Sunday, June 5, 2016

What I've learned about teaching from Jazzercise

Had I not gotten my current postdoctoral position and ended up staying in Baton Rouge another year, I was going to train to be a Jazzercise instructor.* I'm good at picking up choreography, and I'm quite enthusiastic about the music-fueled workouts. Even before I considered teaching Jazzercise, I occasionally thought about teaching while working out.

For one thing, it is a class--a group of participants learning steps and movements from the teacher on stage. The teacher knows more than most of the students--she's gone through specialized training about anatomy and exercise science and CPR, and knows how what we're doing is supposed to work. Her first big challenge is to convey enough information in a short space of time--posture, movement, what we're supposed to be focusing on--without giving out so much information that we're confused, or it gets in the way of actually enjoying the movement. Because Jazzercise is, generally, supposed to be fun. Despite--and perhaps because of--the challenge of it.

This is a big challenge for me, figuring out the balance of how much is enough. It's so tempting when planning syllabi and lessons, to want to cram all of the cool stuff I know into class. I try to approach it like packing for a trip, for which I have a similar mentality. First, I pull out all of the stuff I want to take. Then I think about the actual needs--objectives, OUTCOMES--of the trip/class/day in class, and try to pare down so that I'm focused on those needs. With a few backup items, to be sure, because you never know if it might heatwave/button fall off/AV equipment fail. But there's a balance to be found in planning for what's enough.

In Jazzercise, I also learned just how important the teacher's attitude is. If the teacher seemed insecure, I'd just kind of feel bad. The teachers whose classes I got the most out of were enthusiastic to the point of silliness at times. In Jazzercise, it's easy for students--especially new ones--to be self-conscious about looking dumb in front of the rest of the class. If the teacher's willing to be a bit ridiculous herself, I think it can make the students a bit more comfortable trying stuff out themselves. Creating a space where it's okay to be a bit ridiculous--and play--can make for a more engaged class.

This is certainly my teaching persona. I am under no illusions that I'm cool--and I'm frankly not interested in being my students' friend. I think there's a way to make that a pedagogical strategy, but it's not mine. Rather, I let loose with my enthusiasm, even if I do look a bit ridiculous a times (say, when having students read aloud from As I Lay Dying). They key, though, is that it's genuine enthusiasm--I do genuinely swoon at the line, "How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home." Students see me being dorky, they might feel a little more comfortable expressing their own responses. Further, the more I teach, the more important fostering a sense of play in my classroom is to me. Having taught an FYC class on the Maker Movement several times now, I realize more and more how crucial a sense of play is to learning and innovation, to being open to new ideas.

However, there were days when just making it to Jazzercise was the accomplishment--I had no energy to spare for going "woo" in response to the teacher, or adding any extra flourishes to my dance moves, or going for the heavier weights. The best teachers would be okay with that, okay with different students working at whatever level they were comfortable with. In fact, Jazzercise teachers are supposed to offer modifications for different levels of fitness--showing both high and low impact variations, for example. I think there's already a lot of thought about how to reach students in the classroom who are at different levels of achievement, and I certainly try to be cognizant of this in my own teaching.

Some teachers, though, would seem to take it personally, and single out individuals to try to encourage more engagement. I often felt resentful about this--some days I wasn't wooing because I was getting over a cold, and if I wooed, it would have triggered a coughing fit. Some days I was drowning in grief, and needed the workout to get my out off my head for an hour. Those days, I usually didn't care if I hurt the teacher's feelings--I was only capable of doing what I was capable of doing.

And that, I think, is an underappreciated aspect of teaching--that our students (and ourselves) are human beings with outside lives. While some of my students do confide in me, I realize that I have no idea what they're dealing with--nor do they know of what's going on in mine, generally. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, while I'm not interested in being the "cool" teacher, neither am I interested in being a maternal one, either. That's another persona that works for some, but not for me. 

On the other hand,part of fostering the kind of engaged classroom community that I'm dedicated to involves including the whole person--myself as well as my students. So I am aware of trying to bring my whole self to the classroom--whether that self is excited about the reading, has a headache from the weather, or is sad because David Bowie died. And I'm cool with students occasionally getting off task in class if it means making more of themselves present, rather than less. I'm cool with students sharing that they got a good grade on a hard test, or saw an excellent movie--that brings them more fully into the community. Spending class time working on homework for another class, that takes them away.

And finally, Jazzercise has taught me that movement is necessary. I think it's good to get students up and moving around--perhaps not doing chasse's across the room (although you never know), but working with their hands, interacting with other students, writing on whiteboards, seeing the class from a literally different point of view. One of my goals this summer is to think about the literal space of the classroom--what else can I learn about movement and space in my teaching?

*Yes, Jazzercise still exists--it's evolved since they 80s, no one wears leotards, and it's an amazing workout. Check it out yourself if you doubt me!