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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.

08Jan

The New Class Pet: Welcome, Talking Tomato!

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Krista Brown, Freelance Teaching Artist.  Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

When I was growing up my first grade teacher had a hamster. How could a first grader not be obsessed? The unique thing about having a classroom pet is how it builds a different relationship between the teacher and students. In the eyes of young students, the teacher becomes a caregiver and the class becomes entangled in its care. There are no hierarchies and all can share the positive feelings of responsibility for taking care of something furry and small. Traditional classrooms have this ability with their constructed spaces dedicated to learning and transition between multiple subjects during the entire day. Dance teachers don’t possess this in most cases. As a freelance teacher, I shift from space to space with totally different students.

There is a solution that has brought me this relationship I crave as well as a focused attention from my students: my fuzzy little friend, talking tomato. This plump little buddy captures even the coolest fifth grader’s attention. No student can resist its soft cuteness while also doubling as a fun game of catch. My classroom pet travels with me, fits in my pocket, and hugs the tears away from my PreK kids. Talking tomato has changed the way we start each and every class.

Where I got the idea: A veteran Kindergarten teacher at a local Denver school while teaching a creative movement workshop as a guest teacher. Typically throughout this type of workshop, I ask the students how they felt or what they liked. This particular class was quite rowdy. The hosting teacher during a moment of chaos tosses me a plushy tomato. Without being prompted, she says, “Here, try the talking tomato.” My head exploded at the amazing simplicity of this tool to help students focus.

Why I decided to try it: I decided to try it because for years I had been struggling with students talking over each other. With my more recent focus on positive teaching practices, I felt that just shushing students, catch-a-bubble, or teaching them not to talk through chants like “1-2-3 eyes on me” wasn’t really working effectively or permanently as a solution for focus. The tomato seemed like a fun and direct way to get them to have fun while focusing.

Where it’s used: I use it in after-school dance classes for students up to 3rd grade. I see it is most effective with the 3-8 year olds. Younger than this, students are still learning to verbalize their world. Older than this, students use it merely as a soft ball and lose the importance of it’s friendly and fun soft-bodied nature. In the after-school classes we use this tomato and toss it around as we sit and share the class rules for the day. Additionally, throughout the class sometimes there is a student who falls down or is having a tough time in class. I ask if they babysit the talking tomato and 99% of the time they feel better sitting and being comforted by our fuzzy little friend.

I also use it in my preK, kinder, and 1-2nd grade dance classes in private studios when we begin class or need to share ideas throughout the class. In kinder-2nd, we use the tomato at the start of class to talk about the class objective. This goal is accompanied by a poster with words like, “We work hard.” When discussing this idea, I pass the tomato around and ask what it means to work hard. The two together help the student feel special and spend time thinking about a more complex topic beyond the class rules while they squeeze our little friend in their fingers. A few other examples include when we do our “pizza feet” in ballet for preK. We pass around the tomato and tell each other the toppings on our pizza. It keeps the students engaged with one another and focused on holding their turnout as they wait for the tomato.

How long I’ve been doing it for: I’ve been trying it out for the last 3 months and I’ve seen a huge shift in the way I start class. I have also been impressed at this tool’s ability to bring comfort to so many children of different ages.

How it’s useful:

  1. Engagement- students have fun throwing it, where with most things in the class they have more concrete rules. Talking Tomato is a silly way of bending the rules in a positive way. Sometimes Talking Tomato sits on my head and I can’t find them anywhere!
  2. Silly Fun - it helps focus in a child-centered way that brings you to their perspective and animates rules and ideas through their eyes. It’s like a class pet. Sometimes even Talking Tomato gets a scarf!
  3. A Friend - for those having a tough time they can hold them and feel like they are participating still.
  4. Refocus - when it comes out they know and want to listen!
  5. Teaching Difference - some of my students say the tomato looks like a strawberry. We talk about shape and how our eyes see different things. We laugh when I whisper, “Sometimes Talking Tomato even thinks they are a strawberry!”

The big lesson: Seek out advice from kindergarten teachers, or other types of teachers for the ages you are teaching. You can begin to build a bridge between different educational spaces by fostering teacher relationships in sharing tools and ideas.

A head shot of Krista, a white woman with blonde hair.  She is wearing a light brown tank top, and is standing with one hand on her hip against an organge backround.

Krista Brown (she/her) has a Master of Arts in Social and Cultural Foundations in Education from DePaul University and a Bachelors in Dance from Indiana University, attending the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Conservatory in Israel for a semester abroad. Upon completion of her masters, Krista became an adjunct professor of education at DePaul University and began dancing with urban jazz company Joel Hall Dancers. During the pandemic, Krista and her husband decided to make the big move out west to Colorado during October of 2020, and upon arrival accepted a role as the dance director of a local recreation program, rebuilding the program from 30 to over 200 students. Since then, she has danced professionally with local Colorado companies Wonderbound, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and Control Group Productions. She currently teaches dance with Colorado Ballet Community Engagement programs and at the Cleo Parker Robinson dance academy.

 

Photo Credits: featured photo by Krista Brown, head shot by the Hip Photo

 

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