Upheavals, Transitions, and Arts Education in the Lives of Children

One of the places I work is an elementary school in an inner-city neighborhood. I know some of my readers work with students from families in very challenging circumstances. It is a neighborhood with a high rate of sexual abuse and the sex offender registry adds new convicted sex offenders to the immediate surroundings every week. Living in cheap housing, in a neighborhood with a statistically high rate of crime and a low literacy rate,  are  major “given circumstances” in the lives of the children I see every week.Attendance at parent teacher conferences is low and the incidence of children being raised by a single parent or guardian, often a grandmother, is high. My second grade students giggle hysterically when we practice reading a list of words with 2 e’s because they already know what “weed” is, in this neighborhood. I have been cussed out, more than once, by six and seven year old children. With a 50% transiency rate, I would imagine that the school office has to spend an inordinate amount of time just keeping up with changing addresses and the revolving door of students transferring in and out of the school every month. So it is an understatement to say that many of them lead lives that are, at best, unstable.

At this beautiful school, with its amazing children, we’ve been talking a lot as a staff about a belief system that holds that the adults in the building are responsible for the culture of the school. An educator there, whom I respect very much, once pointed out that we, the adults in that building, have to be more influential than the environment. Ever since he said it, it has stuck with me, because– wow, tall order. Whether or not you work in a school like this one, every school has students with lives that are at least temporarily unstable. Students whose families are going through a divorce. Students who have recently been put into foster care. Students who struggle after a move. For young children especially, small upheavals are still upheavals, and I imagine when you don’t always know if you’re going to sleep in the same bed one night after another, when you don’t know if you’re going to go home to adults fighting, or when you don’t know if you’ll have a meal this Saturday– these things make tolerance for other kinds of changes that much less. Teachers are not social workers, but they know child development and they know something of the challenges the students in front of them face. I think it is an ethical responsibility of teachers and administrators who are aware of significant instability in the lives of the students in their building, to proactively consider every change in routine, every shift of a student into a new classroom, every change that might be very insignificant in the eyes of an emotionally healthy adult but could, somehow, be significant and sometimes re-traumatizing to  a child in crisis. We, as educators, cannot “fix” everything in the lives of our students, but we can be sensitive to their needs and minimize the amount of changes and “surprises” that we throw at them.

I know, first hand, that the arts are an unbelievable tool in mourning, and it occurs to me that the constant unsteadiness in some children’s lives results in a near constant state of mourning for some of them.  I’m wondering how the arts could be better utilized in classrooms with children who face this kind of instability.Given that the arts are notoriously the “first cut” from the curriculum in this age of high-stakes testing, I would guess that many of the schools with children with the most needs are the most arts starved. But arts experiences, too, can be surprising and potentially uncomfortable. Paintings don’t turn out the way you thought, you have to wait your turn while someone else reads their lines, and sometimes music dredges up feelings for which there are no words. So, I think there are landmines in this work too. This is just the beginning of a line of thought– maybe I will think on this more and add another post on the subject later. But I’m interested in hearing what you think.

Question for the World: What have your experiences with children with instable lives been? How can the adults in your building make a better impact on their academic and social-emotional futures? Can, and should, the arts play a role in such endeavors? 


Can we please change the discourse on social media?

This summer I was fortunate to return again to the annual conference of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) and that of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). In considering overall themes that kept returning, especially in the ATHE conference, classroom use of social media and video-sharing platforms (e.x., Youtube, Vimeo, etc.)  kept returning. The two sessions that really stood out for me this year were “Teaching Theatre to the Youtube Generation” and “Designing Collaborative Exercises for Theatre Design,” the latter of which wasn’t necessarily intended to look at social media issues but the topic inadvertently became a major part of the discussion nonetheless.

I have to say that I’ve been disappointed overall in the discourse on this subject in the field. Too often I find the tone of discussions about technology’s role in the classroom and the theatre becomes paranoid and negative. I truly appreciated panelists in both the above-listed sessions for choosing to explore, in a practical way, how social media’s emerging presence in our lives could positively influence theatre and theatre education. In too many cases at these types of events, the mention of technology dissolves into a series of rants by professors complaining about their experiences with students texting in class. Yes, I can see how that could annoy someone. If it bothers you, state your expectations regarding technology at the beginning of the semester and enforce them. Or get over it and ignore it.

Could there be ways social media could be legitimately welcomed into the classroom, facilitating and deepening learning and artistic exploration as opposed to simply distracting from it? What if students were to tweet their “muddiest points” from a lecture to a class Twitter handle, allowing quick assessment and an easily accessible record of student understanding throughout the course? What if students were encouraged to text each other their thoughts following a performance viewing? What if conversations about communication in the theatre went further to explore the unique challenges of communicating via text, email, and social media platforms, something virtually all theatre professionals today are encountering to an increasing degree? What if theatre students were expected to make podcasts — living journals– of their rehearsal process? Could video footage kept in an e-portfolio enhance the traditional post-mortem discussion of a student production, or perhaps aid in encouraging a student to self-evaluate with greater objectivity? Which is more valuable to the Intro to Theatre student– an article about theatrical conventions in Kabuki or a Youtube clip showing those conventions in action? Access is an important aspect of the conversation for me as an educator. I use an outstanding textbook in my Introduction to Theatre course each semester that unfortunately many of my students honestly cannot afford. But all of my students have free access to Youtube clips at their public library. Could social media platforms offer possibilities for more equitable scaffolds for learning than more traditional resources?

These are the kinds of questions about technology that interest me as a teacher, and I suspect they would be of interest to others if the discourse could be framed and facilitated positively. Instead, I felt that too much of the dialogue many of my colleagues engage in seems almost fear-laden. There were comments about whether even the idea of bringing Youtube into a theatre classroom was self-defeating to the field. Is there a real concern that increase access to online video content will ultimately kill theatre? Well, I would respond, is there any evidence that increased access to recorded music via platforms like iTunes decreased live concert attendance? I would certainly be surprised if it were the case and would venture that most would still feel that the live communal event retains its place as a special experience in spite of such opportunities.

Yes, technology has its limits and problems. Professors need to be responsible in considering/controlling how openly student work should be shared, for instance. But exploring social media and strategizing around its potential challenges will yield more benefit for the future of the field than simply resisting it. Finally, as technology’s role in the workplace changes, given that theatres are workplaces, shouldn’t our students be encouraged to master those platforms that will like figure into their professional lives?

Question for the World: What role does social media play in your classroom or theatre? What role would you like to see it play in the future?


More or less back on Eastern Standard Time

Thought I’d debrief on a couple things now that I’ve re-settled myself after the AATE conference.

A Few Aha! Moments and the Beautiful People who Led Me to Them

  • On the whole “is-it-okay-to-do-a-Latino (Chicano, West Indian, insert-racial or ethnic identity here) play-when you only have white students” question: Putting aside the obvious opportunities this presents to invite diversity into your school/program/theatre, in the amateur theatre setting children of color are asked to play roles written for white people all the time. Given  the option to bring a play with characters of diverse identities to a greater audience, not having diversity in your ranks is not a valid excuse for depriving such students from the exposure– in fact, it’s more reason it’s needed. (h/t Roxanne Schroeder-Arce)


  •  There aren’t nearly enough Asian American TYA plays, particularly with female protagonists that are not stereotyped as “model minority,” etc. (h/t YiRen Tsai)


  • Outstanding assessment question for students attending theatre programming: “Did you see yourself onstage?” May all children and youth have the chance to experience art that makes them explain “I see me!” (h/t AATE’s Multiculturalism and Diversity Committee)


  • Labeling children with special needs as “high functioning” or “low functioning” is pejorative. (h/t Diane Nutting)


  • There has been some great reflection in the field about ethical issues in TYA and arts education recently. The impetus for this reflection has not always been wholly altruistic, but the ethical questions of our field are many and demand attention. (h/t Drew Chappell, Matt Omasta, and the Youth and Professional Theatre Networks)

Question for the World: Have you had any Aha! moments about your work or the field recently? Do tell!

Conferencing it up Day 2 and 3: Multiculturalism and Diversity

Conference fatigue has set in for me at this point, but I am having a good conference. I especially enjoy being around so many people I greatly admire as artists and as human beings. I have been MOST grateful this conference for the sessions I’ve been able to attend on issues of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion– specifically Everybody Plays! Inclusion in the Theatre Arts Classroom (chaired by Diane Nutting, with facilitation by Torrie Dunlap), Scripted: The Representation of People of Color in TYA Dramatic Literature (chaired by YiRen Tsai, with panelists Lorenzo Garcia and Ebony Tucker), and Building a Diverse Theatre Curriculum: Students, Teachers, and the Role of Privilege (chaired by Christina Marin, with Stephen Gundersheim and Jennifer Chapman facilitating). In a related way, the multiculturalism and diversity meetings have been an important part of my experience this year as well. AATE and the fields of theatre and education itself, are imperfect, but the challenge laid down by our mission’s anti-bias philosophy requires diligence and unwavering self-reflection . I SO appreciate colleagues who have asked hard questions in these areas and continue to stand up for issues that matter (here and in the organizations they work for) even when it seemed they were standing alone.

One of the sessions I attended challenged participants to define an action related to multiculturalism and diversity in the field in the next year and one of mine is to increase my familiarity with Latino TYA dramatic literature. I am starting by reading Jose Cruz Gonzalez’ Calabasas Street and Jose Casas’ la ofrenda.

Question for the World: Do you have a favorite play (or several) from the canon of Latino TYA dramatic literature? Share it here and I’ll put it on my to do list to read before next conference!


Acting for the Very Inhibited… and Other Challenges

I’ve been teaching regularly with some high school and college aged students who are very new to theatre, some of whom are only in my particular class because someone forced them to take it. This of course presents a special challenge for a teaching artist– it’s always easier to teach people who actually are interested in the content you’re working with. I have students who are so painfully shy that, while willing to be a “good student” enough to try to read a monologue in front of the class, will only manage to speak at a level just slightly above a whisper. I have other students who appear put off by the mere suggestion that they participate in an activity, and will go to great lengths to stall, sometimes to the detriment of the class. I have a student who, when asked to write about what types of activities they think they would enjoy in acting class, wrote that she really wanted to be in another class but it was filled and as far as acting went she didn’t like “silly games” or any level of performance in front of the class or elsewhere. I’ve employed a variety of strategies to enthuse, inspire, and encourage these kinds of non-performers, but I’m interested to know if others have had success with such personalities at the high school and college level.

Question for the World: Have you had students whose inhibitions severely limited their participation in class? Have you had students who simply did not want to be in your class in the first place? What did you do to make it work?

Do Kids Read Anymore?

Today I taught a group of elementary school students as described in my previous “tableaux” post. My drama work with this particular group was supposed to connect to literacy in some way, as is often the case. So when we got to the part where the students get in small groups to create a tableaux about a story they’ve heard or read, I found it disturbing how many of them simply could not think of a SINGLE book they had ever been familiar with. “Can’t we do a movie?” they asked. Sometimes I run into groups that have a really hard time deciding on a particular story everyone can agree on, but this group of kids could not even get that far.

When I was student teaching third grade I remember working with a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood, and discovering when it came time to compare the two versions it became clear that less than half of the class knew the story. The nursery rhymes and fairy tales that I grew up with are simply not a part of a lot of kids’ childhoods these days. Maybe, as this article considers, books (per se) have less value in kids’ lives today. I think it’s sad that so many children are growing up without stories, and my lesson planning definitely has to be adjusted in light of this fact.

Question for the World: Have you run into this before? Do you think kids read less today than they used to? Does students’ lack of familiarity with nursery rhymes and fairy tales impact your work? What should be done?