Suddenly, I felt more confident than I had in years (or perhaps ever). On the floor in front of me about twenty students with prescribed “extended services” in math were almost gluttonously eating their after school snacks. The teacher seated next to me began to explain I was a volunteer who wanted to share an activity with them and that I had been a student in this school…once upon a time. “I’m spending my vacation time from work to be with you today,” I added. “That is how important I think you are.
We began by introducing ourselves making our favorite shapes with our bodies. Then I described how each shape or movement is a piece of a dance. The number of triangular movements we made could be described as the numerator to our introductory dance’s denominator. We talked about how to use Merce Cunningham’s “Chance Dance” theory to choreograph our own dances with our favorite shapes by rolling dice. Chance Dance was one of my favorite ways to play with movement in college, and I thought it might be an accessible way to introduce choreography to a room full of non-dancers. We broke down our dance into fractions, each shape or movement the numerator. Then the class was divided into small groups to choreograph their own mini-dance, perform for the class, and explain the fractions that could be used to describe their dance.
Students developed movements based on shapes, used “chance dance” theory with a roll of dice to determine the movement sequence, and described their dance with fractions. This is what their “cheat sheets” looked like.
As far as I could tell, everyone was engaged, on-task, and rapidly gaining confidence. But what did I know? This was not only the first time I’d put “Chance Dance” math, or anything like it, into practice in a classroom. At the end of our 90 minutes together, the teacher walked the students out, and down the hall. After they were all out the door, I stopped to ask how she felt it had gone and what feedback she might have for improvement.
“It’s usually like detention,” she admitted. “I think it was great!”
This was my first run at being a “Teaching Artist,” so I almost couldn’t believe how smoothly it had all gone. I’m sure the teacher couldn’t either. In fact, when I first arrived, I had been quickly made aware of her back-up plan — a stack of copied worksheets.
So how did I end up here, spending vacation time with a room full of squirmy 2nd graders who had fallen behind in math? Shortly after returning to work from maternity leave with my second daughter, I became discontented with the speed at which I could make a difference in my work life. The financial support I provided my family was no longer enough to make each day “worth it.”
In another life, or so it seemed, I was a dance and English double major at a small liberal arts college who left with a firm belief I could “change the world,” at least in some small way. After graduation I landed what I thought was a dream internship at a trendy arts and culture magazine, but what it turned out to be — making coffee and sorting mail — wasn’t how I had planned to use my newly minted degree and I quickly began to question my life. I soon turned to a Master’s program in Liberal Arts to further explore my interdisciplinary interests and practice thinking and talking about complex problems and possible solutions. But I still had no idea how to mold my interests and talents into a career that would utilize my energy and passion – while, hopefully, earning income.
So, I found myself years later reaching out to out to over a dozen people with unique careers (at least in part) in the arts, and learned about a term I had only vaguely understood previously: Teaching Artist. The best part? I learned the work of Teaching Artists is largely self-driven. An interest comes to light, and they pursue it. It was like a light poured down from the heavens and angels sang in chorus. No career had ever sounded so “me.” Still, I can’t tell you how surprised I was when even before I opened my mouth in that after school classroom, a clam peace flooded out my butterflies.
“I got this,” I thought. And I never turned back.