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Stepping into Education: Alpha Phi Alpha’s Sean Burns and The Power of Stepping in Elementary Education

Sean Burns, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., stands as a trailblazer in the realm of teaching the art of stepping to youth. A Spring 2006 initiate of the Gamma Xi Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. in St. Paul, Minnesota, Sean earned his stripes as an educator and has dedicated himself to shaping young minds through the rhythmic expression of stepping, serving as a beacon of inspiration at an elementary school where he holds the unique position of full-time step instructor.

In 2020, Prodeo Academy in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, recognized Sean’s expertise and passion by appointing him as their full-time step instructor, a pioneering move in the educational landscape. In this capacity, Sean integrates stepping into the school curriculum, providing students with dedicated instructional periods akin to those for art, music, or gym classes.

We at Watch The Yard set up an interview with Burns, who has a Masters in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota, to talk to him about his position, what it means to be a full time step instructor in a school and the benefits that this type of instruction has on young people.

How did you first get involved in stepping, and what inspired you to bring it into the elementary school curriculum?

First of all; thank you Jonathan for giving me the opportunity to share my journey of step and how step is impacting our young people. 

I’m from New Orleans, La.  So stepping and Greek like was something I witness frequently. 

However;  it wasn’t until my family relocated us to Madison; Wi where I actually learn my first step.  I was a sophomore in high school at Madison East High. KOJO drill team was be implemented and we had a brothers of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc teach us steps. 

Personally I took more than steps from these Greek members….. they instilled this new confidence in me that as youth, I never experienced and I can remember saying….. I wanna be like them.  I wanna go to college, I wanna pledge, I wanna step and I wanna make a difference in my community. 

As far as bringing step to the elementary school curriculum, a co-founder of Prodeo Academy took notice how students of the school love stepping and chanting.  I would volunteer at Prodeo; preparing classes for their annual step up performances as they graduate to the next grade.  After volunteering for two years; Chancey saw a need and opportunity for step to be apart of the entire school curriculum.

What unique elements of stepping do you think make it suitable for an elementary school curriculum?

 There are many elements of step that are suitable for elementary and middle school scholars.   One element is learning the historical origins of step. The history of step is so powerful in way that can be relevant for all people.  The second element is repetition of learning.  To become proficient in reading or math you have to practice; just like learning a step routine.  When learning a step routing; the repetition of learning is being utilized like in would in a regular classroom; but in a different way to learn a routine & inspirational poems. The third element of step scholars are learning is teamwork or community building. As you know when learning a step routine in preparation for competition;  along that journey you learn how to work together and become one sound.  The last element is competition.

I believe a certain level of competition is great for students; the competitive element prepares students how to handle pressure, public performance, public speaking and how to effectively prepare.  

Why do you think it is important that this class is part of the school curriculum and part of the students’ school days and not an afterschool activity like most stepping programs done around the country?

 Step being part of the school curriculum; offers  more of robust program which includes the history of step; elements of step, learning a step routine and implementing activities to promote physical movement among our scholars. 

Compared to an afternoon school program; I believe you are limited to what you can accomplish. 

What do you hope students gain from participating in a stepping class in school at such a young age? 

For our Elementary and middle school students, scholars are gain confidence in themselves, finding their voice, developing their character, discovering their hidden talents, learning to work with others and how to effectively prepare for future assessments. However; I allow our middle school scholars to work in small cohorts independently on history, poems or steps I’ve introduced so that they can begin to practice time management. Which will become critical when they move on to high school and higher education. 

How do you see stepping contributing to the students’ overall development beyond step and movement?

Great question!!!!  As a former special ed teacher; I notice students who perform well academically had a sense of self and confidence.

Step class helps students with their self-confidence; I’ve seen students’ confidence go through the roof once they learn and perform their first routine; its remarkable. 

Another aspect of development that happens is Ccharacter development; step offers space of discovery in way that is unspeakable. 

A few other aspects of development is learning how to communicate, taking turns, sharing space, working as a team; handling failure, meeting deadlines and asking questions. 

Do you foresee stepping becoming a more widespread part of elementary school curricula, either within your school or nationally?

Yes I do see this class becoming part of other schools curricula.  Today schools are in need of new specialists class that will benefit our young people today.  The step class curriculum serves our scholars so much more than just the art it self.  Scholars are learning transferable skills so they can be great students in there classrooms and beyond. 

Are there any plans to expand the program or collaborate with other schools or organizations to promote stepping in education? 

 Most definitely!!! Currently I’m contracted with several schools districts and other organizations who would like to see step part of there school. However; my goal is too train educators on my step curriculum so that step could potentially be a specialist class elsewhere. 

What would you say to school districts or schools contemplating adding stepping as part of their curriculum? 

I definitely would support the idea; and as a pioneer of this movement; I would happily help in any way I can.  Like I said before; it’s time for new specialist classes for our scholars locally and beyond. Specialist Classes that are going to support our kids in ways that will help them be successful in the classroom. 

How has your affiliation with Alpha Phi Alpha influenced your approach to teaching stepping, especially to young children?

As you know Alpha Phi Alpha is the first of all BGLO and that in itself is influencing. 

Teaching step as a day class is new and not common anywhere. So having this opportunity is humbling but it comes with pressure, doubt uncertainty and joy. I’m sure the Jewels of Alpha Phi Alpha felt the same; but they knew it would be worth it.  I feel the same way about the step class; I just hope I’m still alive to witness what’s to come from what god is [leading] me to do. 

What role do you see fraternities and sororities playing in supporting or expanding programs like the one you’re involved in?

I see the Divine 9 organizations volunteering their time speaking with students about Greek life, college life and what step represents from their perspective.  I also see BLGOs facilitating step workshops on their organizational style of stepping.  

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Sean Burns’s dedication to integrating stepping into elementary education serves as a testament to the power of innovative teaching methods in shaping young minds. Through his pioneering role as a full-time step instructor, Sean not only imparts rhythmic skills but also instills confidence, discipline, and creativity in his students. As we at Watch The Yard concluded our conversation with this visionary educator, we are reminded of the profound impact that passionate individuals can have on transforming traditional educational paradigms. With Sean’s unwavering commitment to empowering youth through stepping, the rhythm of education continues to beat strong, promising a brighter future for generations to come.

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