With the help of an organization founded by a Howard County native, students at Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia are learning how to enact social change through the art of movement.
"We're here to help cultivate a culture of empathy, diversity, appreciation, self-awareness and the ability to manage emotions so that conflict transformation can occur," said Yolanda Earl-Thompson, U.S. program manger for Move this World.
Move This World has worked around the world, from Bogota, Colombia to Columbia, Md. The organization was founded in 2008 by Sara Potler-LaHayne, a 2003 Glenelg High School graduate who, while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Colombia, was inspired to use movement and dance to teach social and emotional skills. Simply put, Earl-Thompson said, Move This World helps students learn about conflict resolution, diversity and self-expression through a very basic concept: movement.
In a third-grade classroom at Longfellow Wednesday, Oct. 16, program coordinator Alejandra Paucar sits with a group of students. She asks them how they're feeling; responses run the gamut from excited and happy to bored and tired. Then, the students must physically show how they're feeling, either by jumping, throwing up their arms or hanging their head. All the other students follow suit, and the cardinal rule is "no movement is uncool."
The kinesthetic actions help students retain the lessons on a deeper level, Earl-Thompson said.
"They're embodying what they're feeling," she said.
As the class period progresses, Paucar takes the students through lessons about community — a community that stretches far beyond their Longfellow classroom. To explore the ultimate, global community, students then learn the Move This World line dance, which is taught to every single student that participates in a Move This World program across the world.
"At the end of the program, we show videos of kids doing this dance in Colombia, in Germany, in New York," Earl-Thompson said. "The kids see other kids, some that look like them, some that don't, and realize, 'wow, I'm a part of something big.'"
Move This World will be at Longfellow for five weeks; the kick-off date was last week. During that five weeks, representatives from the organization will visit each third-grade classroom once a week to teach the students about global community. The program was made possible through a $1,200 grant from the Harper's Choice Village Board, said Longfellow PTA President Lisa Terry.
"We love the wellness aspect of it, getting the students moving and empowering them to not be afraid or shy to express themselves and their cultural differences," Terry said. "This is about respecting other people and our differences, learning how to get along with people and to grow global awareness of cultures around the world."
As Paucar leads the class, she speaks to the idea of active listening and respecting others. Anthony Newman, Baltimore Partnerships Coordinator for Move This World, said active listening "can cut out conflict" that's present in the students' lives — whether it's the violence experienced by students in other countries like the Philippines or Colombia, or the conflict of bullying or internal conflict closer to home.
"The social and emotional learning, that's so important," he said. "Let's empathize together and build communities together."
The rule that "no move is uncool," is crucial, Newman said, which makes it all the more appropriate that the Move This World launch at Longfellow comes in the midst of National Bullying Prevention Month.
"Sometimes kids laugh at other moves students are doing," he said. "They don't realize you have to empathize — if someone was laughing at you, that wouldn't feel good, but what you're laughing at someone else? Why would you, then, laugh at other people? We have to put them in someone else's shoes. It's about understanding things from another perspective. This way, we're building each other up and not tearing each other down."
By providing a safe place for students to express themselves, and encouraging that expression, Paucar said, Move This World is helping them develop healthy emotional coping mechanisms for the rest of their lives.
"It's another language for students to tap into," she said. "It helps align your thoughts, your emotions and your body."