A Teaching Lesson from the Dance Studio: Crash and Learn

If you read the #NCTE17 recap, you know that the Moving Writers team has busting a move on the brain, especially me, since I am currently taking a second round of swing dancing lessons (so maybe it’s more like I’m “cutting a rug”?). This dance class crosses a long-existing item off of my bucket list, and I’m having a blast (and not crushing too many toes). While I expected to enjoy learning how to dance, I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy watching my dance instructors teach. Both are just plain great teachers–they are patient, kind, and encouraging; they are clear communicators; they break steps down into pieces their students can handle; and they always explain why leads and follows move the way we do in each step or sequence. I leave class happy to have learned new steps and happy to have watched two great teachers in action!

One of the strategies my instructors like using most is “crash and learn.” When they start to teach a new step, they will demonstrate it once or twice and then let the class just go for it to see what happens. The result is usually pretty messy. Limbs tangle, laughs ring out, apologies are mumbled. Then, the instructors share what they noticed and take the step apart so we can make it work. As my first semester at a new school nears its end, I’m realizing that “Crash and Learn” could very well be the theme of my half-year. A few years ago, the perfectionist in me would have been mortified by tiny missteps or wonky lessons, but a few months of “crashing and learning” has taught me a lot about the joy of risk and the knowledge that can only come from making a mistake first. And as I “crashed and learned,” I realized that the process was one my students ought to get comfortable with, too. As you look forward to Christmas break and perhaps make some classroom resolutions for the new year, here are some tips for how to make the most of your “crash and learn” moments.

Hang on, Ginger Rogers! That’s a clever title, but what does “crash and learn” actually look like in the classroom?

Good question! “Crash and learn” could mean handing students a poem for a cold read and asking them to make some sense of it alone before you read it together. “Crash and learn” could mean giving students a mentor text the class hasn’t annotated and asking students to write a draft of something like it. It could mean–as it did for my seniors this week–completing a mock assessment of a poem students had only read alone. It’s not a strategy for every day, but it’s something worth trying a few times each year.  I’ll share some more specific details about recent “crash and learn” moments in my classroom below.

“This is my dance space; this is your dance space.” DanceSpace

Johnny Castle was right. Dancers need to know their places (but nobody puts Baby in a corner), so make sure to set some guidelines for all who will be crashing and learning. Let students know when you’ll step in and when they will have to navigate on their own–and hold yourself to those guidelines, even if you start to see struggle!

For example, as I fielded some seniors’ frustrations about recent assignments, I realized that they were expecting more guidance from me about which writing topics to choose and what exactly they ought to say about those topics. While I don’t plan on dictating that much of their writing (our goal is authentic thought and personal response, so I keep prompts as open-ended as I can), I could be more explicit about what students can expect from me, what I’m expecting them to do on their own, and why those are the expectations of the assignment and the course. I will start next semester with a similar conversation.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and…” well, you know the rest…

footloose_04

If you’re going to crash and learn, make sure you’ve allotted enough time for students to retry the activity a few times. For example, my freshmen are currently writing a collection of digital texts, and our schedule is such that they’ve had to “crash and learn” a few of the digital genres on their own. They have had five chances to try the “read a mentor text/mark your noticings/use the mentor as model” method, and their work has improved with each new attempt. Any “crashing” that happened with the first two attempts–sentences that bordered on plagiarism, sources that were too weak (or pieces without sources), pieces that didn’t use mentor text moves at all–led to a lot of learning that has produced better, stronger texts on the third, fourth, and fifth drafts.  

Cue Tom Bergeron…

Even Dancing with the Stars makes time for reflection. Every time dancers finish their numbers, host Tom Bergeron is there to ask them how they feel about their performance. I realize that “crash and learn” can look and feel a lot better for a teacher than it may to a student, since I might register students’ progress or the way they’re building scaffolds before they do. Thus, I’ve tried to follow each “crash and learn” experience with time to reflect as a class or individually. When my seniors performed a mock assessment of a cold-read poem yesterday, I made sure to carve out time for a discussion of what they observed, what questions they had, and what they now knew they needed to feel ready for the actual assessment. Now I know that learning new strategies for organizing our analyses should be our top priority.

As a semester of “crashing and learning” comes to a close, I’m also asking students to fill out what would normally be end-of-the-year course evaluations so that I can recalibrate for the new semester.  
Find a Partner!

Dance-Marathons

And with course evaluations inevitably comes some constructive criticism. I’m grateful for new buddies in my department who have helped me to process the survey results and find new ways to meet students’ needs. “Crashing and learning” can leave some bumps and bruises, so make sure you have a partner or two who can keep you on your feet and ready to get back on the dance floor!

When is the last time you “crashed and learned”? Have any other tips for how to learn from diving into the deep end first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. And if you need a little boost as the holiday craziness sets in, here’s a great dance montage

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