Reflections on Inclusion in Middle School

By Alisa Rasera

October 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“I thought I was really going to struggle getting my students involved in dance, but it was the opposite . . . It was really good to see them work towards the [Bay Area National Dance Week] performance in Union Square. It was reaffirming for them to take part in this . . . highlighting that they are doing the same thing as everyone else—because they are often in a bubble that makes them different.”

— L. Gluck, Westlake Middle School special education teacher

As we begin our fourth year of teaching dance at Westlake Middle School (Oakland Unified School District), I reflect on the progress of two interconnected investigations by Luna Dance Institute (LDI): Middle School Dance Inquiry and Special Needs Inquiry projects. In the early development of the program at Westlake, we grappled with questions such as: Where does dance belong in the middle school setting? Who is the middle school student? How can dance help the middle schooler experience success physically, socially, cognitively and artistically—at a time when a rapidly changing body, transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and increased awareness of the stress and pressures of the larger society often lead to feeling out of control, fearful, angry, and alone?

At the same time, LDI focused efforts on keeping dance available to as many students as possible by offering it through the physical education program as well as through special education. For students who were able to receive in-school dance classes throughout their middle school tenure, this proved invaluable to supporting their learning in both a performing arts form and academic studies.

As the Dance Teaching Artist and lead for this project, I have been able to use and expand tools from my prior experience with Oakland-based physically integrated AXIS Dance Company as a resource for approaching curriculum and making student inclusion a priority in every class. The learning that I acquired early on, I now apply in a way that allows my personal practice of dance teaching to evolve and grow with each class. I have also grown in my ability to develop connections with both students and their teachers.

As with any teaching practice, it takes time to find a flow, navigating the quirks of a school environment and dance space set-up, as well as time to build partnerships with teachers, specialists and school administration. These aspects of teaching have their own organic process. Over this last year of teaching I began to feel like the rhythm for a middle school dance program had finally kicked in!

As a dance education organization, LDI has found a home in this middle school community. Dance at Westlake continues to be accepted and nurtured as a vital piece of the educational experiences for both students and teachers. Mr. Redmond, one of Westlake’s physical education teachers, sums up his “Aha!” moment: “Students will do dance if they are in groups and feel safe to perform. In their groups, students are very engaged and creative in crafting their own dances.” When reflecting with the principal of Westlake Middle School, Mr. K, he shared that students may not make the connections between dance and life until later on, but the more opportunities we give them to be exposed to and take part in new life experiences, the more chances they will have to succeed. The dance program is building capacity for both teachers and students at Westlake. Bringing dance to this diverse community of teenagers has thus far proven to be a worthy investment in enriching their lives with the art of movement and in nurturing the future of the vibrant communities in Oakland.

As noted at the outset, the Middle School Dance Inclusion Project was developed as an extension of LDI’s Special Needs Inquiry, which addressed the question “What does dance look like for students with disabilities?” Following successful outcomes of Luna’s five-year dance inclusion project at Tilden Elementary in Oakland, we were inspired to expand the inquiry to middle school. We found that in both settings all kids thrive when they (1) are offered curriculum that is inclusive, child-centered and standards-based; (2) have opportunities to work together to solve dance problems collaboratively in groups that include kids with varying abilities; and (3) can easily connect their dance experiences to the wider realm of their community and the field of dance. The curriculum for both physical education and special education dance classes is the same, though the implementation may be different. Using the National Standards for Dance “Create, Perform, Respond” model, the middle school dance curriculum focuses on the elements of dance; dancing with partners; exploring the individuality of bodies, props and adaptive equipment; and exploring composition principles that allow the individual students to authentically and uniquely express themselves while responding to and appreciating the work of others.

An important part of making the dance classes fully inclusive and integrated is joining special education students with selected general ed students in the same class. This peer-assisted learning support (PALS) model was created during my tenure at AXIS in a partnership with Nancy Henderson, an adaptive physical education specialist at Albany Unified. Extending the PALS concept to Westlake and holding the class two times a week, all year, offered students a physical and rigorous way to express creativity as well as an opportunity to develop leadership skills, make new friends and have fun. “I love dance class! I wish I had it every day!” was a common response.

Around the middle of the 2009–10 school year, I realized that these kids were ready to dance in a new setting, so we prepared for the event in Union Square, the kickoff for Bay Area Celebrates National Dance Week. Westlake’s special education teachers, paraprofessionals and I escorted eighteen middle school students on BART to San Francisco for the One Dance performance event. They performed alongside many other elementary, middle and high school students, as well as with some professional companies and artists as a part of the “flash mob.” This experience clarified for me as a teaching artist that students truly do arrive at the next place of development when they are ready. For these middle school students, this meant giving them the time (for some, a couple of years) to personally connect with what dance can be for them; time to build trust in both teachers and peers; and time to build confidence in their abilities to create, perform and respond through the art of dance.

What’s next for LDI’s inquiry projects? We have just begun a new school year of dancing with Westlake Middle School students and teachers. For some, dance curriculum will be a continuation of learning; for others, it will be the first time they have experienced a dance class. It is easy to start each year with greater ambition than the prior year, setting lots of goals. I’ve discovered that by raising the bar for myself and for all students, there is more potential for dance learning that uses both repetition and new concept development. It is a joy to walk down the halls of Westlake Middle School and see faces of teens, now eighth graders, whom I have witnessed becoming confident young dance makers!

This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of In Dance.