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Posted on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 5:21 a.m.

Do the Group, Do the Group, Do the Group, Group Dance

By Jeff Kass

For four years, and prior to the current economic wretchedness, I worked as the Poet-in-Residence for Ann Arbor Public Schools. What that meant was that instead of spending my mornings teaching at Pioneer, I traveled around the district and conducted poetry workshops at elementary and middle schools, and for other high school classes. 

Sometimes the workshops were quick-hit one-day wonders, but more often I would visit a class for four or five days and gain the opportunity to significantly bond with the students and teachers. Over that four-year period, I had the pleasure to visit a couple hundred classrooms and one thing I learned was that, regardless of age group - kindergarten through 12th grade - in nearly all the classes were the teachers seemed really terrific and the students vibrant and engaged, there was a certain amount of playful goofiness.

One teacher allowed students to choose the music she would play in her CD player as the kids “boogied back to their desks” to transition from whole-group circle activities to individual work. Another played a jazzy riff on a piano while the rest of the class sang a bee-bop version of Happy Birthday and the birthday girl danced happily around the room. A third apparently had convinced her students she had the ability to shape-shift into a lion because the kids would tell me they didn’t misbehave in class because their teacher knew how to roar.

In each of these classes, and in others where I had the chance to observe rituals of goofiness, the students seemed less anxious, less self-conscious, and more willing to take risks in their writing. I can be pretty darn serious. I spend the first few days of each semester detailing the policies and procedures for my class and saying things like I do not accept lame excuses such as “I can’t write in school, I can only write at home.” If you believe such nonsense about yourself, then I suggest you immediately schedule an appointment with your counselor and transfer out of here. This is a Creative Writing classroom. When I devote time for in-class writing, I expect you to write.

I also initiate the Group Dance.

The Group Dance occurs when, after having students spend 10-15 minutes working on a writing exercise, I want them to group themselves into cadres of three or four and share what they’ve just written with each other. For many students, that’s a daunting endeavor. First, it’s difficult enough just to share writing with other people. Many students don’t feel confident about their writing ability, let alone about how their voice sounds when they read their work aloud. Others may feel generally okay with the notion of reading their work aloud, but feel what they’ve written exposes a vulnerability or passion they’d prefer to keep private. Some are terrified for both those reasons. There’s also a kind of physical inertia that sets in throughout the period that compels students not to want to move from where they’re comfortable. Pioneer can feel like a crowded and chaotic habitat. When a student settles into a desk at the beginning of class, he or she is also staking out a refuge, a place to feel secure for the next 53 minutes. Asking students to abandon that refuge is like asking a dog to walk around the block backward. Their bodies just aren’t interested.

To combat these various levels of resistance, I turn goofy. Time to get your dancing shoes on, I say. Time to do the group, do the group, do the group, group dance.

Most students either groan or look at me like I’m the biggest knucklehead on the planet. But if the focus is on my knuckleheadedness and not their fears, movement begins to happen. I continue, adding awkward dancing motions to my hands and hips, tapping my feet and smiling maniacally as I chant, do the group, group it up, do the group, do the group, do the G-to-the-R-to-the-O-to-the-U, do the group. I can even call out reluctant kids who are trying to hide, and seem ridiculous and not threatening while I do it - Kayla, do the group. Johnny B., do the group. Everybody now, do the group, do the group, do the G, do the G, do the group, group dance. Do the group.

Eventually, and probably just to get me to stop chanting, everybody in the class finds a group and students begin to read to each other.

That’s the kind of music I like hearing.

**NOTE - Huge poetry event coming up at The Neutral Zone on Monday night, September 28th. The Elephant Engine High-Five Revival Tour will feature electric and hysterical performance poets Buddy Wakefield, Anis Mojgani, Derrick Brown, Robbie Q, Shira Erlichman and more. This is an event not to be missed. These poets are all nationally renowned and super compelling. 7pm. Monday, 9/28. At the Neutral Zone. 310 E. Washington St. in downtown Ann Arbor. $5 for students of any kind; $10 for general public. Rustle up a group, group, group and prepare to be amazed.

Jeff Kass teaches Creative Writing at Pioneer High School and Eastern Michigan University and directs the Literary Arts Progrmas at The Neutral Zone.



Fri, Sep 18, 2009 : 7:58 p.m.

i always sing the group dance after class

Hayley Roberts

Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 12:47 p.m.

I remember getting into groups and sharing work in your classroom (for a few years!). Everything you say here about why it was scary and unappealing is so right on. But I think the disarming goofiness and the way it made us all feel just a little cooler were clutch in helping us trusting each other enough to share our work (as well as our vulnerability and passion). I still think of Creative Writing as the class that had the biggest impact on my ability to take risks in writing, play with form and style and language, and trust my own voice.


Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 7:12 a.m.

Reading this in your voice Kass suddenly makes getting up for my early classes a lot easier.

Brit Satchwell

Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 6:58 a.m.

After 13 years of teaching 6th grade math at Forsythe, swimming amongst eager, geeky, willing, insecure, anxious, kind, goofy 11-year-old proto adults in first bloom, Jeff's article made me miss the opportunity to do my edu-schtick with my kids. I'm now the EA prez and I'm out of the class room for three years on EA duty. I find that adults respond less readily to the sort of expressions of energy Jeff describes... our "professional demeanor" filters get in the way, just one more shade of childhood lost. When lockers in the 400 wing would get stuck, the students knew to come to my room and ask for Super Finger (crazed rubber finger puppet, cape with an "F" so as not to be confused with super toes or elbows). His sole mission in life was to fly from his secret lair (a paperclip hanger by the board) to open stuck lockers. But there was a catch... the student either had to sing the Super Finger theme song with me, or at bare minimum do the swooshing flying noises. No soundtrack, no finger flight. It had to be a student/teacher/finger partnership of fun. Goofy?... OMG. Fun?... for everybody. Effective?... it made me human and approachable to my students and to students who never had me for math. And that's the bridge of energy and joy that makes the more serious aspects of education more easily attained. It's what I regret not being able to do while loving my new position. So to Jeff, and to all of the other AAPS educators who love their jobs and their students and who let that love shine... keep on doing those amazing unquantifiable things you do. They cannot be reduced to bubbles on a computerized assessment sheet. They are why many kids want to come to school each day. They are why some students will remember you years from now. Weep not for Super Finger! He now does the speed dialing at my office. (turn up the Super Finger theme song...) Brit Satchwell