Go Deeper

Shavon Norris Teaches Kids To Move

Posted June 7th, 2010

The most common words uttered in a second grade classroom are probably “Sit down.” Or maybe “Sit still.” And it’s difficult enough to make that happen. But what about getting a kid to stand up–to move, or to dance?

That’s the challenge Shavon Norris tackles every day. Shavon, a local choreographer who will present a new dance in 8 (eight choreographers / eight new works) this September, spends her days teaching dance and movement at Independence Charter School in Center City. Her students range in age from kindergarten to fifth grade.

On a recent afternoon, as a second grade class files into the brightly colored room and sits in a line against the back wall, Shavon dims the lights and gets the incense burning. The school’s globally-focused curriculum gives each grade level an in-depth look into two world cultures. Second grade means Japan and India, so this class has been learning the basics of yoga.

But not all of the 21 seven- to eight-year-olds are feeling the Zen quite yet. One student scurries to pull his retainer out of his pocket and put it safely on the side of the room. One needs a tissue. And someone–who could it be?–has tossed half a crayon out onto the empty floor. Shavon is not amused, and scolds the suspect. But then she gets a confession from a different student. “Thank you very much for being honest,” she says.

There’s a lot to do today. Tomorrow is the school’s International Festival–where each class will perform what they’ve learned in dance and movement class for family and friends–and the nerves are setting in. So before they start their downward dogs, a little pep talk is in order. “Tomorrow you only get one chance to dazzle the audience,” Shavon tells them. “So today, dazzle me!”

As she calls each student’s name, they get up from the wall and take a spot on the floor. They sit cross-legged, with hands atop knees. Some close their eyes. “Inhale, exhale,” she says. “Inhale, exhale.” And just like that, we have 21 miniature yogis.

Shavon leads the class through a series of moves like the Cobra, the Warrior Stance, and the Triangle Pose. She catches wandering eyes and tells them to focus. She walks around the room, adjusting a leg here, tilting a head there. She is firm in her corrections, and a student knows if Shavon doesn’t like what she sees. But Teacher Shavon, as she is called in the classroom, is also effusive in her praise. “Beautiful.” “Absolutely amazing.” “You are blowing my mind right now.” As the students stretch into the Plank pose, she looks over with a huge smile and whispers, “My babies are beasts. Beasts!”

What will Shavon’s beasts do next? Click more for more.

As they go through the routine one more time, you hear only Shavon’s voice against the soft Indian music she’s put on. “Do not look at Teacher Shavon’s face. Do not look at anybody else. This is about you, this is about your body. Focus.” There is some wobbling, and a good amount of mix-up between left and right. But for the most part, the scene is calm, and inspiring, and beautiful.

Today is also an exciting day because the class gets to learn the Tree Pose. Shavon demonstrates, slowly pulling her right toe up to her left ankle and balancing on one foot, with her hands palm to palm in front of her body. Now she raises her hands above her head.

The front rows mirror her, then the back rows. They do their best to look straight ahead, concentrating on one spot. From the Tree they work their way back into the opening routine, and finish with eyes closed.

Before they go, Shavon opens up her grade-book. After each class, students rate their participation on a 1–4 scale. She goes through the names and some students shout “4!” as Shavon nods. Some say things like, “Two, because I wasn’t that focused at the end” or “Three, because I messed up the first time.” Sometimes there’s a compromise–“How about a 3.5?” says Shavon. “I think that’s better.”

The grade-book is closed. A tiny hand darts into the air.

“Teacher Shavon? Tomorrow . . . at International Festival . . . what happens if you fall down?” “Good question,” she says. “What happens if you fall down?” A boy raises his hand, brow wrinkled in thought, and says very deliberately, “I would say, you should just keep on going.”

A perfect lesson to leave on. “Teacher Shavon goes to yoga all the time, and falls over the place. Not a big deal!”

But wait, another hand. A round-faced, dark-haired boy says, “Um. . . I think my grade should be lower because, um, it was really me that threw the crayon.” “Thank you for telling me, but I am going to contain my anger about that crayon until we leave the classroom,” Shavon says. Her love and support for these students is powerful and truly tangible. But right now, I would not want to mess with Teacher Shavon.

They close by repeating after her in unison–“I am creative. I am intelligent. We are team players. I am magnificent.” On the count of three, everybody claps once. And as they line up to go back to homeroom, you realize there’s a whole lot more than dance and movement being taught in this little linoleum room.

–Mara Miller

Photos by Ellen Freeman and Mara Miller