Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Space Between / Transitions

I think about a lot of things, and something I have thought a lot about are transitions.  When I teach clogging or step dance I think about how to explain to my students the variations and subtleties of transitioning weight or how to finish one step successfully and move on to the next.  My child, who has a regulation disorder, has needed me to pay close attention to the daily transitions/routines in her life since birth. I watch my own reactions to unexpected changes in my concept of what 'should' be happening in my day.  I am aware of, mostly after it's already started to happen, the subtle shift of life as it moves from now to past

(This seems to be a somewhat philosophical post, but even that is starting to shift...)

So it probably won't surprise you to hear that I think about transitions every time I walk into a classroom.  When one works with moving kids a transition can be a moment ripe with opportunity or a potential stumbling block, a great teaching moment or a train wreck.  I find these moving-while-learning kinds of transitions the ones that require a particular kind of attention and respect.

I suppose my approach to classroom transitions stems from my experience as an artist whose medium is space and time.  From where I stand, a transition is a moment when you have to simultaneously distinguish between something as it was, as it is, and as it will be.  Dancers (and musicians, too) encounter moments when they need to talk with themselves, the choreographer or other dancers about how to move from one moment or step to the next.  This attention to detail is just part of the process but its also a process that can be fraught with opposing viewpoints, confusion, and tension over all aspects of interpretation of the moment.  And, because dance (and music) exist in such temporal space (meaning here and then not-here in a split second) one usually spends 1000 times more time working out the transitional moments than actually performing them.  When resolved, the agreed upon transitional moment can be a thing of beauty, a seamless moment of artistry.

In my role as a dancer and a musician, dealing with transitions are part of the job.  In that particular context, if transitions don't get a certain amount of attention or respect all you'll end up with are unconnected pieces of movement or sound devoid of form or meaning or, at the very least, lacking the quality you would desire.  It's practically the same experience for me when I bring my art into an academic setting. 

I consider teaching (whatever the subject) the art of working in time and space to organize, focus and energize multiple bodies and minds.  If I walk into our dance space with my lesson plan but have paid no attention to the spaces between the bullet points, it is highly likely that my day will be quite unsatisfactory, perhaps even, as I said above, fraught with opposing viewpoints, confusion, and tension over all aspects of interpretation of the moment.

That sounds heavy, but just how do you stop bodies and ideas in motion?  The child's choice to pay attention is just that -- a choice.  It is, of course, expected that in school you pay attention and follow directions, but what if you are paying attention, just that all of your focus and intent is on what your feet are doing?  My own daughter gets so caught up in her projects that we continually have to strategize on ways to disengage her from her work when it's time for school, or dinnertime, or bedtime.  This is all to point out that transitions can be HARD, especially if you're emotionally invested in what you're doing now and are still in the now even when it's time to go to the next thing.

How do you stop bodies and ideas in motion, when needed?  My strategy has become to make the transition part of what we're learning and to make sure that as we go from here to there we are still on-topic.  Here's an example of a classic moment in my program, one that has often been "fraught with opposing viewpoints, confusion, and tension" for me, at least until I paid attention to it and found myself a solution.  This classic moment is called:
Me working the "Countdown to Silence"
Kids Are Standing and Need to Sit Down

Just telling a moving kid to sit down and expecting them be instantly ready to focus on verbal or visual directions is a hit or miss strategy, if you don't mind me saying.  A moving body needs a few focused seconds to calm itself down and turn on the eyes and ears.  Because I value the power of a group making rhythm together, I created a simple rhythmic countdown (which you can learn for yourself if you ever happen to see my work) which seems to do the trick.  It brings the whole room back to focus.  Kids can find their center even while sitting.  This countdown is a simple verbal and physical rhythmic reminder every time we transition from moving to sitting and is usually enough to help kids get ready to bring in new information.  This kind of transition also helps to maintain consistent composure of the group over the course of the lesson. 

Sometimes, if you just pay attention to and clarify the intent of a moment, especially an in between moment, the solution will be waiting.  A philosophical yet potentially useful mindset.


  1. I like what you have to say about transitions. Space is between where we were and where we will be. This has no meaning if we do not move. Folding circles is pure transition that reveals what happens in movement between one form and another. Forms are necessary but not important, they are the result of movement, a place to rest momentarily and reflect on facts left about the truth of getting there. Math people not knowing this make it difficult by generalizing facts into static symbols and images. Math describes marks on the floor, but what describes the experience of getting from one to the other, if it isn't the next move. Not much different than what you are talking about.(I love the story of Miss Annie Snug and Sam Beaver.) For choices to be fluid with meaning is to move with intention to play fully and easily with focus. Your writing reflects this in what you are doing.

  2. http://rationalmathed.blogspot.com/2008/07/comics-closure-and-mathematics.html

  3. Michael, thanks for the link! Amazing. I think your question at the end of your post illustrates the answer you're looking for:

    "How do we craft lessons that leave a reasonable number of reasonably-sized "gutters" that will get students to engage in the closure-process, filling in the gaps with their best ideas, actively making connections..."

    One answer is that we have to *craft* those spaces, intentionally. At first they are conscious choices, but as we gain skill we get to this:

    And then it's fun -- for everyone!


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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