Never underestimate the power of dance

Marking MA dissertations is both an interesting experience and a challenge. Many students conduct interesting small scale research studies and write fascinating dissertations that educate their tutors as much as themselves. The challenge often comes with getting them all marked in a limited time span ready for examination boards.

Along with colleagues who teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course in Bangalore, I recently finished marking our latest batch of final studies from a cohort of excellent students. As is often the case there was a significant amount of highly original and innovative work within these dissertations, and the time spent reading and marking was informative and interesting. Most of the students complete research focused upon their own work and schools, and provide insights into the daily challenges that they face and the ways in which they endeavour to overcome these. Often they investigate their own teaching approaches with considerable enthusiasm and critique these in a most honest and reflective manner.

A recent video posted on the BBC news website (see below) encouraged me to return to a number of recordings made by Maitreyee one of our Bangalore students whose excellent dissertation I marked a few weeks ago. Maitreyee works in a special school with many children who present with complex learning needs and in some instances additional physical disabilities. She is an enthusiastic dancer who performs with a local group in Bangalore and had utilised her knowledge of dance to inform her teaching in school.

Maitreyee in her research considered how the use of dance impacts upon both the learning and well-being of the students she teaches. Through a series of interviews and video recorded observations she involved her students at the heart of her project,and was able to demonstrate the many benefits of the work that she has undertaken over several years . Watching the video recordings it was soon evident that many of the young people in her classes use dance as an effective means of communication whilst also gaining a great deal of pleasure from their movement and performance. This is a unique study and one that I hope may find a broader audience though publication.

It was with Maitreyee’s work in mind that I returned to the BBC video posted on this blog which I feel demonstrates a number of things with which I am sure she would agree. Not least that dance can be a tremendous vehicle for learning and that for some students it inspires self-confidence, a means of expression and enthusiasm. Equally important is the message that we should never underestimate an individual who is labelled as having a specific “condition” or described as having a disability.

I have watched this video several times now and each time new thoughts come to mind. Firstly, that I personally lack the co-ordination that is evident in the accomplished young lady featured in the film. Secondly, that she exudes an amazing confidence and authority in her demonstration of technique and her teaching. Thirdly, that she expresses a realistic ambition and dedication for what she might achieve in the future, and finally, that this is a young lady who has great confidence in her own abilities, and that others must also have shared this confidence, though I suspect some may have underestimated  her capabilities.

I don’t really want to say anything more about this video recording, but rather leave it for you to watch and then hopefully to hear about the reaction it might promote in you. If you have comments I would be delighted to hear what they are. I hope you enjoy the short presentation.

Now I’d better get back to some marking I suppose.

 

 

Let’s value the freedom to respond.

 

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

“To become self-aware, people must be allowed to hear a plurality of opinions and then make up their own minds. They must be allowed to say, write and publish whatever they want. Freedom of expression is the most basic, but fundamental, right. Without it, human beings are reduced to automatons.”

MA Jian (Chinese author of Red Dust, and The Noodle Maker)

 

In writing a blog, one of the most interesting and at times amusing elements of the process is the unpredictability of the responses posted by readers. Posting a reply to any article makes a demand upon the thoughts and the time of the respondent, and such efforts should therefore always be treated with respect. Reading the responses can often be an educative process, with comments made that provide an interesting interpretation upon the issues raised in the original article, and ideas that expand or elaborate upon a focus of debate.

As might be expected, there are regular respondents who have engaged in this arms-length form of conversation, and have contributed useful and interesting ideas and experiences with other readers with whom they have never met, but feel able to share their thoughts. A specific example of this was the informative range of responses to Dancing together to the same inclusive tune posted on November 12th 2014. In this article I referred to a student in Bangalore exploring elements of dance for children with special educational needs, and the dearth of literature related to this subject. Within days, several respondents had posted information that they hoped would be of help, and as a result of this I know that the student concerned has gained useful knowledge, and has also had some personal contact and shared ideas with a dance teacher several thousands of miles from her home. It was in the hope of provoking an interchange such as this, and establishing connections between committed individuals that I began writing this blog.

Whilst there are regular respondents to these pages, it is always interesting to see a posted reply from someone previously unknown. When this happens I find myself wondering what it was that provoked them into writing about this specific topic or on this particular occasion. Did they stumble upon the article by chance, or do they read the blog regularly but have never previously felt the need to respond? Thus it is you see, that as the writer of a blog intended to promote dialogue, my own curiosity is aroused by those who reply.

There are, however, other readers who also give me cause for thought, and possibly even a little concern. From time to time I receive emails from individuals who have read an article and wish to comment but feel unable to do so in the  public domain of a blog. I was looking back over some of these mails a week or so ago and wondering about the sentiments and emotions that they express and the situations in which the correspondents live or work. These emails tend to fall into two categories, the first of which I intend to dismiss fairly quickly, and the second to which I will devote more space.

Category one consists of emails from individuals who have  taken exception to either the comments that I have made or my interpretation of the issues discussed. An example of this relates to the article Thank you for a letter of appreciation posted on July 16th 2014 in which I commented favourably upon the actions of Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher at a school in  Lancashire in the UK. This lady had written to all of her pupils thanking them for their hard work over the course of an academic year, and emphasising that she was proud of all of their personal achievements, even where their academic attainment may not have been outstanding. This head teacher’s actions had impressed me as an example of someone prepared to stand by her beliefs that education should be valued as a holistic process, rather than simply one of jumping through academic hoops. Clearly some readers disagreed, which of course they were perfectly entitled to do. However, rather than posting their responses on the blog they chose to send emails directly to me casting various aspersions upon my personage rather than commenting upon the ideas that I had presented. Fortunately this happens quite rarely and my response has always been to reply politely, suggesting that they share their opinions openly by posting a response in order that others may join in the debate. Strangely enough, they have thus far declined my invitation.

The second category of email correspondents differs considerably from the first. This comprises individuals who want to comment on an article, but feel unable to do so on what they regard to be a public platform that could leave them exposed. Typically they write to me to share a personal experience, often in the school in which they work, that exemplifies an issue that I have raised as an area of concern. For example in responding by email to You can’t hit the middle of the target every time (February 10th 2015) a teacher told me of her own anxieties about the ways in which the perceived failure of children in her school to achieve certain academic targets was being used to label them as “remedial pupils,” and that if they were not seen to make significant improvements they were being recommended for removal from the school. In her email to me this teacher commented:-

“I thought for a long time about whether I could put this reply on your blog, but in the end I decided that if someone recognised me and told the school principal it would lead to trouble. I just wanted to say what I feel, so sent you this mail because I didn’t feel I could put my ideas out there on the internet.”

Obviously, when I receive mails of this nature I send a reply assuring the sender that I will not post any identifying details on these pages. (I sent this posting to the lady quoted above and have her consent to use this passage on condition that her identity remains confidential).

The respondents who fall into this category of individuals keen to engage in debate but wary of doing so in a public arena, may well be justified in their apprehensions. Whilst I believe that education should play an important role in fostering democratic principles, and should aim to teach respect for a range of opinions and perspectives, I am aware that my views do not necessarily strike a chord with everyone. Sadly the ability to express an opinion with an assurance that this will be debated in a civil and courteous manner is not always possible. Indeed such a situation remains beyond the reach of many teachers and others even today, and may be seen as a significant impediment to the promotion of those democratic principles of education that many of us hold dear.

Education since before the days of Socrates has been a process of sharing ideas and gaining knowledge through discourse and dialogue. The opportunities that exist to enhance this exchange of ideas have greatly increased in this digital age. Those who wish to restrict the scope for learning that comes with such debate, are obviously fearful of the widening of the possibilities provided through democratic processes. Whilst some readers remain apprehensive in respect of posting their ideas, they are clearly engaged in the discussion of their thoughts in other less public ways.

To those of you who feel able to post responses on these pages, I say celebrate the freedom that education has afforded you. To those who feel more constrained, I hope you may find other ways of joining the debate with those of us who will respect your opinions. And to those who may still feel the need to take a more oppositional position, I hope that you too may gather the courage to share your opinions, in order that debate may take place upon a more democratic platform than that which you have currently chosen to endorse .

Thank you, to a most inclusive community of teachers and learners

Sharing ideas around the world is now so much easier. Can this serve to create greater respect and understanding?

Sharing ideas around the world is now so much easier. Can this serve to create greater respect and understanding?

When I started writing this blog my motivation was largely centred on providing a platform of discussion for the students with whom I work in Bangalore. I must confess that I was a reluctant blogger in the early stages of this process. I had been encouraged by colleagues at the university who are far more in tune with the digital age than I am, or ever will be. Over the course of a relatively short time it became apparent that a much broader circle of people were either regular or occasional readers of my ramblings, and it is always interesting to see the comments that people post in response to what I say, or read the email messages from those who appear not to have the confidence to post their ideas on line.

Yesterday was a particularly heartening day in respect of the responses received to my brief piece Dancing Together to the Same Inclusive Tune. I had been musing on an exchange of emails with one of my Bangalore based students who is working towards her dissertation and the challenges that she has faced in gaining access to a good range of research based literature. The reason I was so pleased with responses to this simple blog was that by yesterday evening a number of people had empathised with this student’s situation and had made the effort to contact me either through the blog, or directly via email to send their ideas, copies of papers, details of video recordings or offering helpful contacts. John’s posted comments reminded me of the excellent work of the Laban centre and Tina sent a very interesting video and a link to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and their work with disabled children. Swathi, herself a dancer in India is now in direct contact with my student and has a number of interesting contacts. Carmel and Anita both posted messages related to their personal encounters with dance for children with special educational needs,  and Jayashree drew attention to the work of Tripura Kashyap and dance  with disabled children in India. Miriam in Ireland made some profound observations about how dance is being used in a therapeutic manner in that country. An email from the USA included a paper that has been passed on and other papers were forwarded to me from Ireland and Australia. With all of this support and helpful information coming in I received a grateful mail from my student in Bangalore who says thank you to everyone and that whereas she was previously struggling to find enough literature, “I have plenty to read now!”

The successful outcomes of this electronic exchange made me reflect upon the generosity of spirit that characterises teachers working to create more inclusive approaches to teaching. Not so many years ago it would have been almost impossible to elicit a response to a call for help or advice from people all around the world. Yesterday’s series of responses demonstrates how there is now a shared commitment to address issues, about which we are all concerned and to enable teachers and children to make progress towards a more inclusive education system.

Every day I receive an electronic report indicating from which parts of the globe individuals have logged in and accessed this blog. To date people from 94 countries have accessed the blog (though I suspect that many stumble upon it by accident and never return!) In England in recent years we have discussed the notion of creating communities of learners, where individuals with common interests come together to share their experiences and ideas for the benefit of a wider community. Yesterday’s reactions indicate to me that there are many people around the world who share a desire to create an inclusive community of learners for support of those who work with marginalised children.

My simple focus for today is therefore to say thank you to all of those teachers, parents and students who have indicated a willingness to share their knowledge, learning and experiences, and to help others who have a similar commitment and focus. It is through such generosity that we can have hopes to create schools and education systems that benefit all learners. Do please keep sending your replies and sharing your knowledge, experiences and expertise with others.

Dancing together to the same inclusive tune.

Inclusion through dance. A shared vision achieved with grace and skill.

Inclusion through dance. A shared vision achieved with grace and skill by Axis Dance Company.

One of the pleasures, though also sometimes one of the challenges, of supporting MA students as they work on research towards their final dissertations, is that they sometimes tackle subjects that introduce me to a whole new range of literature. Being encouraged to read papers and chapters that I would not necessarily have encountered were it not for a student’s interests, is most certainly a benefit that comes with this job.

An example of this has been exercising my mind over recent weeks since my return home from Bangalore. Whilst many of our students there have opted to address areas of inclusive schooling or support for children with special educational needs with which I am familiar, and fairly confident in terms of my knowledge of the literature; one of our students has decided to conduct her research into the use of dance as a means of increasing the sociability and confidence of the children in the special school where she works. This is most certainly an area outside of my usual comfort zone, though one where I already feel I am beginning to learn and ask questions.

The student concerned is a confident and very well organised teacher. Her work on the course, both in respect of her writing and her participation in class has been excellent. Furthermore, she keeps in touch, regularly reporting on her progress and asking questions at every stage of the process. She is already devising innovative approaches to recording dance lessons through the use of video recording that involves her pupils, and considering how to  manage the data she is collecting. Her approach to working is well considered and professional and this makes my job as her tutor relatively easy.

Having chosen to research an under investigated area, especially within an Indian context, one particular issue has presented a number of challenges. A systematic search of data bases has revealed a limited corpus of literature dealing with this area. Very few researchers appear to have done work on the application  of dance for children with complex learning needs, and much of what has been published has little by the way of an empirical or theoretical foundation. The limited number of papers that have been found have been analysed and discussed by my student with her usual attention to detail, but still there remains an ambition to find anything else that might be out there. (If you know of anything do please post the details in reply to this blog).

As is usual in such circumstances I have drawn on the resources of my colleagues, asking their advice and seeking any knowledge that they might have of dance for children with special educational needs. Several have made suggestions, but little has been retrieved that adds to the work already found by my student. However, as is often the case in situations such as this, further opportunities for learning have arisen during this process. Hearing of this dilemma, a former student emailed me today, not with advice regarding literature, but telling me of an experience she had a few years ago when a dance company visited Dartington Hall in Devon. She drew my attention to a YouTube video which shows some of the work of Axis Dance Company, a group of whom I previously knew nothing.

Founded in 1987 Axis Dance Company describe themselves as a physically integrated contemporary dance and education organization. They are based  in California and specialise in choreographing dance that brings together able bodied and disabled dancers. Their work has won many national and international awards and they have an enviable reputation for their education programme.

Judith Smith, who has been the artistic director of Axis since 1997 says that:-

“We realized early on that rather than being a limitation, disability can radically expand what’s possible with choreography. People that move differently, whether it’s in motorized wheelchairs, on crutches or with prosthetics, create all these partnering and ensemble possibilities that wouldn’t exist with dancers who can all move the same way.”

Having read about this interesting company of performers and spent an hour watching recordings of their work, I am struck by the respect for individuality and commitment to inclusion that they have achieved. The available recordings of their performances demonstrate the sublime beauty of movement accomplished by individuals working in harmony with creative imagination and skill. The power of dance and the demonstration of physical excellence is achieved through high levels of collaboration and the development of total trust between the individuals involved.

I suspect that having had my attention drawn to the work of Axis will have done little to assist my student in search of further literature for her study. However, this is indicative of the incidental learning and opportunities for widening of our horizons that often accompanies our work in education.

You can see an example of the work of Axis Dance Company by clicking on the link here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OU-T6oAiBM

Several other performances by Axis are also available on YouTube

Whilst you are enjoying these breath-taking performances, I must return to assisting my student in attempting to find further literature to help her with her studies.

 

“A soul to the universe”

Leezan BG iraq_A2

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.”

Plato

So much of what is on television today appears trite and banal. This is a shame, because at its best television can be a powerful medium for entertainment, information and education. With so many channels to choose from it would be easy to assume that there would always be something of interest to see, but perhaps it is simply my jaded palette that leads me to find much of today’s television content disappointing.

Having made this sweeping critical generalisation about the world’s favourite media, I have to confess that from time to time a programme is broadcast on our screens that leaves an indelible impression and cannot be easily shaken from the memory. Just such a programme featured in the television schedules last night; a documentary so thought provoking and desperately sad that it was the first thing I thought about this morning as I awoke.

“Dancing in the Danger Zone,” sensitively fronted by the reporter Evan Williams and produced for Channel 4, tells the story of the Baghdad School of Music and Dance, the only arts based school remaining in the troubled country of Iraq. In particular it follows the daily routines of two young students, Leezan an elegant and articulate ballet dancer and Mohammed a gifted musician, and the stresses that are part of their daily lives and that of their families. Both of these students express their search for excellence in their chosen discipline, and a determination to achieve a performance as close to perfection as they can possibly manage. Their enthusiasm and commitment portrays the most fundamental features of the relationship between teaching learning and passion for their chosen subject that characterises the best qualities of education.

If these two young people were in school here in England they would be widely admired for their talent, dedication and endeavours, but they would probably not have attracted the attention of documentary makers. The appalling reality of this programme was that it focused as much upon the dangers that these gifted young people face simply in attending school, as it did upon their artistic accomplishments. Early in the programme Evan Williams makes the astounding statement “Leezan could be the last ballerina in Iraq” and commences to describe how religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence has challenged the legitimacy of the performing arts within the country. The graceful movements and subtle expression of ballet so greatly admired around the world, have been illegitimately equated by religious zealots to acts of immodesty and even wantonness. Powerful clerics have deemed that acts of performance, whether these are of dance or music are ungodly and sinful and they have therefore sought to banish these from the country.

At one point in the programme Leezan tells Williams, “Inside the school everything is beautiful,” she then goes on to describe why there are armed guards posted at the school gates and the reasons why she never talks about attending this school, or her love of dancing to anyone. To do so could put herself and those she loves in danger. Mohammed in a tearful interview shows a poster he made to commemorate the life of his friend Ali another talented musician, who also attended the school, and was killed by a bomber. We see him play a Chopin nocturne with great tenderness, it was apparently one that Ali particularly liked and Mohammed states that when he plays it “I feel he is still around.” In a moving passage he describes in a stilted and choking voice his sadness at not being able to attend his friend’s funeral because he was from a different religious community and would not have been welcome in the area. The irony of this is clear, Mohammed is from the Sunni community and his lost friend Ali was a Shia yet they were best friends. These young people appear more willing to cross boundaries and learn to understand and respect their different backgrounds and beliefs than those who currently rule the country.

During the programme we are shown the homes and families of both of these students. Their families express both their determination to support their children in pursuit of their dreams, but also share their anxieties for the dangers they face every day simply for attending the school. There are now only two ballet teachers remaining in Baghdad, both recall earlier days when the school flourished and performances were eagerly awaited by the public. Now such a public display of talent would endanger the lives of students, teachers and any who cared to support them. The statement made by Evan Williams in the film that “each day here is an act of defiance” is chilling when one considers that this description is being applied to a school. Equally disturbing is the belief expressed by both students, that in order to pursue a career in the arts it will be necessary to leave Iraq.

Iraq is a country that was home to the great poet Muhammad Al-Jawahiri, the painter Faeq Hassan and the musician Nasseer Shamma who is well known as a peace activist working in support of the people in that region. These individuals and many like them continue to bring joy and understanding into the lives of people across the world, of all religions and none. It is hard to believe that there are some in Iraq who would wish to repress the creativity of such individuals and deny the dreams of gifted students such as Leezan and Mohammed.

School years should be a time of learning and joy, a period during which young people are encouraged to discover their talents and hone their abilities. This happens in situations where students are enabled to think freely, express their ideas and share their interpretation of their world with others. Wherever there have been efforts made to suppress creativity individuals and groups have found ways of defying and overcoming the regimes that fear the abilities of creative people to express their views, whether this be through the written word, music, dance or the production of visual art. I hope that in the future we may hear more about Leezan and Mohammed and others like them from Iraq as they enjoy successful artistic careers both within and outside of their homeland. I am equally hopeful that the good people of Iraq, who undoubtedly form the majority in that country, soon enjoy a return to the peace and stability that allowed a flourishing of free thinking and creativity throughout earlier periods of their history.

Until such a time arrives, as it surely will, we must be grateful to journalists such as Evan Williams and those who support him for the making of programmes such as “Dancing in the Danger Zone,” which ensure that the plight of young people like Leezan and Mohammed are brought to the world’s attention. This is television at its most relevant, which makes even this most cynical of viewers sit up and take notice.

Do visit the website below to find out more about the extraordinary young people mentioned in this blog.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/unreported-world/videos/all/dancing-in-the-danger-zone