The Kids I Lose Sleep Over

As some of you know I was the Education Director at Hartford Children’s Theatre for several years. There were a lot of things I loved about that job but my absolute favorite was distributing financial aid for students from low-income families to attend theatre classes and programs. Applying for, processing, and reporting on grant funding sounds kind of dull but I found the entire process of our financial aid program to be the single most gratifying part of the work I did there. A lot of people complain about the paperwork required in grant work for nonprofits, and it can be a hassle, but it was incredibly gratifying to have a graph in my office detailing how many students whose families were on food stamps were getting the opportunity to take a creative drama class or be in a play for the first time. Going to informational meetings at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and other such places was always inspiring because there were people from so many other organizations there. Organizations that provided after school care and tutoring to youth in Hartford, providing meals and housing assistance, and family literacy programming. Sometimes I would find a particular child’s situation disheartening, but those connections with other nonprofits made me think that we were all a part of something larger that would make a difference in the long term. One teenager in a family would be saved by a job skills program, one  child would gain confidence from a performance opportunity, a third would develop leadership skills through extended day care programming, and the whole family would benefit from addiction support services. One of those nonprofits alone would drown in the needs of its community, but together significant change could happen. I may be an idealist but I was honored to be a part of small differences in the lives of some very special kids being made in this way.

I think about that gratifying sensation– I’m a part of something important!– a lot these days. Today I spend my mornings tutoring second graders in reading in the North End of Hartford. “North End” has a special meaning in Hartford–the way “Harlem” means something special in New York. When I tell people I work there, the first question I get is usually how I make sure my car doesn’t get broken into. The school I work in doesn’t bother with special cafeteria tickets for free and reduced price lunches– they ALL qualify for free lunch. When I first met with my students, I asked them to draw pictures of people who were important to them. One boy drew Superman– which was sort of adorable, and sort of sad, because he honestly couldn’t think of anyone else in his life that was important. As they drew, their stories came out– I learned which students have multiple family members in jail, which ones are in foster care, and which ones, at 7 years old, are aunts and uncles to the children of their very young teenage siblings. Words that would make a sailor blush come out of the mouths of more than a few of these little children on a regular basis and the custodial staff is in a seeming unending battle to cover up those words as they are written across the walls of hallways and bathrooms throughout the school. And every half hour I take three or four of these kids and try to help them make sense of the English language. I’m on the front lines of a battle, the only battle that has a CHANCE of saving these kids lives. Sometimes I honestly doubt that my little time with them, struggling through the difference between “these” and “those,” trying to get a kid who reads on a kindergarten level to at least get up to a first grade level, will change the course of their future. But one or two kids’ lives will be a little different, and third grade will be a hair easier for most of them than it would have been without that one-on-one time spent working on reading. The after school program they go to will keep them safe while the single parent in their life is at work, and the soup kitchen at the church down the street will ensure that the free lunches at school aren’t the only meals they get this week. Mentors, athletic coaches, and tutoring programs will see some of them through high school, and the community college I work at will reach out to some of them many years from now, providing stepping stones to 4-year colleges and careers their parents were not able to pursue. How many of them? I don’t know. All I know is that the more time I spend with them the more invested I become in their futures. Too many of them have been dealt a bad hand, and do not even realize it yet. It would be criminal to stand by and do nothing. I can’t do everything, but I’m going to use this little time I have to help them break the code of the letters on paper. The opportunity to be a part of their young lives is nothing short of an honor.

In some ways it’s not as simple to be of service to these kids as it was when I was handing out financial aid like some kind of theatre education Santa Claus. Sometimes change is visible, but often it’s unclear if the work is helping, and even if it is, it’s hard to really categorize a move from “substantially deficient” to “deficient” as a success. So I find it important to remind myself that I’m not the only soldier here. These kids do have some special people in their lives that are rooting for them, every day. Even if Superman is the only one they can think of.

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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!

 

Children’s Literature Pt 1

One of the projects I’ve taken on this summer is to finally get a cross-endorsement to teach English grades 7-12, something that I was 2 classes short of for several years. The short version of that story is that I started out thinking I needed English certification to teach theatre in Connecticut, but when Connecticut finally added a “unique special endorsement” in theatre I jumped to add that instead. But I DID spend all that money on Praxis tests in English and a course in the History of the English Language (mind numbingly dull, if you were wondering), so I’ve always wanted to get it done. I took an Advanced Composition class in the spring, which was doubly beneficial because it got me finally getting into a draft phase of TWO articles I think I could eventually develop for publication– hopefully I’ll be posting more on those later on.

So now I’m well into my final course, on a subject I adore, Children’s Literature. I’ve tried to use the course to get acquainted with more books that I could use in my teaching work, and also to get a better sense of what works in children’s books and whether and how that connects to children’s dramatic literature. I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that draws me to theatre for young audiences and I know it’s roots are in my experiences with books as a child. Great children’s literature, whether it’s dramatic, poetic, fiction, or nonfiction, is great literature, first and foremost. Maybe it is the simplicity of the vocabulary or the limited length most picture books work within, but I’m taken lately with the realization that so much good children’s literature is so close to poetry. Story stripped to its most essential parts somehow catches the heart more often.

I’ve read quite a stack of children’s books for this course but one thing that I’ve really enjoyed is being exposed to so many outstanding children’s literature websites. It’s great to see what others recommend, and it occurs to me that there’s room for book recommendations on this blog. So,  for your reading enjoyment, here are a few of the best children’s books I’ve read this month, maybe for a later post I’ll brainstorm some lessons around them:

Questions for the World: What great children’s books have you read recently? Or not so recently? What do you think makes for an exceptional story for children?

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?

Rigor and Relax

Interesting premise in this article, wish there was more discussion.

Question for the World: Is there a relationship between your life as a teacher (formally or otherwise), and you life as an artist? Is teaching a “cancer for artist’s work?”