This is part one of my multi-part introductory series on teaching. I hope to open the discussion around not only what it means to be a teacher but to ask the question of if we are doing the dance and our students justice by the way we are currently teaching.
When I was in culinary school, a student came up to me and asked, “How do you know when the chicken is done?” I began to laugh at a memory of how I learned, and in this seemingly innocent moment was the beginning of me seeing that Black Americans teach and value some ideas differently than popular culture when it comes to learning. It wasn’t until a few years later as I sat down to attempt to write a lesson plan for a dance class that I really started to understand what that meant.
It was hard to explain to my very classically trained teaching partner that I simply didn’t value his style of lesson planning, or find it to be effective. We fought endlessly, him wanting me to be more structured, more codified and me finding that style stifling and required a kind of knowledge I didn’t have access to. In other words he felt that being very structured, codified, mechanical, and being seen as the authority was the only way to encourage learning.
Whereas I felt deep down that this manner, although useful in some ways, and how everyone was currently teaching, missed the depth and ownership I wanted in my classes. I sat dejected for months, stressed because “I can’t teach like that.”
As I grow into an older Black American I find myself realizing just how much my culture (even as a quiet black nerd*) deeply affected me. I’m now at the age where I am the one to pass on knowledge, the one to cook the meals, and possibly most importantly the image those around me look to as an example whether they be young Black Americans or Adult Whites.
After a while, I remembered that moment in culinary school and was reminded again of my mother. At 7 she took me into the kitchen and said it’s time to learn to make fried chicken. I looked for a recipe and she said there wasn’t one. This was the beginning of an experience I’ll never forget. In a mix of jokes, telling me there is no “right” answer, to trust my own judgements/thoughts, and a lot of guesswork on my end, we got the chicken into the pan. I didn’t notice at the time that she was also teaching me specific skills in the midst of this. I turned to her, on my toes to peer into the pan and asked “Mama, how do you know when it’s done?”
“You know when it’s done when it’s done. Don’t undercook it though or you will get everyone sick,” she said, and of course I freaked out. What does that even mean?! I thought. I watched as it cooked, poking it, feeling lost, as she came in and out of the kitchen nudging me in the right direction. Still wanting more direction I asked again, “How do you know when it’s done?” She looked calmly at me with a slight smile and said, “You know what done chicken looks like. Is it done?”
As much as I look on this memory feeling mildly stressed, I also feel proud. I can remember feeling accomplished, empowered, and with a deeper, different, understanding of the process than I did going to culinary school years later. The more I thought about it, a pattern became clear. When I wanted to learn piano, the other black folk in my life sat me at a piano and said, “Just play.” Many of my black friends were self taught musicians, amazing at their craft, and yet couldn’t read any music. I got into art and I just kept working at it without classic technique and yet struggled in art classes because I did things “wrong.” And the list just goes on. Black adults simply have a very different way of teaching. Often it’s less heavily structured and more based on the individual.
If the dances I’m doing are Black created, is my background part of why I struggle with the formal classes and yet not the aspects of the dance that hang up others? Is this why I seem to connect with most other Black American dancers in a way that simply feels like a deeper version of the dance? The more I thought on this question the more It made sense. I set out to teach in a way that makes sense culturally.
Although I’ve had great success it can be a tough sell. The values I teach with tend to be very against what people are used to when they think of classes. The longer I teach this way the easier it gets, but the translation isn’t perfect from the “learn by playing” style to the European classroom model. It falls onto you to not only convince your students that yes, they are learning, and that they are learning a new model of learning. But I feel it’s worth it for what the students gain from not only gaining context, but it also deepens their understanding of blues values in a more natural manner. Students learn to be empowered, how to focus on the music, how to relax, be athletic, work in partnership, own their ideas and how to be dancers and not just to follow a pattern.
The open-endedness leaves room for discovery, communication, improvisation, innovation, and most importantly how to communicate verbally and nonverbally their ideas, needs, and concerns. Students work on all of these things while focusing on the general theme of the class. This means every student’s experience is different and yet all classes can be (within reason) considered all levels. The student learns as much as they are open to the idea of learning in this manner.
I think there are tons of ways to teach anything, and yet I find it’s more effective to teach an idea while imparting other wisdom and allowing the student to be an active part of the learning process than to tell them that if they learn these steps/patterns they will be able to dance this dance. In the upcoming parts I will talk about how to teach in this manner, common pitfalls, how to incorporate blues values into the classes, and how to create exercises to add to your classes in this paradigm.
*If you don’t understand why this matters, one- that’s part of the point, and two we should chat