Austin student Zaniyah Gavin was somewhat new to Latin dancing.

Gavin signed up for an after-school program at Hay Academy, along with several classmates, to learn about the dancing and culture. But most of the kids couldn’t get with the program, so to speak, and dropped from the class. Gavin, a fifth grader at Hay school, 1018 N. Laramie, decided to stay in the program, along with six other classmates.

The instructor, Abby Schwarz of Chicago-based, youth arts nonprofit Changing Worlds, encouraged the remaining students to embrace the class. For Gavin, the class was worth it in the end.

“It helps you get deep inside of what you believe,” she said. “I am more creative than I thought I was.”

Founded in 1996, Changing Worlds runs in-school and after-school programs at Chicago-area schools. The nonprofit educates students about different cultures through art and writing. The in-school programs may include something as simple as show and tell. But students are required to journal about their experiences, expressing their thoughts in a productive way.

Hay offered a few of the after-school programs this school year, including the Latin dance and a theater performance class.

At first, students didn’t respond well to learning about different types of Latin dance styles twice a week after school, even though they signed up for the optional class, said Nikki Smith, a dance instructor for Changing Worlds.

“All they were talking about was hip-hop. They didn’t really see what the importance was of learning about Latin music and dance,” Smith said.

Eventually, several students withdrew from the class but some remained, learning to “embrace” the dance and culture but also develop different skills.

“I saw a lot of them come of their shell,” Smith said. “I saw some who were closed-up, reserved … those are some of my leaders.”

Smith and her students both wrote journals and brainstormed about choreography in small groups. That, according to Smith, inspired leadership and cooperation abilities. They also conducted peer critiques, where students would perform a routine in front of the class and get constructive criticism.

Smith said the program not only opens students’ eyes to other cultures, but helps them hone cooperation skills they’ll need for the rest of their lives.

Schwarz, a teaching artist with Changing Worlds, helped run the theater-based program at Hay. The students have done two live productions and are currently working on a third. The students helped write scripts, gaining communication skills. They also came up with the themes for all three productions. Schwarz said she was just there to lead them in the right direction.

The final show will be based on the theme of obsession, specifically based on why some kids are “obsessed with fighting,” Schwarz said, adding that she often hears students talking about one fight or another when they come in to class.

That’s why, she adds, students felt the need to highlight this in the show.

“Teachers may not get too much insight on how they’re dealing with these issues, so this is a different way for them to show that,” Schwarz said. “Their voice is really coming through.”

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