This is the second in a six-part series profiling arts teachers in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
Amanda Nelson’s classroom at Diggs-Latham Elementary School is a dance room, a safe space, a place where kids leave behind the pressures of the outside world through stretching, turning, bending and simply breathing.
Now in her 10th year of teaching, and her ninth at Diggs-Latham, Nelson is the only full-time dance teacher at the elementary level in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. Against a backdrop of positive messages posted around her classroom, Nelson begins most classes with breathing techniques, setting a tone of calm for rambunctious 7- and 8-year-olds.
“Learning how to juggle everything is very overwhelming, so I learned some meditation and mindful techniques for myself and then infused them into my own classroom culture,” Nelson said recently during her planning period. “I don’t like time-outs or sending kids to the office. I want to figure out how to switch their mindset, and teaching them how to breathe and calm themselves is helpful.”
Nelson grew up in New York and moved to North Carolina to study dance at UNC Greensboro.
Q: What was your introduction to dancing?
Answer: I was a very chunky baby so my mom put me in dance when I was 3. I don’t know life without it. I love the discipline of it. I love how my brain works and creates and sees movement. It’s a release, especially now, with the way people are so plugged into stuff, I can do this and get lost in my own body. I was classically trained in tap and jazz and all the cute things you see on TV. I never wanted to do it professionally until I got introduced to contemporary in high school, and that was my niche. Contemporary and tap I love.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work?
Answer: I see 460 kids every week, sometimes over 100 in a day. This is the only elementary full-time position in Winston-Salem for dance. I like taking what they’re doing in the classroom and incorporating it into movement. So it’s not ‘Today we’re doing a ballet class. Today we’re doing a jazz class.’ They’re learning movement skills through understanding math, through literacy, through science explorations. I always try to make a connection. Teaching tempo is an amazing way to teach fractions. Teaching African movement on the floor and drawing clocks on the floor is a great way to teach second-graders how to tell time. Teaching the beginning, middle and end to a dance, teaches plot setting and sequencing. My older students, they’re really moving at a middle school or early high school level. By the time they’re in third grade, I tell them, ‘You know what? You’ve been learning ballet terms, and it’s another language, and it’s French, and here’s where France is on the map. Here’s the history.’ So yeah, it’s a really cool program.
Q: What’s the best part about working with kids?
Answer: They’re my family, and seeing our families come through here, sometimes I’ll get five or six kids from the same family, and I love their growth. When they come back to visit, seeing I still remember their names, they light up. It’s relationships. I’m silly and I’m goofy and I play funny music, and I’ll come back every year for summer enrichment (for high school kids) and they’ll say, ‘Miss Nelson, are we going to do this dance? Are you going to play this song?’ I’m like, ‘Do you still want to?’ It makes me feel good. I’ve thought about going to high school, because sometimes it’s monotonous to teach the same thing and there’s only so much I can do at this level, but the politics at high school are different. My administration here is great. They trust me. I know all the kids. The families know me. Every time I think it’s time to move up, I think, ‘Who will do this?’ I mean where else can you go and get 200 hugs a day? And they mean it, too.
Q: What do you like about public schools?
Answer: I like the camaraderie of the schools that collaborate. I like the fact we are such a large district and there’s tons of resources and support. And I like public because just like with a magnet, it gives opportunity.
Q: What would you like people to know about the role of arts in education?
Answer: It’s important. Kids are under so much pressure anyway with standardized testing and changes in curriculum. If you get rid of the arts, it’s a spiral effect. The test scores would remain low, the discipline problems would remain high, the drop-out rate would change. Not everyone learns the same way. You can’t put a kid at this age in front of book and say, ‘Learn this.’ Sometimes they need to learn differently, and art gives you that opportunity. And sometimes it gives you a feeling of self-worth, whether it’s moving or creating or playing. It gives you self-discipline; it gives you self-motivation. Kids need to learn that. We can’t just push testing on them and push them out in the world when they don’t have any coping skills, and no way of connecting with themselves.They need to feel inspired and worthy.