I am old enough that the popular television show Dancing with the Stars is not my primary ballroom memory. As I child, I remember my parents watching movies in which Ginger Rogers glided effortlessly across the dance floor in Fred Astaire's arms. I secretly wished I could dance like that.
After almost a decade of marriage, I convinced my husband to take ballroom dance classes with me and the reality was very different from my fantasy. Ballroom dancing was hard and that is why I think about it when I teach new concepts to students and especially when I am helping my own son with his homework.
Although it seems like just yesterday that the school year began, we are now deep into the first term. The daily grind has set in for both students and parents. In between protests of "That's not how my teacher does it" -- particularly frustrating for a parent who is a teacher -- and the moans and groans after less than 5 minutes, we negotiate our way around the dining room table tango called homework.
On our first day of dance classes, my husband and I found ourselves in a large high school gymnasium with about 50 other couples. The teacher demonstrated something and instructed us to repeat. It seemed simple enough so we followed the instructions and immediately started blaming each other for our failure to look like Fred and Ginger. We tried again and failed again.
The teacher always seemed to be helping someone across the room so we tried to learn from those around us. Some couples had been there for many classes but they were not much help because they did exactly what the teacher did. They tried to show us what to do and told us to do it. At some point, we were told that it was not unusual for couples to arrive at a lesson together and leave separately. We started to understand why.
Eventually, we did learn the basic steps to some of the ballroom dances but that took concerted effort and a year and a half with a patient teacher in small and private lessons. One day he told us that he thought the reason we were having so much difficulty with dancing was that we spent so much time trying to learn from books that we didn't really trust our kinesthetic learning. And he was right.
I had always been a successful student and didn't have much difficulty in school. That's why my struggle with ballroom made me a better teacher. It was one of the first times I wasn't good at learning something. I also worked really hard at it and managed to become a barely competent dancer -- good enough to get up at a wedding and blend in with the crowd.
As a teacher, the experience helped me feel more empathy and patience when students struggled and I eventually applied that to homework time.
At the dining room table, I draw upon my ballroom experience when explaining a concept to my son - yet again -- after a long day at work. When I catch myself asking if he had paid attention when his teacher explained it in class, I remember that first gymnasium filled with students who didn't know how to dance. I remember the teacher who did teach me -- the one who understood where I was coming from and figured out a way to explain so I would understand -- and try again.
Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator and consultant who writes about education, parenting and diversity issues. Read her thoughts on The importance of "wow" in learning.
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