Creating With Kids – Sheena Jeffers


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This series is a part of the Creating With Kids Interview Project! I have set out to interview 52 dance teachers working with young children everyday. By doing this project, I have learned that you are all amazing, hard working, creative and inspiring! I hope you enjoy the interviews and can take something special away from each one. A look inside a dance teachers class, is a look inside a dance teachers heart. -Maria

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Introducing Sheena Jeffers….

Sheena is a dance educator throughout Virginia and teaches at various private studios in both Richmond and Norfolk. She teaches ages 3- adult and says that many of her students come from Military families that move in and out frequently. She tries her best to make dance their home. Sheena studied modern dance with Virginia Commonwealth University and ballet with Richmond Ballet while pursuing degrees in English and Mass Communications. Currently, Sheena is pursuing her masters degree from Old Dominion University, where she is studying and researching creative approaches to education via dance.

Maria: Paint us a picture of your typical teaching day?

Sheena: I like to merge storytelling and fun approaches with dance training. This can mean starting the class with a story, visualization, quote or creative thought-process to initiate my students’ interest and motivation to succeed.

FUN: For 3-5 year olds, I use guided imagery, creative tools like hula hoops, bean bags, baby dolls, and ribbons. For my tweens and teenagers, I’ll sometimes have fun with Tattly! Tattly (tattly.com) is a company that makes temporary tattoos with motivational sayings like “focus,” and “let’s do this,” “love,” and photo images of positive ideas. If I have a theme that we’re investigating in class (for example, I did a class about working hard in dance without comparing yourself to dancers around you), I’ll use Tattly to help make it fun! My temporary tattoo for that day said, “Be happy,” and we discussed the feelings we sometimes have when dancing behind someone at the barre or center floor. The students love coming to class to find out what our theme is through a fun tattoo!

STORYTELLING: My students always know our purpose for the day, which they record in their dance journals. For example, if I notice my students need work on spotting, I’ll give them a visualization. For younger students (who are learning the whipping of the head without turning quite yet), I’ll make it fun by saying “Look this way! There’s a wolf!” “Look that way! You see the elephant?” They enjoy the “safari fun” while they are also learning to whip their heads with precision and quickness. For teenagers, I give visual examples to help them notice what we’re working on. For example, when working on finding a neutral spine, I tell them to “stand like you’re texting a friend.” This results in them going into a swayback posture, or relaxing their lower back to such an extreme degree that their pelvis tips forward or backward. I point out to them that this “relaxed texting posture” is not what we’re looking for, and we enter a discussion on engaging the lower abdominals and using the upper-back muscles to maintain proper shoulder placement. These images and scenarios help the students remember posture even when they’re texting in other places besides my studio room!

Maria: In a few sentences, describe your teaching philosophy.

Sheena: To pass along dance history and proper technique, while inspiring within individuals the desire to stay hungry and keep learning; To foster progress, live as role model, and travel a journey with students; To instill confidence, track growth and share a prevailing hope for the future.

Maria: If I came to observe you teach today, what is the first quality I would notice about you as a teacher?

Sheena: I recently overheard some students talking in the hallway. One said, “You’re in Miss Sheena’s class? That’s the super energetic, slightly crazy, but really creative one, right?” While this description made me quietly giggle, I think it is pretty accurate of my goals for class. I am energetic because I love what I do, and being in a room with dancers who love to learn creates more energy which I feed off of. I think they call me “slightly crazy” because I do expect my students to work hard. My students are not allowed to say “I can’t,” and they know if something is done incorrectly, I’m going to make them try it again. I expect my students to be kind, respectful, hard-working, and positive. I do not tolerate talking back, bad attitudes, and harmful words. I also think I make great efforts to bring creative, innovative thinking into the studio. I think dance has the potential to change the way we approach problem solving, and I like challenging my students on how to think about something, and how to use their words and movement to describe something.

Maria: What are 2 things you love about teaching, and one thing you don’t like very much at all.

Sheena: Love No. 1: I love watching a student execute something correctly for their first time. Growing up, I always had teachers say, “It’s a feeling. And when you get it, you’ll have it!” I used to hate that saying because 1) It seemed obvious and 2) It wasn’t helping me get fouettes right now! But the saying is true. There is a process in dance: a bunch of little things have to work together to create a big thing, and the timing of that isn’t necessarily the timing we want. Helping the students through this process and watching them find that “I got it” moment, is priceless.

Love No. 2: Creating a healthy, supportive dance community. I love watching my students transform from the first day where no one knows anyone, competition is hanging in the air, nervousness is circling the room, and silence rules the land, to a loving, friendly, kind community. I love watching students overcome their fears and anxieties and feel free to simply be themselves in our dance space. They learn together, grow together, share life together.

Dislike: I dislike the pettiness that often occurs in dance situations. The gossip, the rolling of the eyes, the harmful words between dancers. Dance is naturally a competitive environment, so I work very hard to promote the good and move away from the pettiness, but it still happens. When it does happen, I use it as a learning opportunity and help my students understand how harmful gossiping, rolling of the eyes, mean comments and malicious intent for an action can be. It always breaks my heart to hear so-and-so said this-and-that but we always work through it.

Maria: What surprises you the most about teaching dance to young children?

Sheena: The mental connections they make! I teach “point and flex” to 3 and 4-year olds by saying that we’re sitting around a fire. I act out the lighting of the fire. When their toes are cold, they point their feet to get them closer to the fire. When their feet get too warm, they flex them away from the fire “to cool off.” It is around this “fire” that I have learned so much about these little hearts and minds. They can connect any movement we do to at least 10 different stories! I personally think this ability to connect a current project to 10 different outlets is something we could keep in mind when tackling any life project.

Maria: If you were going to speak to a group of aspiring creative dance teachers, what would you tell them?

Sheena: In my opinion, teaching dance is about so much more than teaching someone to point their foot, or raise their arm. It is about creating strong individuals. We are in the business of shaping self-confident, happy, whole individuals and innovative thinkers. That job takes time, effort, energy and patience, but it is so important. I cannot tell you how many adults I run into on a daily basis who tell me, “Oh, I used to dance!” Even if it was just for one year when they were 3 years old, it is something they remember. We have a huge responsibility but there is endless potential for good in sending out strong individuals with valuable skills (self-discipline, group work, tireless work ethic) and feelings of self-worth. I love to hear how other teachers are making this happen!

Maria: Share with us one teaching moment that you will never forget.

Sheena: I once worked for a government-funded neighborhood resource center. I was told during my 30-minute training session (before meeting the children), that these children came from extreme poverty. A majority of them were not attending school regularly, currently had a family member in jail or away from the family, wore the same clothes every day, and came from families where violence, gang and drug-related activity were daily experiences. With my hand on the doorknob, about to enter the space they had cleared for dance class, one adult said to me, “Oh, and you’ll never meet their parents. These kids walk here on their own and go home on their own. We never see the parents.” My heart was breaking for these children.

Upon meeting the children (male and female), they were defensive toward me and they didn’t want to dance because “that was a girl thing.” I began the class with an icebreaker: sitting in a circle, we each said our name and one thing we loved. I went first, “My name is Miss Sheena, and I love being here with you all to teach you dance!” They just stared and blinked. It came to this little girl. She was quiet, smaller than the rest, but I was told she had bursts of outward anger. She said her name and then shrugged her shoulder, “I don’t know what I love. Doesn’t matter.”

I worked with these children 2 hours a week for 10 weeks. I wanted to show them that they do matter and what they love, matters and what they think is important, matters. I did this by teaching all of the ballet feet and arm positions, chaine turns, pivot turns, grapevine, high and low shapes, skipping, and grand jeté. Throughout the 10 weeks we had behavior problems, extreme absences, children who gave up, and children who didn’t dare give up. By the end of the 10 weeks, we sat in a circle again. I asked them to state someone else’s name in the room and then say what they love about them being in our class. The little girl who had once said nothing mattered said, “I pick Miss Sheena. And she’s cool because she showed me what I love. And I love dance.” She looked around the circle at all of the faces (some of whom she fought with over the course of our time together) and said, “And even though you guys make me mad sometimes… you guys are OK too.”

Maria: Teachers of young children need a pocket full of management techniques and tricks to keep things on track. What is one trick in your pocket that almost never fails?

Sheena: DANCE PROMISE CONTRACT: At the beginning of the year, I create a “dance promise contract.” This contract includes promises that the students are making to me (their teacher), the dance studio space, their fellow dancers, dance as an art, and themselves. Note: The contract can be altered to a particular age group, and should be. This one was for middle school dancers:

1. I promise to try my hardest each class, and every time I walk into the dance studio.

2. I promise to respect my teacher, the studio space, my fellow dancers and myself.

3. I will not underestimate my ability. (I will not say “I can’t!)

4. I will reach my dance goals this year.

5. I will have fun and create wonderful memories for myself and for my classmates.

6. This year will be a fantastic year for growth as an individual and growth as a dancer.

We discuss the promises together on the first day. Sometimes my students want to add some. At the end, we all sign it. We all agree to try our hardest, not underestimate our potential, to be kind and to be active in the process of creating wonderful growth and memories. Throughout the year, as tough projects come up or bad days creep in, we recall our promises that we all made together. This has been tremendously successful!

Maria: Since teachers continue to learn too, what is one teaching goal that you are working towards?

Sheena: My learning goals for the next few years are to focus on kinesiology. I want to look closely at the science behind our movement. I also want to get certified in yoga and pilates!

Maria: Share with us your most favorite creative dance lesson so we can all use it tomorrow. You know, Maria’s Movers style! 

Sheena: Red Carpet Dance (Age 3-4)

Goals: Teaching high-low poses and different base balances.

Description: Go over the potential different poses the students can do. For example, a high pose would mean “reaching up high,” while a low pose would be “near the ground, like swimming or ducking down.” The different base poses would be: One foot balance, Two feet balance, One foot + a hand, Two feet + Two hands. Help them count how many body parts are touching the ground. Once they have a good idea of the different poses and balances, roll out a “red carpet” (a long red blanket or towel will work), and have the students do their poses and balances on the “red carpet” one at a time, while you (the teacher) pretends to take photographs. Little students love this! They are having fun while working on building muscles for balance and counting.

Movement Stations (Age 8-12)

Goals: Helping students express an emotion through movement, while using improvisation skills.

Description: Buy 4 different posters, and write an emotion on each one (for example: Anger, Joy, Peace, Scared). Tape each poster in a different corner of the room.

Rules: The students must create movement that expresses the emotion. They will write down the scenario they are expressing. For example, using a marker a student will write a description of joy on the joy poster: “Hugging my best friend!” They will then, use their improvisation skills to express this feeling and this scenario. Note: ALL of the emotion improvisation is occurring at the same time, so the students must make their expressions clear enough for a viewer to understand. I like to do this lesson with the lights off or dimmed. Use different types of music (I use some instrumental and some with lyrics).

Debriefing: At the end, pull the posters off of the wall and discuss the different scenarios the students wrote down and how they chose to express that through movement.

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p.s. you can connect with Sheena on her dance website  or her personal website and on twitter. Thank you Sheena for being a part of the project! I love the sitting around the fire point and flex exercise. 🙂 

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