitt tells me that the subjects are primarily given by generalist teachers. Which means that, even though it’s in the curriculum, dance is not taught in every school. “Usually the generalist teachers refuse to teach dance, because they don’t feel comfortable working with their bodies”. She makes a point there, I’ve worked with many school teachers and the first thing they always tell me is: I don’t know how to move. When I ask what they’re afraid of, they tell me that they don’t know if they’re able to learn and teach dance technique. Fisher-Stitt explains: “Dance in elementary schools is about creating, improvisation, expression and looking at dance, it is not about specific skills. Dance technique won’t be taught until secondary school”. I especially liked this paragraph from the curriculum:

Dance is expressive movement with purpose and form. All dance communication is transmitted through movement – that is, through the body movements and gestures of the dancer. A dancer is, therefore, both the performer and the instrument through which dance is expressed. It is not recommended that students at the elementary level be given instruction in formal dance techniques (e.g., ballet, Graham, Límon techniques). Instead, students will develop their own movement vocabularies that they will use to create dance pieces that communicate their feelings, ideas, and understandings. This approach to dance, as outlined in this curriculum, is based on dance pedagogies (e.g., Laban), and focuses on the use of movement and the elements of dance instead of rote repetition of dance steps.

Mentoring system
So in that way, the generalist teachers won’t have to learn specific dance skills. But how do we change their perspective on dance? “Recently, we started a project at YU, where we taught elementary school teachers how to teach dance. It was a mentoring system; every teacher gets a mentor. Somebody to coach them throughout the process.” By giving the teachers a mentor (dance teacher), they won’t have to immediately start teaching dance; first the teacher can be a teaching assistant in the dance class and then gradually he or she can take over the class. That way, they have access to ongoing feedback and advice.

Unfortunately, the project is not active now. “We need the government’s support. Without it, there is no project.” And until governments realize how important dance in education is, it will be difficult to get funding. “Dance is an essential part of educating human beings. It should simply be part of children’s education.” She concludes the talk by saying she is “very optimistic” and sees a lot of possibilities. That makes me very hopeful for the future of education.

Niagara Whirlpool

Inspired
I leave York University with a smile on my face. My first talk was so amazingly inspiring. And it’s so good to know there are more people that think the same about the integration of dance in education. And this is just the beginning!
So please don’t hesitate to comment on my blogs. What do you think; should generalist teachers also teach dance? And what do you think of a mentoring system? Will that work? And why?
For more reading material, you can check out these links: