Monday, October 11, 2010

Teaching Below the Surface: Harnessing the Power of Tape!

In earlier posts I espoused my enthusiasm for using simple floor tape to manipulate an environment and encourage physical exploration of that environment.  It's a powerful tool for teaching below the surface, something that makes a bigger impact when you don't talk about it because it's just there.  The Reggio Emilia approach says that environment is the third teacher and I have found this to be true in my work.  How I set up a learning environment can have a large impact on the students, and I have pictures to prove it!

In my work with elementary students we have a group dancing time to warm up and learn clogging, a little each day until they have some mastery of basic steps by the end of the week.  The bulk of our class time, however, is spent with partners engaged in creative work.  This effort is done in what I call a 'personal dance space': a scaled down version of the portable square dance platform on which I teach and perform.  Mine is wood, theirs are tape.  Mine is brown, theirs are blue.  Mine is three dimensional, theirs is two dimensional. Mine is 3'x3' and theirs are 2'x2'.  Did I mention I love floor tape?

On the first day we work exclusively as a large group and the tape on the floor in our dance space is a simple three-sided rectangle.  The kids line up with their toes on the tape and face toward the center of the space.  This way everyone can see me and what my feet are doing.  By the second day of our work together I've managed to tape out about 15 pairs of blue dance spaces.  Inevitably, on that day the kids walk into the room and, knowing nothing about what is going to happen in our class later, they go directly to a box and sit down.  I have to redirect them to the large-group perimeter tape but there's something about having a space of one's own, and these boxes just pull them in.

We never talk about the set up of the room, but since we focus quite a bit on transformation and symmetry in this program I try my best to make sure that, if asked, I can draw an accurate line of symmetry down the middle of our dance space.  So, without further ado, here are some drawings done by fourth graders as part of a Thank You letter project their teacher had them complete at the end of the residency.  No one told them what to draw.

I'm obviously very welcoming!  This was drawn from memory, back in her regular classroom. 
Notice the basic symmetry of the space. 
This isn't exactly what the room looks like (not enough squares), but you can draw a perfect line of symmetry from top to bottom of this picture.
One of the other 'below the surface' learning tools in the program is that working with a friend and sharing ideas can lead to amazing results.  Not only are these two girls dancing together (and smiling), they're dancing in a space delineated by blue tape! 


  1. Why 'third teacher', Malke? Who or what is the second teacher?

  2. I'm assuming the first and second teachers are the parents and the classroom teachers. From what I know of the Reggio Emelia approach to early childhood education, the emphasis is on 'the hundred languages of children'. This means that meaning and learning can be constructed and communicated in a myriad of ways. The environment (physical as well as social) can be set up to give children cues as to what to expect (like place settings at a dinner table) and that in this way a teacher can influence how and what a child learns and explores while in the classroom -- essentially allowing children to move at their own volition. If the space is set safely, everything is fair game and the teachers let the kids do as they will and then document their observations on the children's activities as examples of what they are learning.

    At an exhibit in Indy a bunch of years back I saw a fabulous video documenting children exploring an empty old factory in Italy, and then taking that experience back to school and using it to create an amazing dance. The first experience, in the factory, informed the representation of the experience of choreographing and symbolization of being in the factory space and the experiences they had had there.

    For Math in Your Feet, the tape essentially serves as the field trip that can't realistically happen. I have to change the environment I'm in to make my point to the students -- tape on the floor transforms an ordinary floor into a much more structured environment, sending subtle cues toward balance, reflection symmetry, personal space, etc.

    Does that answer your question, Sue? My methods with tape (!) and elementary students might be a step removed from the Reggio Emilia approach, but I think teachers of all levels would do well to consider how environment affects and influences learning.

  3. You answered my question more deeply than I ever could have expected. Thank you.

    I kept thinking of the classroom teacher as the 'first teacher', so that was preventing me from seeing the obvious. Of course the parents would be the first teachers. Lovely concept.


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


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