Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Eye Opening Arts in Education EXPERIENCE!

As a relatively new employee at The New Victory Theater (I’ve been the Director of Education since July 19th) everything we do here, for me at least, is new and startlingly refreshing. But what has been a truly eye-opening experience is the collaborative lesson planning process we use to develop in-school curriculum which will be implemented in free pre and post-performance classroom workshops. These workshops will take place at the schools whose students and teachers will see the Education Performances as part of their New Victory Partnership. The lessons address the NYC Department of Education’s Curriculum Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts.

For the past eight years I was the Education Director for a classical theater. Each year I would work extremely hard on a comprehensive curriculum guide for the Shakespeare play we were presenting in any given year. While the results were always very positive the process was sometimes daunting. It was usually only me and one other person creating these 100 page documents which included 10 lessons for teaching artists and 10 lessons for classroom teachers to use with students. While I am pretty clear about how far we can challenge students and teachers, it was like working in a vacuum. There was always some trepidation over whether a particular exercise would work or not.

Brainstorming on our feet!
At the New Vic there is a whole different paradigm in place. We gather a group of 5 or 6 teaching artists to collaborate on developing curriculum for a specific production. The key element in our process is to always say “yes” to everyone’s ideas just as actors do in improvisation. The point is to not squelch anyone’s creativity. We want everyone to feel they are in a safe environment to brainstorm on what for us is an all-important activity. One never knows where the brilliant ideas are going to come from and if we create an environment where people are afraid to speak up, that idea will never reach anyone’s ears.

To date I have worked with two separate teams; one on Puss in Boots, an opera with puppets directed by Moises Kaufman; the other on Nearly Lear, a one-woman performance based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. In each case we started out by watching a video of the performance, then discussing what we wanted to make sure we covered, what we thought students need to know before and after the show and what we had questions about with regard to content. Again, the key to the process was to honor what everyone had to say no matter how foolish or profound.

To be honest, there were times when we were totally stumped, sitting around wondering how to proceed or which of the many ideas we came up with we should follow to fruition. What we always made sure to do was to try out the ideas to see how they worked on their feet. This was the step that always unlocked the door for us. What I found was that in planning a 45-minute classroom session we could accomplish an extraordinary amount. We set the bar high at the New Vic but because it is a collaborative, energized environment it is a bar that we know we can meet.

As I said, it has been an eye-opening experience. Having so many people to bounce ideas off of and trusting these artists to know what will work in a classroom was an experience that was inspiring. I know that what we have come up with to share with the teachers and students we work with will be a huge success and a great learning experience. Additionally, during National Arts In Education Week we will be sharing our lesson plans with the 40+ teaching artists on the New Vic staff who will then give us their input allowing us to further revise the lessons we came up with!

What have your experiences been like in curriculum planning? Most teaching artists are expected to work on their own not knowing for sure if something will work or not; or pulling out a tried and true exercise from their bag of tricks that they know will always work for children rather than risk something new.

Let me know what your experiences have been. I’d love to know.

Joseph Giardina is the Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. From 2002-2010 he was the Education Director at Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), an award-winning, classical off-Broadway theatre company. Their Education department is the largest to introduce Shakespeare and classic drama to New York City Public School children. Prior to his position at TFANA he was the Artistic/Education Director at Arts Horizons. From 1995-1998, Mr. Giardina directed and produced the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival. He is the former Artistic Director of UPTCo and a Founding Member of Off World Theatre which was housed at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ.

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