Building Community Through 8-counts

“5, 6, 7, 8!”

A group of enthusiastic fourth graders spring into action when they hear the count. Caught up in the music, they clap, twirl, sway, and point their fingers. Their Lower School classmates cheer them on, stamping their feet on the gym bleachers in excitement. A brief dance party ensues, with even the teachers and Ms. Finley showing off their moves. What exactly is happening? The Tiger Dance, of course—and also a master class in teamwork.
When Ann Martino was in high school, she was on a dance team. Was this future Head of Lower School the best dancer on the team? In a word, no. In fact, as she emphatically expressed to her shocked students during the first Lower School assembly of the year, she was among the worst. So how did Ms. Martino become the captain of her team? 

“I wasn’t the best at dancing,” explained Ms. Martino to her students, “but I was really good at solving problems, so my teammates put me in charge. Each girl on the dance team had her own role that helped make us stronger—just like how each of you has something you’re good at that you can contribute to the Lower School team.”

What the Lower School team will be working on over the next few months is the Tiger Dance, the latest Lower School Assembly project that will be built upon each Friday morning when the students meet as a school community. After teaching all students in pre-kindergarten through grade 4 an 8-count of dance moves, Ms. Martino tasked the fourth graders with creating the next 8-count. The students worked together throughout the next week in small groups, each pooling their talents and ideas to come up with their own dance. Each group presented their 8-count to the Lower School at the next assembly to raucous applause. A week later, gathered for assembly once again, it was revealed which group’s dance had been randomly selected to represent grade 4’s section of the Tiger Dance. All of the fourth graders taught everyone the new 8-count and the Lower School practiced both portions of the dance. This same process will happen week by week until each grade level has had a chance to contribute and the full Tiger Dance is complete.

“Everybody gets to present what they’ve designed and everyone gets to be a part of the process of creating something,” says Ms. Martino. “At Ellis, we teach our Lower School students that their brains (along with their voices, hands, and hearts) are tools they can use to be positive community members. When we put our brains together to work on something and share ideas, we have greater brain power and can create things that are greater than what one person might come up with by herself.”

For Ellis’ youngest students, the Lower School community may be the first group they’ve been a part of aside from their own families. Through the Tiger Dance, they’ll learn not only what it means and how it feels to be a part of a team, but how they can be a positive and productive member of a broader community. And while students may feel like they’re just dancing with their friends, there will be significant skillbuilding at play, especially when they’re working to create their unique 8-counts within their smaller groups (which are purposeful in size so that there’s ample opportunity for each girl’s voice to be heard). The girls will be practicing how to express their own ideas, listen to and learn from the ideas of others, and navigate conflict when there are differences in opinion—all vital components of being an effective team member. There will be self-exploration as students identify their strengths and what they can offer to their team, and also, Ms. Martino hopes, the realization that perfection is not the goal.

“I chose to share the story of my dance team days specifically because it’s a prime example of how being the best at something isn’t necessary to be a part of a team. Multiple people who are good at different things can work together in their own ways to achieve a common goal,” Ms. Martino explained. “The main concept that I want the Lower School students to take away from this experience is that one person can’t do it all; you need to be able to rely on others and have others rely on you. By framing Ellis’ Lower School community as a “team,” we’re creating feelings of security and belonging amongst our students, as well as cultivating responsibility. I want them to know that their classmates and teachers are looking out for them and have their backs.”

The Tiger Dance also presents opportunities for students to practice the social-emotional strategies they learn in the classroom with their teachers and School Counselor Karen Boyer. Though the 8-counts chosen to represent each grade in the Tiger Dance will be selected at random, students still may experience disappointment or jealousy if their group’s 8-count is not picked. Aware that these can be difficult emotions for students to manage, the random selection will happen privately and be shared with that grade’s students ahead of time instead of in front of everyone at an assembly. That way, they have time to reflect on their feelings, process them, and be ready to support the rest of the Lower School team at the next assembly. 

“Throughout their lives, kids are going to be sad, angry, jealous, or disappointed sometimes,” says Ms. Martino. “We want students to be able to experience their full range of emotions in a loving, nurturing environment among people who care about them. Instead of avoiding something because it may cause an uncomfortable emotion, we provide a safe space for students to experience that emotion and learn strategies for working through it.”

With the Tiger Dance project well underway, Lower School students have been excitedly brainstorming what they can bring to their teams and practicing their moves. After creating their dances, the grade 4 students were eager to share tips with the other students about how to work together on this project. Ms. Martino gave students the microphone to offer their younger classmates advice such as “ask around for everyone’s ideas,” “use each other’s strengths,” “be flexible,” and “make sure no one feels left out.” 

By the time the dance is complete, Ms. Martino hopes her students feel inspired and excited to see what they’ll do together next.

“I hope they feel so proud of themselves,” she says with a smile. “I just love the level of joy and excitement they have to be together here at Ellis and how they are willing to give anything a try.”
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