When the students at Amazing Grace Christian School in Renton are asked to face the music, it doesnt necessarily mean theyre being called on the carpet, unless, of course, you mean cutting a rug. Dance is an integral part of the K-8 school, thanks to a UW graduate student whos been teaching there.
Michelle Zimmerman first introduced dance into the schools curriculum when she was only 16 and a volunteer there. Intending to become a teacher, she was participating in a “Careers in Education” program that included volunteering in a classroom. As part of her work, she applied for a grant in American music history, and decided on a project on the World War II era. Her plan was to integrate American history, music, social studies and physical education, with the latter coming in the form of swing dancing. She didnt get the grant, but she introduced dancing anyway, integrating it with the history of the time.
That was 11 years ago, and Amazing Grace students have been dancing ever since. On Feb. 4, a group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders got to visit a UW dance classroom, where they showed off their moves and learned some new ones from the college students in Juliet McMains ballroom class.
But for Zimmerman, the real magic of dance in the schools was unlocked when she decided to have kids become dance mentors to each other. She started out with a group of second graders — teaching them dance moves and then having them teach the same moves to preschoolers and kindergartners.
“The thing I found interesting is, when the second graders started working with kids even younger, they started building relational bonds,” Zimmerman said. “There was an interesting dynamic in that they were excited and proud to see someone else doing something they had taught them. That seemed to increase motivation for them to keep on excelling in it.”
By that time Zimmerman had earned her psychology degree and had moved on to graduate school in the College of Education. Before long, her dancing grade schoolers became not just students, but also study subjects. Zimmerman learned there were lots of positive effects from mentoring, but was surprised when third graders began doing something shed read about in research journals.
“When I read teacher research literature, what adult teachers do is say, ‘How can I improve my instructional strategies? What can I do to help students learn in a different way? I noticed third graders doing the same, asking ‘What can I do to help my buddy learn this when things arent working right? When someone doesnt want to dance at this moment or theyre having a particularly hard time with this step, how can I adjust my teaching? And that seemed pretty advanced to me for a third grader.”
Not that the dance pairings went smoothly from the first. There was the usual, “Im not touching her hand. Shes a girl” and “Eww, boys. Ill get cooties.”
But Zimmerman emphasized to the students that they werent pairing off in any significant way. They werent dating. Rather, they were “friends dancing together.” She made sure the kids changed partners often as they danced, and she called the mentors and mentees “dance buddies.”
“This led me into reading about male dominance hierarchy and rough and tumble play,” Zimmerman said. “I saw that the boys felt higher on a dominance hierarchy but not in the way of ‘Im going to punch you out. More like ‘Ive been around the block and I know a thing or two about this, so come here and Ill show you how to be a man. I started to see nurturing behavior develop out of this.”
She added that boys who were not doing well in academics were often quite enthusiastic about dance.
Today, Zimmerman has completed coursework and exams for a doctorate in educational psychology, and is working on a dissertation on cross-age mentoring. The sixth grade students she brought with her to the University have been dancing since they were in preschool and involved in mentoring since third grade, which explains how, after witnessing McMains giving her college students a lesson on the foxtrot, they got up and unhesitatingly demonstrated a dance they had learned. After that, dance buddies from Amazing Grace paired up with two college students each to learn three dance moves the UW students demonstrated — the swing step, sweetheart promenade and promenade pivot.
Jenna Tollefson, one of McMains students, said the experience was amusing because “the students from Amazing Grace were intimidated that we were college students and we were intimidated because they have been doing ballroom for years and we have just passed the one month mark.”
“This was the first time I ever tried to teach someone how to dance so it was a lot of trial and error,” said Eric Shellan, another of McMains students. “Now I can definitely empathize with our professor — both in her frustration and pride. It was so much fun to watch the middle schoolers perform on their own after we had taught them!”
Zimmerman noticed the UW students enthusiasm. “I saw them pointing out the buddy they worked with at the end and saying things like ‘thats my kid! and ‘Woo! Nailed it! My students do that all the time with their little buddies (they even call them ‘my kid). I was a little surprised to see those same things come from college students.”
McMains said she expected that her students would get positive results from the session. “They were being asked to be the expert, and thats a great confidence booster,” she said.
As for the Amazing Grace students, they talked about the experience all the way home, and several voluntarily wrote thank you notes to their UW mentors.
Which, in Zimmermans view, simply confirms the power of mentoring. “There is a huge relational component to the cross age mentoring that seems to add to the motivation to achieve, and to repeat the experience.”