“…dance like no one’s watching.”

“Work like you don’t need money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,

And dance like no one’s watching.”

Design lessons to meet each individual’s needs.

To engage kids create units that will focus on their interests.

Have options for assessment that allow for student choice.

You have probably heard or read the above lines.  When you first hear them they make a lot of sense, but the one thing that they all imply is that the teacher is still in control. In the end it is still the teacher who has designed, created, and chosen the options.  What would happen if you just gave the content and allowed students to have total control over the end result?  What would happen if you said present it any way you would like to?  Maybe you don’t have to create, maybe you can let students create activities that will engage themselves and meet their needs?

One of the ways our units shift towards the second half of the year is more towards present “however you would like to” at the end of each.  I should say there is a lot of work that goes on in the beginning of the year to get the kids to make the shift, they don’t just walk in and and get told to “do whatever you want to.”  For the last unit on the Civil War, they had to create a thesis, support it with at least four reasons and turn in a “traditional” research paper.   Kids drew conclusions and created thesis statements on topics that ranged from propaganda, spies, battles, the impact on women left behind, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Then they had to make a presentation on their thesis.  Instead of giving every detail that they researched, they are allowed to more or less capture the “essence” of their thesis.  Some kids do come up and give every detail, but some might work really hard to just drive home the single most important point.  I’ll often say, if you meet up with a classmate 10 years from now, what is the one thing you would want them to remember from your presentation?

At the beginning of the year there are many kids who just come up with some papers, and maybe a couple pictures on a power point.  There is no fun or energy in their presentations.  That spirit that allowed them to dance and play while the world watched when they were little, has been replaced by a fear that anything other than reading an essay off of a paper is strange and alien.  They have forgotten “how to dance, as though no one is watching.” The video below shows the last student presentation of the year.  Marissa waited 180 days before “dancing” for us.  It was worth the wait.  I could have tried all year to “create” a unit for her, but I would have never been able to do what she did.   Again, before they got up to present they had to hand in the traditional assignment.  Non-traditional student work can live side-by-side in the same classroom as traditional assignments.  You don’t have to give up one to get the other.  Giving traditional assignments is like having only one song in the juke box, playing it and expecting them to boogie.  Non-traditional assignments that give the students control is like providing them with a 120G iPod full of music in which they get to choose the music to dance to.  In each of us is a dancer.  We were all born with the ability to “dance.”  Sometimes I feel the greatest gift I can give a kid is not teaching them how to “dance,” but reminding them that they can–giving them the opportunity to explore all different types of music until they find the one that gets their feet moving again.  You have to remember that all your students can “dance,” when they find music that they love.

What kind of “music” are you playing in your classroom?

Can you “dance” in your classroom like no one is watching?


  1. “Live like it’s heaven on earth.”

    That’s the last line of the quote. I love the ideas that you use with your students. But I don’t even know how to create those kinds of assignments when all I’ve done and been taught to do is traditional.

    And not to be a whiner, but I don’t see how students can do these types of things with math. Maybe it’s my stumbling block because it’s my content area, but should it be my area of expertise?

    I love your ideas and that you are affecting students enough to make them feel comfortable in sharing their talents and ideas.

    1. I used to whine also. I have a “dead” subject. It is hard to look around and “see” history in everyday life.” I found it incredibly difficult to create authentic units that would matter to anyone. With math, I think it would be important to simply use the math it would be used in real life. Not fake word problems, but use it to solve something real. I read about one school that was next to a construction project. They did something like figure out how much cement was needed for a foundation and handed it over to the construction manager. Is math more about putting them in a situation to use it for real rather than a situation to learn it?

  2. Love it! It is much harder (as a student) to reflect upon the subject matter and present “however you would like”. I’ve had this happen in Grad classes & it makes adults very fearful! Preparation is surely the key, as well as fostering a classroom community that makes it acceptable for someone like Marissa to feel safe enough to go that far to offer up her gifts; that’s a lot of risk taking for a middle school student.

    I’m wondering how to do these types of assessment/presentation in early childhood? Maybe those are years of preparing students to do this type of thing in middle school.

    I have my 1st graders present a reseach project at the end of the year where they may choose whatever topic that interests them, so it’s open-ended in the topic choice. The requirements are pretty structured, though. So what does this look like at younger grades? Is there more structure necessary for the younger students ? As the age of the students increases, the parameters widen?

    1. Hmmmm….Maybe the parameters are as wide as the examples they have seen? Dance Elizabeth! Dance!
      It is hard because when told anything new everyone tries to connect the new information to past experiences. When told “present however you want to” they immediately try to connect to past ways they have seen things presented to them, or they have presented. To often when we present anything new and it flops we tend to blame it on the planning of the activity. I think one has to look at the activities before the one that flopped. So to get them to “dance,” we just have to make sure we show them some steps they could use prior to the big show.

  3. How wonderful that a student like Marissa has been given the chance to use her talents in this way and to express herself so effectively.

    Thank you, Paul, for sharing. I am certainly questioning the way I ask for assignments.

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