Karen Kelsky describes how Zumba is an amazing release for her. In Karen’s words, “Dance has given me back to myself. It’s endorphin-pumping fun, it’s exercise, it keeps me fit, it lifts my depression, and opens up my heart.”
Spoiler alert: This post is not about how much I love Zumba. Or how it lifts my depression or serves as a release for me. Instead, it’s about how my ineptitude at Zumba helped me understand my students better.
Before I describe my ineptitude at Zumba, however, it’s important to note that I completely agree with Karen that everyone should find their own thing whether it’s “running, or art, or music, or yoga, or knitting, or walking, or meditation or a hundred other possibilities.” For me, right now, it’s yoga and barre class, and reading/listening to fiction, and Rubik’s cubes.
I have always been a straight A student. How often do I say this? Do I sound like the annoying brainy girl at the desk next to you in math class? I know I say it a lot, but I think it explains aspects of my personality. I don’t think I’m unique here – I know a lot of people in academia can relate. So many PhD students and faculty have similar experiences/personalities. It’s a trait I carry with me into my job. Years ago when I was put in charge of an assessment plan for our department’s undergraduate program, and the previously submitted version received marks of “acceptable,” I immediately launched a 3-pronged approach to assessment to bring us up to “exemplary.” When I do my IRB online quizzes I tend to get 100% on each module (and if I don’t, I’m annoyed). When my son mastered solving the Rubik’s cube, I had to learn how to solve it. And then he mastered the 4X4, and subsequently, so did I. We figured out the 5X5 together.
So, I am generally highly motivated to do well, and I generally feel as though if someone teaches me something, I can learn it. But then I took Zumba. I mostly could learn the steps and follow along. But, what I couldn’t do, is look good doing them. I would watch the instructor – who was excellent – and I would try to do the same moves, and they were… not excellent. If you look at the videos in Karen Kelsky’s post – I looked nothing like her. I looked like an uncoordinated 40-something woman trying to do Zumba. Or just like brainy 15-year-old Eva trying to stand in a circle at the school dance with her friends and awkwardly move to the music. Most strikingly, there was an upper body move (which, after much googling, I’ve discovered is called the Reggaeton pump) that looked very cool on the instructor, and very ridiculous on me. No matter how I tried, I could not master that move, even though I felt I was mimicking the instructor.
During a Zumba class, I had an a-ha moment. I have had meetings with students, where I am trying to explain a concept to them, that seems very straightforward and clear to me. Negative reinforcement comes to mind. And of course, I believe my explanation is very straightforward and clear. It often seemed like they were working hard in the course, but they still couldn’t do well on the exam, or clearly explain concepts in their paper. And finally, I realized what they must feel like when I try to explain a concept to them. They just couldn’t get it, no matter how much I explained it or how straightforward it seemed to me. Like me and Zumba.
It reminds me of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. I know it’s controversial. I know that many researchers have demonstrated that different domains of intelligence are highly correlated, and believe that there is an underlying IQ driving these domains. I don’t dispute those claims. And yet, I also don’t dispute that most of us are not equally talented in every possible domain. That is, even if ability in these domains is generally correlated and linked to an underlying factor, we still may have differential ability across domains. There is no way that everyone is equally talented in every domain. And, we may be more teachable in one area than in another.
This realization, this personal realization, definitely helped increase my compassion for students struggling with a concept. Sometimes faculty attribute students’ inability to comprehend to lack of effort. But we as instructors must also recognize that inability to comprehend doesn’t always indicate lack of effort. Sometimes, things that come easy to some of us take enormous effort for others.
“How Zumba helped made me a better teacher first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on November 1, 2018.”