First Days

When I was in high school I was an actor for Looking In, performing scenes about social issues throughout Connecticut. Part of the training process involved listening to a range of speakers discuss the various issues we were creating scenes about. One of the speakers I remember most vividly was a therapist who talked about alcohol abuse in adolescents and mental health issues. He told a story of a professor he had in graduate school, who asked the classroom of psychiatrists-to-be what they thought the goals of a first therapy appointment ought to be. The students discussed a range of agendas a mental health professional might have as they began work with a new client and there was a heavy debate about which priorities were most important. After the class discussion the professor offered this insight: The goal of the first appointment is to get a second one. Period.

That statement has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve applied the notion of getting a second meeting in a lot of the work I do. When I direct a play, I want to get the actors clear on what the schedule is, get a taste of the culture of this process we are embarking on, and get the juices of ensemble flowing. Ultimately all the planning I do for the first rehearsal revolves around the question of how to get these actors ready for the second rehearsal. I don’t really have a set icebreaker I always use or an immovable rule that every rehearsal requires that staging begin or even a read-through necessarily. Each production is different and this makes each first day different– but the plan always revolves around the question of what are my performers and production team going to need immediately next. Does everyone know where the bathrooms are? Is there an activity that will most develop a collegiality among (often) relative strangers who’ve come together for this particular production? Is there an image or idea I can share that will help those in the room see what most touches me about this particular piece, and can I present that in a way that will plant a seed of deepening interest in the project?

I have a similar approach in teaching. With my college students I spend a huge portion of time going over the syllabus on the first day, and in the past I found myself frustrated that that would take away time from activities I had in mind to “get started.” But just as elementary school teachers know that investing extra time on establishing rules and classroom management that first month of school makes all the difference in the students’ behavior the rest of the year, adult students, too, need their hands held a bit before getting their feet wet in a new course. Its an investment in the rest of the course, but particularly for the tone that second class will have.

Question for the World: What do you like to do on “first days” or rehearsal, school, or work? What approaches to the getting-ready-to-go phase of collaborative activity  have you found effective, and what approaches did not?


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!

Substitute Teaching 101

Reading this made me realized that this was one aspect of my professional life I hadn’t spent much time on here. Substitute teaching is one of my main in-between-gigs jobs. Freelancing as I have been for over a year now, as well as for several years after college, there are times like this past month (6 Tech Weeks in a Row, with 2 of them happening at virtually the same time!) when I am too busy to take on much else, but there are also times when having an option for steady employment is a must. So I am on a substitute teaching list for grades K-12 in a local school district and for an arts magnet high school.

People always look at me a little oddly when I say this, but I actually really like substitute teaching, and mostly because, as jobs go, I find it pretty easy compared to a lot of other things I do. The pressures of planning are generally out the window, no one faults you if things go awry, there’s no work to bring home, and if you have a really lousy day with a particular school or grade level or group of kids you are under absolutely no obligation to see them ever again. Every subbing experience has it’s surprises, which provides me with just enough challenge to stay interested and improvising, but I find that I don’t get too worked up over a less than perfect day of subbing– it’s easier to let things roll off your back when that personal connection of returning regularly isn’t there. It also allows a great deal of flexibility (in my district at least) because I can sign up to sub as often or as little as I’d like and I never have to go through the hoops of a personal day for a doctor’s appointment.

The link to Betty’s Blog got my attention though because some of the perils she alludes to are definitely true. There are definitely times in the lunch room when I’ve walked in and been treated as invisible, or worse, intruding. There are definitely times when lesson plans left behind are less than helpful, when maps to classrooms are not provided, or students have treated me with something less than respect. There was this past September when I substitute taught at 4 different schools and each one had a fire drill when I was there, leaving me looking to paras and 7th graders to determine the emergency exits and procedures. I think a lot more could be done to support and appreciate substitute teachers. Teaching is isolating enough at times and standing in for a teacher may be just that much moreso. My favorite memories of substitute teaching are when I happened on a magic moment with a child (such as when I accidentally inspired a little boy named to Joey to write the “y” in his name for the first time), when I’ve gotten feedback from students that something I’ve done in class has clarified or extended the work they were already doing, and those times an administrator or other teacher has checked in, completely unsolicited, to see how they could assist or to express their thanks.

So, in a nod to Betty, here are 10 random things I have learned in my own substitute teaching:

1. Teachers can always be clearer in writing lesson plans. Not every substitute has been trained in the latest educational methods, and many times there are activities or procedures that have been built into a school or district’s culture that need further explanation for the uninitiated. This is a bigger issue, I find, with elementary school teachers than with teacher’s of older students. Or maybe jargon– or sometimes just cute names for simple activities– is more prevalent in primary grades?

2. If you bring an iced coffee into a classroom with a desk calendar and lots of papers on it, and set it down while trying to figure out the days plans in the under-10-minutes-till-the-students arrive, you have at least a 50% chance of spilling the coffee all over the teacher’s desk, thereby ruining something of theirs, losing 5 minutes to locating paper towels, and , sometimes most concerning, going without the caffeine you really needed to survive the morning. For this reason, all substitute teachers should invest in well-sealed coffee mugs.

3. Names matter. You will screw names up reading the attendance aloud and it will irritate the kids. Yes, even if they’re in high school– sometimes especially if they’re in high school. Make a point at the beginning of the class that you want to learn to say their names correctly and apologize the minute you mess up. If the name on the list says “Joseph,” ask if they want or don’t want to be called “Joe” or “Joey.” Some kids are like my sister was, going by a middle name and living in horror of the substitute calling them by their first name. It doesn’t matter that you may never see this group of kids again. It’s a small thing that gets noticed.

4. Circulate. This is the single biggest classroom management tool at your disposal. When students are working on something independently, walk around the room. You don’t have to say or do anything. Just show interest.

5. Cry for Help. No one will look down on you. If you have an issue with a students’ behavior or you’re struggling to figure out what time the kids are supposed to go to gym, call the office, the teacher next door, any adult. The silent presence of a random adult they recognize is a powerful force.

6. There are kids who look on having a substitute teacher as an opportunity to goof off, be a smart aleck, get attention, whatever. Don’t take it personally. Ignore what you can but let the students know that a complete report of their behavior is going back to their regular teacher.

7. Empathize. It is especially difficult for young children to deal with change. A substitute teacher comes in and screws up the way Reading Groups are “supposed” to be run, tells them that they have to sit at their desks for snack when their regular teacher says they can eat on the carpet, and can’t even tell that Johnny’s sitting in the wrong seat. This can all be very unnerving to a first grader, leading to a chorus of tattletales and whining. The conversation goes better when you let them know that you understand it can be challenging to have a substitute teacher. You’re still going to do what you’re going to do, but sometimes all a kid needs is acknowledgment that things are not going as they may have expected.

8. In elementary grades the standard test of a sub is “I have to go to the nurse.” In  upper grades it’s either “I have to go to my locker.” or “Can I have a drink of water?” The elementary school issue is the hardest call to make– if you say no and they throw up in class you’ll feel like a jerk, but sometimes you gotta go with your gut that they’re fine.  I’ve had classes where I’ve had 8-10 kids claim to be sick over the course of a day. Usually I tell students to “rest” at their desk for a little while to see if they feel better later. Usually this makes the young child bored really quickly and they magically feel better soon after. With the older kids I generally don’t let them get water until after whatever task we’re doing is over (and sometimes not even then), but if they claim the book they need for the work is in their locker I send them.

9. Take your echinacea, Vitamin C, hand sanitizer, whatever works– with you. Despite the number of perfectly healthy children claiming to need a trip to the nurse, most teachers get sick more their first couple years teaching so arm yourself.

10. Bring a book. Especially if you’re substituting above the third grade level, because more often than not some portion of the lesson plans will be a test, silent reading time, study hall, or worksheets. Sixth grade and above often have more extended “free” time (time the regular teacher fills with meetings and planning) where it is likely you will run out of things to do. You may have this at younger grades too– such as when the class is in Art– but often the younger the class the more you’ll be scrambling to keep ahead of them with the next lesson plan.

Question for the World: Have you had adventures in substitute teaching? Best or worst experiences? What makes for a good substitute teaching experience and how could substitute teaching be made better?

Teaching Students With Special Needs – Part 3

Earlier this week I went to Boston for Promoting Universal Access for Theatre and Out-of-School-Time Educators, a free event presented by Partners for Youth for Disabilities, Inc. Access to Theatre Program in collaboration with Wheelock Family Theatre, VSA arts of Massachusetts, and BOSTnet. The program featured a dance performance by Access to Theatre featuring a combined cast of dancers who required wheelchairs and those who did not in the morning, and a short workshop in the afternoon.

I am glad I went to this event, although I felt some of the activities were on a too-basic level for where I’m at right now. The majority of the attendees were teachers or administrators for generalized after-school care programs, and only a few were teaching artists or other theatre professionals. The workshop activities were focused very closely on dance more than theatre per se, and while I’m always glad to add another movement activity to my repertoire I had hoped to come away with more that I could apply directly to some of the freelance work I’m doing these days. The Artistic Director of Access Theatre was kind enough to talk to me after the event and answer some of my questions about working with children with blindness and/or sensory integration challenges. Overall the people at the event, presenting and attending, seemed very friendly and insightful– in some ways I think I would have preferred more networking and group conversation time to get to know people and share knowledge.

Some great thoughts and activities I got from this experience:

  • An awakening to open captioning and audio description. Very interested in investigating pricing for technology rentals in this vein in the future. One observation I had was that it really is important if you’re going to incorporate these into a performance that, just as with ASL interpreters in a live performance, the timing really needs to be as close to in sync with the live action of the performance. Otherwise, as a friend of mine once said, you might as well be interpreting the play in someone’s living room down the block for all the viewer gets out of it.
  • How essential it is, in doing theatre for and/or by people with disabilities, that issues of sensitivity are discussed and worked through on every level– from production assistant to facility manager to artists. There is a choreography that develops backstage in any production, but there are some unique concerns when a commitment to universal access comes into play. All may go well when things go as planned but technical “surprises” happen and attention to access can’t be thrown out. For instance, what do you do if the captioning suddenly stops working? If a dead microphone brings a crew onstage, blocking the ASL interpreter? If you don’t do anything then is access really being provided? Of course not– so the demands on the production team increase a great deal and the need for thoughtful improvisation is really required.
  • An interest in investigating some special education products, especially those developed by Edushape. I’ve encountered a lot of calls for materials with varying textures, as well as a need for latex-free products in general.
  • The beginnings of a brainstorm of all the ways bubble wrap could be used as a means for adaptation in theatre classes. In the “Poppin’ Dot” activity demonstrated at the workshop, for instance, a group of typical students and students with disabilities could all participate in a movement activity requiring travel from one colored dot to another if the dots were covered in bubble wrap. The wheelchair or child’s weight pops the bubbles and the child has a sense of where they are in space. The child with a need for sensory stimulation gets it and the child with limited vision can find their way as well. I’m thinking of looking at other types of materials that could be used in similar ways as well.
  • One really good point made at the event– always ask kids what their hobbies are. It’s the key to gaining insight into how they uniquely connect with the world.

Question for the World: Are there theatre activities you use in your work that incorporate small adaptations to serve the students with special needs within the group? What adaptations have worked for you?

Screw Up Of The Day… OR Teaching Students With Special Needs Part 2

So I taught my first COLLEGE CLASS today and it was awesome-tastic! I feel REALLY good about how the first day went and excited for the rest of the semester. I’m sure I’ll post more about that soon. But I wanted to share my “screw up of the day” since it was relevant to the issues in this blog and involved a situation I’d never encountered before.

One of the activities we did in class today was have a class brainstorm session of all the different jobs in theatre we could think of — director, usher, grantwriter, actor, etc. The students shouted out their ideas and I wrote them on the whiteboard with a dry erase marker. I grabbed the one closest to me, which happened to be red. Later in the class I had the students do a writing assignment, where they also had the opportunity to jot down anything they wanted me to know that would help me as a teacher. So going through the journals tonight I come to one where the student wrote that one thing I should know is that if I write on the white board in red marker they can’t read it. It never occurred to me to verify whether any of my students might be colorblind or have any trouble at all reading what I wrote on the board before tonight.

Certainly I feel badly when I make a mistake like this, but there is something a little exciting about getting knocked over the head with my own privilege– in this case, able-bodied privilege— in that these are the moments that change my teaching FOREVER. Never again will I write an assignment in red marker and just assume that since I can see the writing perfectly well that everyone else in the room must too. Driving home tonight I was thinking that so many of the ways I know I’m good as a teacher are the result of royally messing up somewhere along the line and learning to change. This is comforting, since I make mistakes sometimes like it’s going out of style. I’ll never forget, for instance, that first day a child with cerebral palsy came into my drama classroom and quickly realized that my whole repertoire of first day activities was entirely dependent on the students being able to sit on the floor and actively change body positions throughout the hour. Or the day her second grade friends insisted they knew how to help her out of her chair and I… let them! What was I thinking?

I’m never as good of a teacher as I would like to be, but I hope I get better as time goes on. It can be painful to reflect on my mistakes but I try to be a model for my students in that I want them to be honestly critical of their own work at times and really, it’s only fair.

Question for the World: Screwed up lately? Share something you did as a teacher or director that you’ll absolutely NEVER EVER do again.

Teaching Designer Collaboration

Another great session I attended at conference was Risking Innovation in Collaboration: Teaching the Vital Art Form of Designer Collaboration. Special thanks to the following professors who made this session happen: Sarah Martin and Sara Nelson of Adelphi University, Ethan Krupp of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Kim Axline of the University of Denver, Robert Gander of the University of Nevada-Reno, Cynthia Turnbull of Denison University, and Laura Tesman of Brooklyn College.

I was really glad to have the opportunity to go to this session because I am currently planning for my VERY FIRST Adjunct teaching position at a community college for an Intro to Theatre course, for which there will be a design component. Certainly I have vague recollections of my own college level Intro class, and of some required design courses I took. (Plus, I’m a pack rat so I bet if I looked hard enough I could find those syllabi somewhere.) But I really hope to step out of my comfort zone with this new experience, so I was eager for some new ideas and resources.

Some Use-Tomorrow Activities I Got From This Session:

  • THE COMMUNICATION EXERCISE: Divide the class into partners and give a simple stick drawing to one of the partners (Student A). Student A has to write a description of the drawing and then give the description (and not the drawing) to Student B. Student B is then asked to recreate the drawing using only Student A’s text as a guide. Then examine/compare the drawings that result as a group. Where does the interpretation go awry, and on whose part does clarity stray? Discuss how this happens with a simple stick drawing, and how much more challenging it would be to communicate clearly about the range of media involved in theatre production.
  • ROLE PLAY ACTIVITIES: Role play production meetings. Role play common collaborative disasters. Focus on getting directors to say, “This is the story I’m trying to tell. How will this design support that?” Focus on getting the designers to say “Tell me what the problem is in your scene and then I’ll bring you 3-4 solutions that might solve this problem.”

Other Important Bits of Wisdom From This Session:

  • Design Training may grow creative artists, and it may grow expert technicians. But if a designer doesn’t learn to navigate collaboration, business etiquette, and interpersonal challenges effectively that talent and ability may not get them far. Emerging designers really need to have practical experiences in theatre, particularly those where things may not go as planned. It occurs to me that many design classes require a project of some sort, it gets handed in, and a grade given. But in the course of a rehearsal process a costume or set piece might be changed, argued over, cut,  re-painted… Young designers would do well to learn to expect surprises as a part of the process, and emergent directors need to learn to empathize with designers as to how their expectations and communication style impact their work.
  • A lot has been written about the “Millenial Generation” recently and I think the issue of intergenerational misunderstanding is pervasive in all aspects of the professional world. More needs to be done to discuss how generational differences impact communication and working styles and what this means for teaching.

Question for the World: Any other great thoughts on working with designers and/or on teaching design, for any age level? Got a favorite exercise or collaboration tool?

Using ASL with Hearing Actors in the Drama Classroom

This is the first of my Posts-About-Conference, and it is about the first session I attended at conference this year. It was exciting that the very first session I attended had something in it that I knew immediately I would implement in my teaching. It is one of those strategies that I loved so much and can’t figure out how I never thought of it myself before.

The session was called Using American Sign Language as a Teaching Tool for Actors. Special thanks to Elizabeth Cox of Plymoth State University and Susan Lynskey of Georgetown University for bringing this session to conference!

The Use-It-Tomorrow strategy I took home from this session is this: Take novice actors who are learning a monologue and have them learn the signs for the operative words in the monologue that they have selected. Have them explore how performing the monologue with the signs impacts their work. Eventually the teacher may guide the student actors away from the signs themselves but encourage them to maintain the increased physicality, sense of point of view, etc. that naturally results. There are now a number of resources online and elsewhere for hearing actors to learn some ASL– my current personal favorite being an App on my iPod Touch called “iSign.” I know I will be using this in my fall drama classes and I am thinking about ways I can incorporate similar strategies in future rehearsals, particularly when working with actors who need nudging to explore physicality.

Bonus idea I’m stealing from this session: When students struggle with which words are the “operative words”– ask them “Where does your love live?”

Question for the World: Anyone else doing something innovative with American Sign Language in their classroom or rehearsals? Have a favorite (or least favorite) ASL resource?  Please share!