About our guest blogger…
Rudi Monson’s daughter is currently in her second year of preschool at the Lawrence Arts Center. Her older daughter spent three years in the Arts Center’s Early Childhood Education program, including kindergarten. Rudi holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary/Middle School Education from the University of Kansas, and a master’s in Curriculum and Instruction with ESL emphasis from Concordia University in Chicago. She taught Language Arts and Math in middle school in Chicago for 12 years. Her experience as both an educator and parent gives her a unique perspective on Early Childhood programming at the Lawrence Arts Center.
I saw her draw out the beauty and strength within each of them. It made me think about the beauty and strength within each of us and what could be unleashed if we learned to remove our expectations and listen to ourselves over our minds.
– Rudi Monson
Standing by the speaker in the dance studio, Amanda told the children, “I’m going to play something. Listen to the music with your ears. Let your body decide how it wants to dance today.”
As she slowly raised the volume of the music, the students rose up from their spots and began moving. It was stunning…
Sliding side to side
Twisting their torsos, hands, and fingers
Laying on their backs, feet and hands kicking in the air
Sitting down, spinning around and around on their bottoms
Heads rolling, loose on their necks
“5… 4… 3… 2… 1… back to our spots,” she said as the volume lowered to silence and the children returned to stillness. “I’m going to play another song. Again, listen with your ears and let your body decide how it wants to dance today.” Do you hear that language? Let your body decide…
Again, the music swelled into the room and the little beings rose. Their bodies answered the call and filled the space with beauty and shape.
It was so inspiring to remove the instructions and lift the barrier of expectations. In Amanda’s words, “Kids this age have no roadblocks. They just move. They show us the creative potential of our bodies.”
I’ve written often here about how amazing it is to see the Early Education program at the Lawrence Arts Center use art as a vehicle for teaching core subjects, such as literacy and math. And truly, they achieve this daily by incorporating key concepts into the playful exploration of visual art, music, sculpture, and dramatic play. But on this day, I saw art being taught for the sake of art. And in the hands of an expert, well… it was beautiful.
Amanda Pintore (aka Ms. Amanda, Dance Amanda, Upstairs Amanda, Curly Hair Amanda) teaches dance and movement to our kids once a week in the dance studio upstairs. She is a force like no other. The way she and the children respond to each other is magic – true teacher magic. When I had the privilege to observe her time with them, it felt like they were on their own plane of imagination and I was just trying to get a peek. I truly had no expectations, but I’ll tell you this – those kids move like literal magnets to her when she walks in the room. One of the teachers smiled and said to me, “She’s the Pied Piper.”
Right away, I could see her skill. That level of excitement with that many kids can quickly turn into chaos for an unprepared teacher. Not her. Rather than trying to shush their joyful noise or talk loudly over them to get their attention, she simply gave them an outlet. “Put your feet in the air if you can hear me. Put your hand on your head if you’re wearing blue like me. Put your hand on your shoulder if you’re ready to go upstairs.” The room was instantly quiet, but full of participation. Later, she told me, “Classroom management disguised as joy is critical for this age group.”
Next, she explained the procedure for the day clearly: how they would walk up the stairs, how they would sit outside the dance studio, how they would each receive a shape, walk into the studio, choose a spot, place their shape on their spot, sit on their shape, and wait for everyone to sit down. As you might know from your own kids, multi-step instructions are a challenge for kids this age! Amanda knew what she was asking of them, and so she ensured their success. When we sat outside the studio, waiting for our shapes, the instructions were repeated. We watched the first student while Amanda narrated how he completed each of the steps in the task. And one by one, each student patiently waited for their shape, found their spot, sat down, and quietly waited for the rest of the class. The process took probably 7 or 8 minutes and was completed in relative silence. To see kids of this age, with anticipation coursing through their little bodies, practice that kind of patience and self control was a sight to behold. Self-control is a challenging and powerful skill for them to learn.
And then, the dancing began! As she played different rhythms on the drum, the kids first danced around their shape. They danced in front of the shape and behind the shape. They all counted down (5, 4, 3, 2, 1) back to their shapes. With each instruction (and grammar lesson), the drumbeat changed and kids explored various movements.
As always, a few students chose not to move. They chose to sit on their shapes and watch the movement around them. I noted that neither of the other two teachers in the room approached the kids who chose to observe rather than dance. Even more impressive was that none of the students did either. This was clearly a learned and intentional behavior. When I asked her about it later, Amanda told me, “I’m a believer that there are all sorts of forms of participation. We, as adults, aren’t always good at seeing them all in the moment. Those kids had their own experience of the exact same class.”
I considered later, What if a child was feeling sad? Or frustrated? Or wanted help? I realized though, that the expectation within this school is that you use your voice. If you need help, you become your own self-advocate, and you seek help. No learned helplessness here. I believe this is an incredibly comfortable environment for learning. If you need help, I’m here, but I’ll never force you to do anything.
As Amanda says, “My goal is to meet them all where they are, to love dancing, to have the best time, and to get lots of information on what their bodies are doing and what they can do.”
She mentioned shape work, low/middle/high space, the Traveling Drum that takes them anywhere they want to go. She also told me that one of the first tests of body awareness is answering the question, Can we all move at the same time and be safe? “There is power in dancing all together. We have to trust each other and take on the challenge that is, ‘My cat doesn’t look like yours.’ This takes time to learn.” Okay, this is the point where my notes got shoddy and my misunderstanding showed up.
What is body awareness? Well, turns out, it’s big. It’s probably the reason I bump into door frames all the time when I’m literally just trying to walk through a door. To quote a more succinct writer than me, Amanda herself, “Body awareness means understanding our body as it relates to the space around us and to other bodies. This helps us develop empathy and social skills in relation to our peers. It helps us keep our bodies safe as we explore new ways of moving. Furthermore, body awareness follows us into our adulthood, manifesting in how we dress, how we interact socially using our bodies, how much space we are willing (or not willing) to take up in the world and how aware we are (or not) of how that space affects others. The first step is gaining an awareness of our own body. Then we can think and move thoughtfully in relation to other bodies.”
This was an important piece of the lesson I witnessed. The children made imaginary bubbles around their bodies to ensure they each had enough space. They spent a lot of time exploring different movements, such as pushing and pulling, sideways galloping, slithering like snakes. Also, the freeze game… Oh, the freeze game! After all that movement, the freeze is so victorious- finding joy in stillness.
Back in the dance studio, the lesson began to wind down. “If you are sitting on a star shape, bring it to Kim. If you’re sitting on a circle, bring it Andria. If you’re sitting on a square, bring it to me.” I noted (because as a former math teacher I just can’t help myself catching math when I can) that this could be an assessment of shape recognition. And the most beautiful part of it was that it was a self-correcting test. If you brought your shape to the wrong teacher, you’d see for yourself the mistake and be able to seek out the correct teacher holding matching shapes to your own. No stress. Compare this to a worksheet or a timed computerized test.
As the children returned their shapes, they were instructed to form a big circle in the middle of the room. In the circle, it was time for goodbyes. The children suggested various ways to wave goodbye. They wiggled their toes, then shoulders, then eyebrows, then whole body.
This lesson with Ms. Amanda was powerful. I saw our children appreciated for exactly who they are, taught with both tenderness and rigor, and treated with awesome respect. Most of all, I saw her draw out the beauty and strength within each of them. Made me think about the beauty and strength within each of us. And what could be unleashed if we learned to remove our expectations and listen to our selves over our minds. Oh Ms. Amanda, there’s a reason you’re a legend amongst the kids, the youngest and wisest of us all. I’m honored to witness and share your gifts.