What would I tell a first year drama teacher?

Don’t walk around like you are Shakespeare reincarnated and can teach them everything they need for a good performance. Why? Because this:

Are you an amazing Shakespearean actor, both in tragedy and comedy?

Can you juggle?

Can you do and teach light design, make up, sound design, and set design?

Can you krump, stomp, step, do ballet, break dance, and spit sick bars? Can you sing?

Can you do stage combat and sword fight?

Can you get reluctant painfully shy people confident enough to make fools of themselves in front of vast crowds while also projecting their voice? Can you get the spotlight hogger to actually work as a not crazy but supportive member of an ensemble?

Can you speak eight languages, play four instruments, write music, film good video and edit it?

Can you write a play? Something they’ll actually liiiikkkkeeeee

Can you get them to stop talking while you are?

Can you find a way to have everyone being an engaged angel even though every scene you’d like to rehearse doesn’t always have every one of your thirty students in so that when administration comes in they are not angry and disappointed with you even though they have no understanding or experience with the creative process?

Oh I forgot, can you make masks, Balinese shadow puppets, sew, and do the type of acrobatics where people hang from the ribbons that are somehow attached to the ceiling?

Oh, no? Not all of that. So be humble. But play to your strengths.

Here is good news: You have experts on many of those things in your room. Elevate them to the status of co-designer, collaborator, coexpert. They’ll rise to the occasion and you will not be let down.

Also, don’t be snobby. Sure, teach them Shakespeare and get them to love it, but a scene about a boyfriend and girlfriend breaking up or a student’s own spoken word poem in ALSO theatre. Start with the fun easy stuff. Get them to love theatre and then hit them with Shakespeare and Antigone and character analysis. They’ll be addicts at that point and they’ll be much more obliged to oblige you.

Start with being the director. Tell them what they are doing and give them a script. Assign the parts yourself and tell them all the blocking and why. Then give them the reins to create devised theatre. They will have more conceptual knowledge and you’ll get more out of them than strange looks.

If you are the only thing the program has, start out small. Scenes from a play rather than a whole play. A short one act, improv. If you are entering a place with a rich tradition and lots of support, go big, they’ll get swept up in the challenge and won’t feel like you’re dumbing things down for them.

If your friend starts a sentence with, hey my job is getting rid of a bunch of stuff… stop her right there. Ask her when you can come and get whatever it is. Props man! Costumes, man! Be a hoarder!

It’s ok to drink, to weap, to pitch a fit. Don’t do them in front of your students. Everyone thinks jobs teaching in the arts are easy and fun! They are not. Just let people be dumb. They always are.

Go big or go home, tell them theatre and all of the arts can be life changing, and have grand social impact, is worth every sacrifice imaginable. Tell them you will start small and let them lead the rest of the way. Tell them this course is only the beginning, but theatre is magic! It can take you to Hogwarts or Middle Earth or to Africa with Simba or wherever that cute little town in Gilmore Girls is. Theatre is amazing. Don’t down play that.

To be honest, these pearls of advice mostly come from my own screw ups this year.  I’ll keep you updated on how well I take my own advice.

How do you prepare for class on Monday when you know a student has been shot?

I began this blog wanting to have resources for other teachers.  I didn’t want it to be this type of resource, but my school has gotten better at handling these type of crises.  This is not our first student we have lost to gun violence.  We have a very caring and even sensitive staff that is rocked by this event.  We are also smart and we are here number one for our students so we are walking in on Monday prepared.  I hope no one ever needs this perspective as a resource for their school.

By knowing you can never fully prepare. Expect odd behavior, a completely sucky negative day, be prepared for your classes to behave like nothing is wrong. Most of the kids who are really grieving will be with counselors all day and some of them will simply be in shock. They may react a week later. Our principal sent us a message on what we call an All Call phone system the day after his death. She told us what happened, told us there would be a voluntary meeting at 7:00, and told us to check our emails for interventions. She said the student’s name twice on the message and it felt strange, his name seeming to echo or reverberate or something… In our email were the interventions: Guidance has extra people from our district’s crisis team and guidance will be available all day for grief counseling. We will have advisory and will share with our students a worksheet on grief. Counselors will be going into all of his classes to speak with anyone who may need it. I feel that is an incredibly important step considering the impact of sitting in a class with that empty seat. I plan to cry if I need to, right in front of them, and on being honest about my feelings. I plan to check in on teachers throughout the day since so much support will be given to students, I want to make sure my colleagues get it too. I plan to go on as planned with the lesson if that’s what they need and I also plan on cancelling our class performances that are set for Friday if that’s what they need. I plan on talking about it and doing a whole play about it if we need to. I plan on having mundane worksheets just to keep us all busy if we need to. Or watching a video. I plan on being patient with crazy behaviors but reminding everyone, including myself that I’m human and I may say the wrong thing, all day long. I plan on going to the guidance suite or staying in my room during prep and just being there for whoever needs it.

At A Loss…

Sudden, violent murders, especially those of the young, bring about the worst combinations of knee jerk reactions and feelings.

A student who used to go to my school was shot New Year’s day. (That is one the first horrible things to adjust to, what tense is the proper to use?) My mix of first reactions went immediately to my surviving students: how will they react and what will they need?  And it ranges to, I’ll admit how guilty I feel for the selfishness, relief he was not a student I personally had or had a connection to, to avoidance, can we just have a snow day Monday? Monday is going to be hell. I set my mind straight pretty much right after that thought. I know my students will need routine and a place to get the things they need. Part of me can’t wait to get back to them, to give them the support they need.

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After a day of sitting with these emotions, I oscillate between trying to plan what I will do Monday and how I will support others, and completely compartmentalizing. My year is going to be great, this vacation has been restorative and I will go back to school and rock shit. I have been having such a good time, a nice time. I have hope and feel right in my brain where I haven’t for a while. I can’t balance these feelings so I keep them separate.

There was a news posting on our local news website before they released the name of the boy. People’s reactions were disgusting. It was all about our town, a small urban dysfunctional city. The comments were all about how it “took no time” and that this place is “a cesspool.” I just kept reading and kept looking. Was someone going to say who this was? Was this one of my students? Who? I wanted to know who because this was about people, not a place. This town, my town, is not some Stephen King epicenter of evil like Dutch Hill. There were people, people in the black SUV that decided for WHATEVER reason to pull up to a curb, reach their arms out, and pull the trigger while pointing it at other HUMAN LIFE. They were people, a father and son who were walking on the street together.  To be that father who survived when he son did not…to be that eighteen year old who has done and known and seen everything he is ever going to…to be that kid at school who I know won’t find out until that first bell is about to ring on Monday…

So, if you don’t live in our city, stfu. If you do, don’t be a part of the judgment let’s actually start to be a part of the solution. And if you are judging, you are probably white. You are probably sitting in the nicer white part of town. You are probably assuming this man and boy were doing something wrong because they were out at that time of night in that neighborhood. I’d like you to realize something. YOU have a choice to be in that part of town or not. You have money for a car and gas to quickly get home from wherever you were celebrating the New Year. This neighborhood you speak of is not the streets you travel every day the house you always glance up at on your way home, the place you remember falling off your bike when you were twelve. It’s not normal to you. Therefore you live a different life and be humbled by that. Be humbled by the fact that you don’t know everything.

And what is the solution? I don’t know.

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.

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.

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!

Why Teach Theatre?

It’s not all gravy cake and pie walks. Students complain about having to memorize, about performing in front of others, about not performing in front of others, about doing Shakespeare, about doing Poetry Out Loud, about having to do stretches and meditation. They don’t understand why my class is not an easy A and want to “switch out” the moment they get a low grade. It’s also one of the first positions to get cut, the work you do is not always valued as “academic,” and people seemed surprised that you have as much or more to grade then other teachers. To add on to this, in my district at least, more and more standardized assessments are being applied to even elective classes and elective teachers must test more than ever and record pre and post data constantly.   The expectation is student growth, of course, but in an extremely specific, standardized, and limited way.

So why teach theatre? Why do I teach theatre?

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To be a creator. To be a creator in an environment where younger people are creating with me sometimes for the first time in this type of creative way, some of them need to be taught creative thinking, and some of them teach me new ideas, perspectives, and skills.

I teach a course where students both get to break the regular rules of the “stay-in-your-seats-raise-your-hands-all-essays-must-be-Times-New-Roman-twelve-font-and-always-start-with-a-topic-sentence” culture school can often be but also expect them to work hard at rigorous tasks.

I get to teach that learning in a process that can be flexible and there is always a chance to go back, practice more, and become better.

I am teaching them memorization techniques, character and text analysis, how to work well with others, how to analytical about style choices, public speaking skills, creative thinking, writing skills, and, let’s face it, I get to do it while dancing, sometimes singing, and pretending to be zombies. I often see such transformation in students from painfully shy to more open, from wild to more focused, from closed minded to more accepting. All from a theatre class. Yea, art in any form, it’s that awesome.