What was the purpose of this blog again?

I may have lost my way, in more ways than one.

I began this blog as a way of sharing my experiences as a teacher with others, especially teachers. Not many people are full time theatre teachers in an urban high school like where I work but many teachers have the same struggles, the same bureaucratic bull that simultaneously angers us and breaks our hearts. There are many teacher blogs out there, but still not enough support of teachers, so I thought I’d add mine in.

I also thought this blog could be a way of sharing resources for anyone who may be teaching my subject or may want to add it to what they do in their academic subject.  Ha ha. Where did I get off thinking I was going to be an expert? I have been teaching nine years but this is only my third as a theatre teacher. I stumbled into some successful projects my first two years, but this last semester has not been successful. That is just honesty. I haven’t had many great ideas to start with, have gone about things wrong, and don’t have many resources to show and share for it.  And as less of justification, and more to hopefully connect to and ease someone else’s woes, I will explain. I have been suffering and battling anxiety and depression for almost a decade now. That’s when I start counting but I’m sure if I looked back…

Some times as teachers we hold ourselves up so high. We are moral guiders, support for 100+ needy students who often don’t get what they need anywhere else but in school, and we are educators. We want to see growth and knowledge in skills and see successes in our students and do it is engaging ways. Make it so fun they don’t see how hard they are working.

But sometimes we are human, not a super human educator and sometime we are lacking. Sometimes we are cranky to students. Sometimes we are underprepared and uninspired. Sometimes we crumble in the face of challenges.

BUT

If we don’t get fired, which, if we love our jobs and still care, we mostly likely will not, we get to try again. Right now we have the excuse of “THE NEW YEAR” and the closing of a marking period is approaching and for some a switch in semester course. For many teaching in a lifelong calling and we can dust ourselves off and try again. I have been beating myself up for not being awesome at nine years. Whatever, I’m a slow learner. I’m ok with that. I’m doing good things.

The approach of the new semester, which for me means new classes and new semester feels as though it could literally save my life. As I begin to do projects that I am more proud of and are more successful, I hope to share even better resources for teachers in all subject areas.

All you can do is breathe…and maybe blink.

And for Christmas, I give you Zombies!

zombies

I’d show more images and some great video but I don’t like putting my students’ faces out there for the world.  BUT, this was an image from my class project of zombie statues.  Its a great little project to do and could be done in any subject.  Here’s how I did it:

Showed exemplar videos, there are many on youtube but I avoid the ones where the living statues punch someone in the crowd who has gone too far.  My students always want to see those ones.  Then we discuss being expressive with body pose, strategies to keep from laughing – breathing, taking it seriously, staring off into space rather than at someone, shifting slowly and mechanically into another position when one is too hard.  Then we practice in incrementally larger and larger time frames, some times I invite another teacher in to surprise my students and try to get them to break character.

I’ve done this before just as a class activity and I have done it before as part of parent teacher conferences that were all held at the same time in the school cafeteria where my students dressed in school colors and posed as science student, cheerleader, musician, etc.  I also did roughly the same characters as part of a field day where we invited students from an Elementary school.  This time around I decided they would do zombie statues because it was an engaging topic.   The rule was that they had to devise a clear story and portray it in expressive, STONE statues.

It was a successful project.  My students took it seriously and stayed in the statues for longer than the five minuets I told them they had to stay.  One class even devised a scene where humans were trying to make it into a compound, zombies were chasing them, allies in a car were attempting to rescue them and snipers tried to help from the risers.  Doing these statues is usually my favorite part of a semester.  It is the ONLY time I get my students to be quiet.  I get them into statues sometimes just so I can give announcements I need to tell them about.  it is worth doing to show there are many types of performance styles and to teach a lesson about discipline in Theatre.

Listless to say the Least

Suffering from a big case of the holiday blues and finding myself beginning a million different posts and not finishing any of them. I actually have this sentence in a word file on my other computer and that was as far as I got. SO, you know what? Rather than tackle the big issues that are getting me down, or force cheer out of the holidays that I’m just not feeling right now, I want to highlight two things, PEOPLE, that have given me so much joy. I am surrounded by the most beautiful people everyday. I need to always remember that.

#1: Fynta: I got this beautiful email the other day:

Hope you are doing well. I’m contacting you because I am applying for colleges and scholarships. I am very passionate about theater and I want to major theater in college. I will be very grateful if you can write a letter of recommendation for me. I know I have not had your class but I have enjoy working with you in the past. I’m applying to… college to study Theater and Gender Study. I want to study theater because I want to be in a position where I can help and inspire people through my art and stories. Thank You Fynta

HOW MUCH MORE BEAUTIFUL DOES IT GET??

#2:  Winnie:

Winnie has been my student for two years now and she is strong and kind and driven.  She left Kenya to move to the states and it broke her heart to leave her home and many of her family members.  She has been living with her father who is cruel.  I don’t know how she became the wonderful young woman she is with such a disrespectful mannerless bear of a father.  She has moved out, been homeless and shifting around place to place.  Then she comes to me with the new struggle.  Her father will not sign college paperwork for her saying: “I am your father, I control your future.”  Well, let’s just say…she worked around it, and she has been accepted into a great school and will start next year.  She told me this a while ago and I cried.  I told her I was not surprised, but proud.  Yesterday, the last day she was to see me before break, she came over and gave me a hug.  Out of our mouths, at exactly the same time, we both said: “I love you.”  I think that’s the best thing, saying it at the same time.  I don’t say this to many students, but she is a beautiful person.  She inspires me.

I do feel cheered.  Let me keep this in the front of my mind for the next few days.

What Matters to my Students?

You know, at the beginning of my teaching career I felt like a little whitey, although well intentioned, lost in a land of mostly students of color and poverty. Yeah, I judge based on actions, but I still don’t have the experiences everyone around me has had. Yeah, I grew up on welfare, but we lived in my grandma’s house and I never went cold in my house in the winter. Do I know much about any of these cultures? As years passed it left my mind. I feel at home here and I have delightedly learned so much. When I switched from being an ELA teacher to a Theatre teacher and three years in I really want to make performance pieces that MATTER to the lives of my students and address needed change in our world. It started to sink in again, how do I know what matters to my students who have just moved from Jamaica or the Dominican Republic? How do I know what matters to my students who slept outside last night in the cold? And our country’s a little shaken up lately. Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, it’s gotten people shaken up and saying vile shit. It’s all bubbling to the surface, both the hurt at being a second class citizen in this country and the racism. How do I understand, not assume, what their opinions are? Yes, open up, ask questions, let them talk, listen. Yes, I know that although I value that completely, I don’t do it well. Either the conversation feels too shallow, I don’t have all the facts researched or they are unattainable, and I don’t want false facts thrown around, or the conversation is not happening, they get really off topic and I take over, or I’m too rushed. Time is so short! Gotta get projects done, etc., etc.

I’m embarking on a special project with one of my classes. They want to do a physical theatre piece based on the song showed below.

I am all for it! This is what I want, Social Justice in the classroom! I can already feel my instincts wanting to control this. How do I handle the Fuck the Police line? How do I get them to understand not all cops are the enemy? Get them to see all sides and see what I deem to be the right moral lesson to gain from all of this? Then get them to portray that in a theatre piece with all students engaged in the small amount of time left? And I gotta roll, no time to breathe, reflect, do my research…

How time operates in the theatre (or in any situation where the creative process is under the pressure of a looming performance date):

Do you ever have that director or teacher that says: “Let’s do it again!” and there is only five minutes left of class or rehearsal and you’re tired and sick of whatever it is you are rehearsing or just plain tired and when you say: “Ummm, we only have five minutes,” she or he loses it on you?

That is because they know exactly how much time is left and need every precious drop out of the clock that they can drain.

Let me explain to you how time works in the “Getting Ready for Performance Zone.”N91812HWCB_z[1]

You enter the theatre or dance space or classroom and time immediately skips ahead and hour and speeds up. You may even let slip a day or two and it sinks through a drain built into the floor.

Meanwhile, line memorizers, and dancer move perfectors, and costume designers, if you are lucky enough to have any, they are moving half the speed of your director, who is moving too slowly to keep up with warp rehearsal speed.

Your director is not superhuman. That is not why he is moving faster than the actors and the sound tech and the dancers. Your director is fueled with a certain magic juice called responsibilitay conductorium. Your director is the conductor of all the responsibilities of any performance. Many factors must fit together and a very small number of people have the responsibility of putting them all together in choreographed, harmonious lines. Your director is living several different levels of reality at once.

So when you feel like you’ve got this, your director sees something else. Out of one corner of her eye she sees minuets and even hours quietly sneaking out the back door. She may know you have your lines memorized, but has future plans for your blocking that you don’t even know about yet. Maybe you know all the blocking, and are marvelously into your character, but the lighting operator doesn’t have her cues down yet and you are needed to help her, this is an ensemble after all! Now, meanwhile, she has to get this accomplished, set, tightened, because she still has to design that veil for Frankenstein’s bride and the fairies are supposed to have come up with a song to sing for Tatiana, but they’ve come up with nothing! Beside, you don’t have anything down unless your director has seen you have it down. He can’t rely on trust, he has to see it, and that will take even more time.

So listen, when five minutes walks back through the door he just snuck out of, use it!

DDMs, Part One

Visual Art, Drama, Music, Chorus, they are a different world from Math, Science, English, and History courses. Teachers in arts courses teach skills that support student work in academic subjects and also help them to grow as members of a larger community. The classes are structured differently. You better sing for most of your time in your chorus class, but pipe down in English.  You’re stretching and meditating in Drama, but usually not asked to do that in Science. These classes can sometimes be a refuge for students, the outcasts, the ones bored with math, the ones who don’t fit into traditional expectations of the sit down classroom. Teachers of the arts teach in a different way and give a different kind of support.

Yet, in my district, we are expected to do many things the same way as other classes. The largest example of that is in the DDM testing. Our district, comprised of five main high schools and several alternative high schools, requires every art course to have a pretest and a post test that is the same throughout all of the schools. Students entering a band course for the first time are asked to play a song, within the first three weeks of the course, whether they have some musical background or no. Students in my drama course are expected to perform a cold read of a monologue within the first three weeks. DDM stands for District Determined Measures and the purpose is the have it as uniformed as possible across the district. These pretests don’t impact their grade, for my class, they got a 100% for doing it. The post test does impact their grade and is their final.

Our students are also given a school wide writing assessment called the “Writing to text” DDM. This assessment is also the same throughout the district and it is tied to art teachers as well. So, students who have my drama class, do they grow as writers throughout the year? Well, I want them to so it certainly encourages me to teach writing as a part of course. Students also have pre and posttests in all other subjects, with the exception of Physical Education, which is currently designing theirs to be implemented next year. Throughout the year students also take our state’s Math, Science, and ELA tests, SATs, PSATs, Midterms, Finals, and midway through DDMS.

What is the point of this, I ask myself. Well, with these tests, the leadership in my district can see how my students are learning, what they are learning, and how much they are growing compared to other Drama teachers in the district. In other words, am I as good of a teacher as someone else? Teachers in other courses have to do these tests, so why shouldn’t we? It’s only fair. Also, when critics want to question the validity of these arts courses, we have proof to show them student growth in our classes. These tests are designed to keep teachers accountable, but I still ask, what impact do they have on students?

“Flaws” Devised Theatre Piece Day Four

My students were tasked with the job of devising four physical theatre pieces for a performance on Jan 9th. I started this last week and currently we have 9 days until this performance. I told them: for piece number one: here is our stimulus, our inspiration. I found an amazing acoustic version of Bastille’s Flaws and told them we must come up with a performance using movement that tells a story and promotes a message. I was prepared with an idea but encouraged them to stop me, interrupt, add, delete, transform and adapt my ideas.

And I have four separate classes and I am trying my best to come up with a unique performance for each one for the same song.

For the most part, they just look at me like I’m crazy. I don’t have much argument there. So I keep telling them, I’ll put the ideas in and we will try it, but if you don’t speak up after thinking creatively, you may end up with the same performance as another class. You don’t want that.

I went through some very tough classes where when I asked for ideas I got crickets, when I gave the idea they didn’t like it, a student nicely spoke up and said this was “wack.” (I love that that word is still a thing!) I got nasty attitudes and many why do we have to do this? Block 9 and block 3 were the worst. Every time I went up against road blocks I approached it positively.

This is dumb wack? Ok, what can we do to make this something you won’t be embarrassed to do? I even went to the extent of showing the next song I had in mind, which is way more hip hop. Offering to do that first. Writing ideas out, offering to participate as an actor myself. I have not yelled at them for not giving me answers, I have not taken it personally when they refuse to participate. I have simply been insidious. A mixture of getting even one or two students to try something or a new idea that I can keep coming back at them with has started to seep in to even my most difficult classes.

As of now, my block one is doing several living statues and a step routine, and we will add in some dialogue tomorrow, Block three had the hardest time getting started, mostly because they were thinking outside of my box and bucking my system when they were honest about simply not liking my ideas, and today we really had a break through. My dancers were working on their things and I have two actors as fighting parents and a girl who is coming out to her family. It really started to come together today. I have one class who pretty much has choreography down and students in the class will hopefully play the song live! Lots more work to do on that. And my last block class started to drop their nasty attitudes on Friday and get down to work and I even had a students tell me: “I want to participate today.” When he refused to the two classes before. I told him I had been thinking about him and I had just the way he could participate. He jumped right in getting stock footage on my iphone that we will use to edit a video together that will get projected onto the scene of a living statue flaw museum.

It’s starting to show that when you stick with it and don’t get disheartened they can really begin to fall in love with theatre. I’m changing the tone around in my classroom. And we only have three more performances to think up!!

My Teacher’s on Crack!

Two days ago I was in my classroom practicing a few simple but very corny choreography moves for a new project I was about to introduce to my students. Students began to filter in and Anthony, a student of mine, took one look at what I was doing and walked back out. I finished my run through then went out of my class room to herd students during “transition time.” Right outside of my door was Anthony speaking to another student and as soon as I walked up to the door the other student saw I was there. Anthony: “My teacher’s on crack! She’s in there doing some weird moves like this…” Fair enough. His friend gave him no heads up but another student coming into the room informed him. “She’s right here.” We all had a good laugh and his face couldn’t have gotten redder.

I told him I am taking all of his classwork points away we laughed again and class got underway. Things couldn’t have worked better to my plan. Now, for the rest of the class, he assumed he had hurt my feelings and took all my redirection in stride, and obliged quickly. I used this against him in the best way: “Hey listen Anthony, you’ve already picked on me enough today…”  when in truth, I could not have cared less.  It was the best behaved he’s ever been.

It worked out in another way as well. I want my students to feel comfortable making a fool out of themselves during the creative process. Sometimes I give them a script and scream at them to memorize, and at other times theatre doesn’t work like that, we create it together. Whether it’s rehearsals of a scripted performance or something during the devising process, the beginning process is always going to be a hot mess, and if I can do that silly thing in front of you, then you can be open to try things out.

My students also needed some examples of how movement can tell a story and represent emotions. I’ve given them a place to start and we have been building a performance collaboratively from there.

National and Kitchen Table Debate

Possibly the only positive thing to come from the events in Ferguson and New York is the debates it’s spawned.  No, not the debates, the conversations.  My grandmother, 96, looks up from the paper tonight and says:  “I don’t think I used to think much about blacks before but now…”  I don’t drop the spoon I’m using to prepare her nightly desert.  I know her.  I know how she is honest, reflective, and is a product of her time, but her time is now, too, and she is changing, even at 96.  It is beautiful.  As I serve her apple pie and ice cream, I ask a little more.  “Did you ever have a Black friend?”  “No ,”  she says and even goes on to say “Even though I don’t know any Black people, I believe they should have rights.”  I laugh a little, the idea is so strange to me, my life has been blessed with a crazy amount of diversity.  I remember a conversation I had with her a year ago when I was talking about a somewhat local Native American tribe and she was surprised to hear that “they still existed.”  (Woah, I know.)  I think of how diligent I am to try to shape open mindedness in my teenage students who have already set their minds to many things and I realize I am influencing and teaching another person as well.  She teaches me so much and gives so much to me that I am glad I am helping her to learn and accept in a loving way the multiness of our world today.  She and I finished our conversation about how we are the same, some of us are good and some of us are bad, and she gleaned enough from the paper to know some white cops are racist and some blacks and whites are bad, just like everyone else.

Very few of my students (people) are as eager to gain a new perspective, or to accept as my grandmother is, especially when it is a complete shift from the way she was raised.  She reminds me to continue to be open to the world and I think by doing that, I can be the best example to my students.

This is How We Shoot Back

I saw this video and was deeply moved. No matter what your views on the Gardner case, or the Brown case, I believe most people can agree that this was a power example of peaceful protest and can attest to the power art can have to send powerful messages. I showed this to my classes and told them this is why I do what I do, because art can have the power to change things for the better. I also asked them to analyze stylistic choices, like the chest thumping, how it sounded like a heart and what that symbolized. I asked them what “this is how we shoot back” meant and we talked about what historically peaceful protest has accomplished. My students have been given a project to create a step routine with a message. Let’s see if this inspired them!