Thursday, May 05, 2005

Dirty Dancing

The Friday before vacation, our school had its very first dance. As I was flying to California early the next morning, I only stayed for the first hour. I thought it was fun; the gym was decorated with balloons and streamers, the afterschool step teacher DJ'd, the kids mostly stood around talking (and eating: the food was gone in about 3 minutes!). The kids were all dressed appropriately, and many of them really to the nines. One boy had on a white suit, a black t-shirt, and black shoes, and his friend had the exact reverse. Many kids were more casually dressed, but they all looked good. After 45 minutes or so, a few kids started dancing. And then I went home.

Apparently, about 40 minutes before the end of the dance, the kids really started getting into the music (mostly hip hop and reggaeton) and some of them were grinding and doing other extremely sexual moves. Ms. Principal and the other teachers who were there warned some of the individuals who were dancing this way, but then, after a few minutes of it, and without so much as a warning to all the kids over the PA system or anything, she told the DJ to stop the music and she ended the dance.

"The graduation dance is going to be wack!" That was the consensus among the 8th graders. All the kids were disappointed and angry.

It's a tough one: obviously, 12 and 13-year-olds should not be dancing in such sexually provocative ways, anywhere but least of all at a school event. Yet this is the music they listen to, and it's the style of dancing that they see others in their community do at neighborhood parties. There are several issues: they don't have a lot of experience with other ways to dance, they want to show off their skills, they see this music (and to some extent, this dancing) as part of their culture, and they are testing the authority of the school. Shutting off the music and simply ending the dance doesn't seem like it addresses any of the issues, not really the adults' concerns, not really the kids' needs & wants. What to do?

We obviously need to clearly define what will & will not be allowed at future dances. Easy in theory, but in practice I think you could take 5 adults from our school and we would each draw the line in a different place. Maybe not drastically different, but still different. It might be cool to have some parents or even a professional dance teacher come in and teach salsa and merengue, not necessarily because that's what kids will do at a middle school dance, but to start to show them some alternatives (some fo the kids, of course, already know these dances from home). And we need to talk with the students and allow them to participate in the setting of boundaries, so that they will feel more invested in attending the dances, having fun, and behaving appropriately for their age.

I had a period of 7th grade health to kill in between our unit on drugs & alcohol and our unit on sexuality & adolescence, so I decided to try an experiment. I had the kids sit in a big circle. I wrote up about 10 "point-of-view" cards and handed them out to students who volunteered. They took on roles - one was the principal, a couple were parents (with different opinions about what's appropriate), a few were students (again, with a range of opinions), and a few were teachers (likewise). I wrote a few sentences for each card explaining where that person was coming from. I told the students that although this was in part a response to what happened at the dance, it was also a good lead-in to the next unit. We reviewed the ground rules for "accountable talk" - it turns out they've been very well-trained by their Communication Arts teacher. Then I asked those students with roles to introduce themselves and begin a conversation about appropriate behavior at school dances.

It was hard for the students to take on those roles, so I'm not sure how productive that exercise was, but when I opened the floor to everyone, we had a pretty interesting and valuable conversation. I had to intervene several times because they interrupted each other, but then I borrowed a trick from the CA teacher and asked them how the conversation was going if they were grading themselves on a 1-4 rubric. They knew they were not doing as well as they could have been, and after that, the conversation really improved.

We didn't really come to any kind of conclusion or consensus or solution to the question of what kind of music and dancing should be allowed so that school dances could be both fun and appropriate. The conversation veered into a discussion about what adults are afraid of - the kids had a lot of insight on that - and whether sexy dancing really leads to sex. We talked briefly about how you get adults to trust you, about the risks of early sexual behavior, about the idea that parents might trust you but not trust the people you hang out with. Again, no overall consensus was reached - and how could it be, really? - but a lot of important ideas were aired. And by the end, most of the kids were listening and/or participating really respectfully and responding to each other. No one wanted to end it when the period ended. It says something positive that the conversation got better the longer it continued.

For homework, I wrote up a few questions about music and dancing for them to ask in an interview with an adult (usually a parent, but not for everyone). I left space for them to add their own questions, and then on the back, I asked them whether they agreed with what the adult said, whether it surprised them at all, and whether they had any suggestions for what our school should do about the dances.

The interviews provided insight into what the parents of our students believe is acceptable, and most of the students seemed to agree with their parents' perspectives, except when their parents objected to the music itself - the kids really claim their music as their own (every generation does!), regardless of violence, profanity, sexuality, etc. One parent said that at school dances in her time, you had to stay a balloon's distance away from other students. That seemed like a nice way to enforce the rules - it's just corny enough to keep things light.

I marked the assignment in my gradebook and then gave the interviews to my principal to look at - to me, they show that the kids are more in agreement with us than in rebellion, and that we should be able to find a compromise. (I do wonder what the results would be if we did the same lesson with the eighth graders, who are champing at the bit to get out of our strict school...).

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