Engaging Students in Whole Body Learning
November 28, 2016
I’ve been reading a book by Malke Rosenfeld about teaching children math concepts by engaging whole body movements.
I devoured every word of this Math on the Move, took copious notes, and am reading it again, even though I don’t anticipate that I will ever exactly do this thing that Malke writes about.
What I happily discovered here is what I see as a landmark book that gives a voice to the thoughtfulness and rigor within the practice of the teaching artist.
It’s funny, looking over my notes: on the right sides of my notebook I write down reference to passages that I want to remember. On the left sides I’ve sketched out flows of ideas that pop into my mind as I read what she’s written.
One thing I realize as a go through this book is that the teaching-artist in me is lonely. The dynamic, curriculum-referenced collaborations, I do with students is exciting, joyful and creative work, but I suffer from a dearth of a community of colleagues.
Malke has shared not only an innovative and accessible way of presenting complex ideas, but, in this book, she has also been generous with letting me experience of the way she brings her art into the classroom, sharing details of her process and values, details which I am assimilating with a greedy urgency.
An example: in preparation for a math/movement class, Malke writes that she has applied blue tape on the floor which looks like the silhouette of a 25 foot ladder. She then invites students to get to know the taped shaped before she begins the formal presentation. The students run around the outside of the shapes, get on the floor and slide around it, jump in and out of the delineated squares. I read this and I feel ashamed and excited. Ashamed because I know how often I hand out evocative materials and introduce them with the words don’t touch, excited because I can imagine ways of allowing for a few minutes of pre-activity exploration which I suspect will profoundly deepen the students connection to the work we do together.
Further in to the book, Malke mentions changing up a lesson the fly because of student absences. Oh my gosh, this is something that no one ever talks about! The challenges that teaching-artist faces in providing meaning and continuity within the context of seemingly random shifts in who showing up (or who’s crying, or throwing up, or coughing incessantly) requires a calm and nimble response. We seamlessly need to be able to switch things up.
As I am writing this I’m on-line and I’m seeing that David Butler, a PhD in finite geometry (that is to say a University prof far removed from elementary math education) is writing about Malke’s book too, also noticing her process. He’s saying to her, In the videos I noticed you say “that’s gonna take some practice” but never “that’s hard” and The only time I notice you saying “great job” is for the act of sharing their work-in-progress with others. Yes! It’s such a gift for the details in Malke’s teaching to be included with the big ideas of this book.
This is not to say that there I wasn’t interested in her big ideas, which are about connecting students with math in a completely unexpected but totally reasonable way. Anyone who knows my work has seen how I’ve been interested in the connections between math and artful projects. Malke combines dance movement with math. This is such an utterly brand new idea for me that I had no idea what she would be talking about. However, step by step, from chapters entitled The Body as an “Object to Think With” and How is this Math? to Assess, Extend, and Connect I totally understood what she was saying, so much so that it’s hard for me to understand why I hadn’t thought about this before.
Malke references Seymour Papert, who wrote “…the teaching of mathematics, as it is traditionally done in our schools, is a process by which we ask the child to forget the natural experience of mathematics in order to learn a new set of rules.”
The deep truth in this quote stops me in my tracks every time. It reminds me that the most profound teaching that I can do is mostly about guiding students to make sense of and give new context and language to that which they already know. For instance, Malke points out that “…developing a useful understanding of angle has been shown…to be be extremely challenging for learners but critical to students’ success…” Angles, hmm. Think about this in terms of the body – any child who can bring two fingers on the same hand together then spread them apart has the tools to explore the properties of angles. Once I got the hang of thinking about math concepts in terms of the body, the possibilities seem endless.
This is where the power of the Malke’s ideas are in full bloom. Why restrict the learning of important concepts to the dimensions of a desk when there is a whole body there that already knows so much of what we teach and is ready to learn more? Malke shows how to figuring out how to tap that inner knowledge and build on it.
My teaching toolkit just got infused with a whole new way of working!