Movement & Education – Self-Esteem, Relations, and Conflict

I have recently come across several programs that bring dance into schools.  They have caught my attention because they focus on building self-esteem and addressing conflict, two issues that have arisen repeatedly in our study of court-involved youth.

Move This World is a nonprofit that “engages students Pre-K—12, educators, administrators, families, and corporate leaders in movement-based activities that promote empathy, mediation skills, and conflict transformation.”

While in Philadelphia recently a program there called Dancing with the Students was featured in the news.  This program develops “positive self-esteem, proper manners, and respect for others” (the use of the phrase proper manners is worthy of a separate critique).

This program was in part inspired by a NYC-based dance program that works to “build confidence” and “cultivate essential life skills in children through the practice of social dance.”

What all of these programs have in common is the use of a physical, movement-based approach to engage young people and build their confidence and relational skills, all things that are noticeably lacking in classrooms.  I would argue that court-involved youth might benefit disproportionately from these types of programs if they are more likely to struggle with a purely academic curriculum, not be in home environments where confidence and relational skills are nurtured, and be often faced with conflict.


At the Educational Justice Symposium on March 31, one of the many memorable speakers was Kenneth Phillips from The Possibility Project:  He spoke of its humble beginnings as City of Peace on the streets of Washington, DC, as a way to address violence and racial division – and of its current focus on using performance art and community action to empower NYC teenagers in multiple ways.  I have been impressed with other NYC-based organizations that use performance art as a means to engage young people such as the All-Stars Project:  and Theatre of the Oppressed  At the Symposium I was fascinated by Kenneth’s description of how youth who become a part of The Possibility Project’s programs (through non-competitive auditions) are often transformed while learning much about themselves, their abilities, and how they relate to others.

It turned out that The Possibility Project’s latest show, “Uproute”, was happening last week so I took the opportunity to ride out to Brooklyn and see what the results looked like in person.  The show had already started when I arrived, and one of the young staff members guided me professionally to a balcony seat overlooking the entire stage.  For the next hour the stage was filled with dramatic encounters between the show’s teenage actors:  conversations, arguments, scenes of bullying, family fights, child abuse, children running away, siblings in tears, and all of it coming from the experiences of the teenagers themselves.  

The emotional power of the scenes easily compensated for any rough edges in acting ability.  Lessons were clearly learned as each of the difficult situations moved towards resolution.  The parents involved learned as many lessons as their children.  The show culminated in an all-hands finale that was exuberant, playful, and moving.  The sight of 50 teenage actors in the final song of the night could have been any high school musical but the power of their stories and the energy and emotion they used to share those stories set this performance apart.

After the show, still thinking about the heavy themes, I ended up in the tiny lobby packed with the excited actors and their proud parents, siblings and friends.  Youth were selling stylish merchandise to support the work of the organization, and everyone looked like they were enjoying what they were doing!  The party spilled out onto the street as members of the cast gathered in front of the theater, still filled with the energy of the evening.

The evening was beautiful and powerful for me because I had been witness to something special, something that must have been transformative for those involved.  The stories that were shared were vivid reminders of how much healing many young people need, and how it only happens when others are there to lean on and be supportive.  Many of the speakers at the Ed Justice Symposium spoke of the critical importance of youth believing in themselves.  Putting together a full-length musical in two months and presenting it to a full house is, in my mind, all about believing in yourself.

Return to Bulgaria

Today I found myself in a small, smoke-filled room, surrounded by cinema posters from years past.  Sitting on an old red naugahyde couch, I faced the two men in front of me, one in his early thirties and the other a generation older.  They fired questions at me, sometimes talking over each other.  Where had I been since leaving Bulgaria?  What was I doing there?  Who was I working for?  Why had I come back? Had I ever been in the military?  Worked for the US government?  The UN?  Finally we came to the CIA question…

Despite appearances above this was not an interrogation but an interview with a former student who now works for one of the two local newspapers.  I have been back for 6 days in the small Bulgarian town where my international experiences first started more than a decade ago.  My two years here as a teacher left deep impressions on me and connected me with some of the residents of this small town that was founded as a socialist model in 1947.

It has been fascinating to see both the changes and the many corners of the town that have remained the same.  Yes, three German supermarket chains have landed in the middle of town with their parking lots and spacious halls full of brightly packaged products.  Most of the smaller shops have also been upgraded to modern standards.  The formerly ubiquitous Lada passenger cars no longer dominate, though the police still drive them!   This model town was laid out with three elaborate parks that were in complete disrepair when I was living here.  They have now been cleaned up (at least the most visible parts) and the small zoo has been rebuilt and enlarged with lots of birds, and  my friends claim that the two large brown bears are the same pair that prowled a smaller cage years ago.

Perhaps most striking is the brand new bus station that just opened, a bright red triangular building that is a splash of newness just 50 meters from the marble plaza and stone arcades that have been the center of Dimitrovgrad for years.  Just beyond the bus station is the train station, which to my surprise has experienced absolutely no change since the day I left.  Many other things have not changed, both corners of the town that have experienced no renovations as well as the worries of many people who see a difficult road ahead.

The coutdown to EU membership for Bulgaria and Romania in the early to mid 2000s amidst the bubbling world economy led to a fair amount of optimism that the future was brightening.  Of course the global recession and european economic crisis has made it difficult to maintain this level of optimism, and many wonder how the Bulgarian economy can produce enough jobs for the current school graduates.  Bulgaria’s entry into the EU and the increasing prevalence of English has made it easier for Bulgarians to seek work abroad and many have done so.  As with migrants everywhere, this has mixed results for the sending country.  Remittances to family members here are important to the economy but there is of course also a loss of connection and talent

Many of my former students have left Dimitrovgrad for the cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, Varna and for other countries.  In this, they are taking advantage of the new opportunities of EU membership and their English (so my lessons apparently had some effect).  It is great to see them doing well but it is important that Bulgaria find ways to develop the whole country, not just the largest cities.  A much larger wine industry and efforts at attracting visitors to smaller towns and natural areas are a step in the right direction…

Garm ice ramps!

When I was growing up there was an expression I heard often during the colder, snowier winters we used to have:  “It’s a sheet of ice out there!”  Yesterday this phrase came back to me as I made the walk down the Garm hill to the market.  It was if someone had intentionally coated as much of the roads, sidewalks and stairs with ice as possible.  Not just a thin coating of ice, but thick, wavy ice that comes from many feet packing snow which then freezes and refreezes.  Attempts had been made in some places to throw down dirt to give a bit more traction, but by yesterday the dirt had been absorbed into the ice, leaving it a dark brown color and just as treacherous.  One of my favorite parts of Garm in the wintertime is the stairs in the bazaar.  Defying any shred of common sense, no one bothers to clear the snow from the narrow steps.  After the snow has been pounded into ice, the result is closer to an ice ramp with cement ridges than to a staircase.  In a testament to human adaptability, the people of Garm seem to have learned how to negotiate such hazards without serious falls – in fact I was more than a little surprised to not see myself or anyone else take a fall, though I came close several times..

The subzero temperatures continue, with overnight lows down around – 25 C (- 13 F).  Our drivers and guards have been constantly battling to keep the water pipes open, using kerosene blow torches and pots of boiling water.  It’s a huge problem for everyone in town –  I have heard that about 75% of the homes in Garm are having problems with frozen pipes.

Not just the water and roads are freezing.  In the market, it is amazing to see entire shops full of frozen mineral water, vegetable oil, and dishwashing liquid.  Back in my kitchen, I thought leaving things inside the refrigerator would keep them from freezing but even that has not worked.  All is frozen except the beer…

Winter return to Dushanbe

Philadelphia – Washington, DC – Frankfurt – Dushanbe.  24 hours of travel start to finish, which sounds like a long time, but after many of these trips it all feels amazingly routine.  The only thing that threatened to add a little excitement was when by bag disappeared into the vast baggage sorting system of Frankfurt Airport.  For some reason my bag was sent on the belt less traveled and did not make an appearance on Belt #12.  I was thinking to myself about the incompetence of the baggage folks in Washington as I reported the lost bag.  Lufthansa was as helpful as they could be even though the bag was not showing up in their system (how good is the “system” really?).  We spent a few minutes on speculating which route (Moscow, Istanbul, Dubai?) would get the bag to Dushanbe faster.  After a friend was recently turned back from Moscow for no apparent reason, I was urging him not to use that route.  Anything can happen in Moscow.

Finally everything that could be done was done.  I headed off towards the air train when the clerk came running after me:  “Mr. Horton, I think I found your bag!  It should be right here in one of these carts…”, but it wasn’t.  Mr. Fletcher’s was, but no trace of mine.  He raced back to his computer and then off to the sorting area, and a few minutes later he led the wayward suitcase towards me triumphantly.  I told him that he saved a whole lot of hassle getting that bag to me in Garm.

In Dushanbe I was met by the Mercy Corps driver that often picks me up from international trips.  Always good to see a familiar face…he was in the scrum of taxi drivers and yelled” taxi, taxi” at me along with them.  As we rolled through the wet, deserted streets of Dushanbe, he asked about my family and the weather in the US and told me all about goings on in Dushanbe.  At times like that, it feels as much like “coming home” as it does arriving in the US. 

Cows and creativity

Life in the countryside, Take One

8:01 am   Staff member:  Sir, I need to take a vacation day today. (concern in voice)  Me:  What happened?  Staff member:  I have four cows, and last night none of them came home.  I have to go up the mountain to find them.

Life in the countryside, Take Two

Driving down a muddy rural road in the rain, we approach a 50-year old truck coming the other way.  It is loaded down with firewood.  Standing on either side of the cab are two men holding onto the side mirrors.  As we come closer, we notice that the one next to the driver is manually moving the windshield wiper back and forth so the driver can see.  Despite the cold and rain, he is doing it with a big smile on his face.  All of us are laughing as we drive by and wave.

The heat breaks


It’s that rare time of the year when the temperature is just right in the Rasht Valley.  After months without rain, a storm broke the heat and cleared out much of the dust a few days ago.  A fine haze of Afghan (and Tajik) dust had hung in the air since I returned.  A still- warm wind blows through the parched landscape.  Despite the brief rain, it is still unusually dry here.  The grasses which will keep the livestock alive through the winter have been cut, and what remains is all shades of yellow and brown.

Today our youth intern and I walked for a few hours through this brown landscape.  We passed gaggles of children playing by the roadside, without a care in the world,  and a very old man on a donkey slowly making his way up the hill.  We had a brief conversation with him as we moved past, but his Tajik was difficult to understand.  We encountered a few shepherd boys near the remains of a massive concrete warehouse that must have been used for vehicles and crops when all of this land was a Soviet Sovkhoz.  Nearby were two strange pieces of land that loomed 10 meters above the landscape, eroded on all sides by wind and water.  Later we passed a few adult men looking almost delirious as they slowly trudged uphill, clearly feeling the effects of 28 days of Ramadan fasting.  In the evening, the prayer call of the muezzin can be heard clearly from our “tapchan”, mixing with the sounds of children and the occasional car.  Summer lingers on even as autumn is in the air.