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? 

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?

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.

Discovery of the Week

New favorite blog in arts education. Holy awesome the classroom management stuff is fantastic.

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!

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?

Conventional Wisdom

I like the question this blog poses. I have had many professional experiences where I felt like I was working against conventional wisdom. Thoughts on some of them:

  • One Person Does It All Syndrome. There are cases in the professional world in which a handful of people take on several jobs, as in the touring show where the master electrician is also stage managing or driving the truck to the next stop. Outside of these limited situations, there really is no good reason for one person to be costumer, stage hand, and director all at once. It inevitably brings down the quality of the show, not to mention damages the health and well-being of that One Person. If you have the energy to put on a show, you can find the energy to network your way to getting assistance.

 

  • Shakespeare is essential. This one especially will get me in trouble with a vast number of my colleagues, but I feel that Shakespeare is grossly overdone in the high school curriculum while an entire canon of dramatic literature that students might find more accessible is ignored. I have seen amazing high school productions of Shakespearean works, and I have seen terrible ones. When comprehension of increasingly difficult text is already such a problem, I feel that there is a premature rush to build appreciation for Shakespeare before students are developmentally equipped or literate enough to get much out of it. Moreover, there are too many cases where the teacher is not able to teach Shakespeare’s plays in an accessible manner. If you adore Shakespeare and want to bring your passion to your students, do it! But the theatre has other writers, and some of them are even still alive.

 

  • That teacher is great– look at what he can do! Most teaching artists I know have an emergency lesson they can teach in their sleep. Most bring years of training and experience to their work. But just like any other profession, there’s a difference between evaluating a teacher based on a single class and evaluating their work over time. We all have good days and bad days, and so do our students.It’s easy to stick with old habits, or stick with theatre games that have worked well in the past. Part of a good teacher is what they do today, but the difference between good and great is measured in what they plan to do tomorrow. Truly outstanding teachers got that way through the sweat and tears of a full commitment to ongoing critical self-evaluation and professional development. I can’t imagine hiring someone for any position in theatre if I wasn’t sure they possessed  such a dedication.

Question for the World: What conventional wisdom do you encounter(and shatter, or live with) in your professional life?