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…

“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.