Pupils led the dance as my best lesson found its rhythm

10th February 2012 at 00:00
The best moments in teaching come when the children take over - as one group did when I introduced them to Puccini

Somewhere deep within the memory banks of every teacher there lies a recollection of their best lesson. A lesson where everything went right. A lesson where the traditional distinction between teacher and learner, between content and learning, and between time and space are somehow transcended by the shared experience. That recollection can be triggered by the strangest things and for me it happened on a Saturday evening, watching a documentary about Puccini's opera, Tosca.

As a PE teacher, probably better known for my involvement in rugby and team sports, it might be something of a surprise that the memory of my best lesson is triggered by such an unlikely stimulus. The lesson itself took place in February 1994, in a gym at Earlston High, where I was principal teacher of PE. I had returned to the school three years earlier from a secondment to the Scottish Centre for Physical Education, Movement, Sport and Leisure. During that time, I had decided that when I went back to school, I was going to try to teach and promote dance for all pupils in the school.

Now this was going to be quite a challenge as I had no ability as a dancer, nor was the Scottish Borders the most obvious cultural context for teaching dance, especially to boys. And so it was that we set about, with my colleagues at that time, attempting to create a culture in the school where dance was just something that everyone did and enjoyed.

Part of my logic had been to challenge the traditional orthodoxy of rugby for boys and hockey for girls and the simple stereotypes that we as teachers fulfilled in the eyes of the students, i.e. I was a man, I was a rugby player, I taught rugby, therefore I was only interested in teaching boys and rugby.

The type of dance I'm referring to here is creative dance. What we would do was give the pupils a quality movement vocabulary, confidence to move in time with music and then use a dramatic theme to get them to create their own routines. As you can probably imagine, it took a bit of doing, but it was probably at this time that I came to understand the power of modelling behaviour, i.e. if I wasn't prepared to do it (dance), then I couldn't expect the pupils to do it. This led to my attempting to demonstrate, experiment, and in all honesty show myself up in front of the children.

On reflection, the very fact that I wasn't an expert was probably in my favour, as we learnt together and this created an atmosphere where the learners seem to have much more power than in other areas where I was the assumed "expert".

Anyway, back to the lesson some three years later. By that time, we had established dance as an acceptable activity for boys and girls. We ran an annual school dance festival where more than 300 pupils took part and at least 50 per cent of the participants were boys. In Higher physical education, we offered an option between dance and tennis and more boys opted for the dance, three of whom also played rugby for Scottish Schools Under-18s. The class I remember was an S4 Standard grade PE class which was taking the second unit of dance in a two-year course.

There were 25 in the class and more boys than girls. They were a great bunch of kids and I knew that if ever there was a group to try something different with, it would have to be them. With that in mind, I had popped up to the music department to borrow some classical music. Ever helpful, my colleague suggested I try Puccini's Tosca as it was full of "wonderful" themes.

The series of lessons began with us listening to the recording and selecting a piece for us to create a dance. I stood back as they argued about which one would be the best and eventually settled upon E Lucevan Le Stelle. Over the next six weeks, we created an incredible piece of work around the death of two lovers, ending in a funeral ceremony where they are carried and laid to rest by their peers. If you've never heard the music, I can thoroughly recommend it, but what was amazing was how this group of young people came to love and understand the music for itself - despite having no understanding of the opera. I deliberately didn't explore the opera's themes in case it compromised their own ideas.

What was so incredible was how the students came to care about the quality of the work, the quality of the movement and expression and their desire to ensure that everyone was included in the piece. Sure, they looked to me for support and I would occasionally steer them when required, but to all intents and purposes the lesson became theirs, and they were proud of that fact.

The culmination came one day when they pulled all the various elements of the dance together. The two lovers coming together, their death and sense of loss, their friends finding them and expressing their collective grief, and the dignity of the funeral ceremony. I'm not afraid to admit that I wept - along with many of them - at that scene. In fact the music still lifts the hairs on the back of my neck even now.

My best lesson - but it belonged to them - perhaps this is what good teaching should always be?

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today