Friday, September 16, 2011

Teaching the Teachers: City College to the New Vic




New Vic Teacher Institute: Summer Intensives are week-long courses that are offered during the summer months as an opportunity for teachers to work in the New 42nd Street Studios as artists and educators to develop and/or build strong strategies for teaching and learning in the performing arts. 


As I stood back and felt the energy in the first few moments of the Summer Teacher Institute and watched teachers trickle in, I realized it was very similar to the beginning of any semester in The Graduate Program in Educational Theatre at The City College of New YorkThere was an enthusiasm in the air that was ready for play, as well as gather knowledge. As a co-facilitator, along with Courtney Boddie, Associate Director of Education for the Education Department at The New Victory Theater, I knew that those who were participating in theater course Process and Performance: Devising Original Theater Work with Students, were going to learn a lot!


Discussion first! Photo: Alexis Buatti Ramos
In my experience, both as a teaching artist and as an instructor at a higher education institution, there are similarities and differences for classroom teachers and pre-service teachers who are struggling to use the arts.  Teachers who have been working in the classroom are often concerned with how the arts are going to fit in to the curriculum to enrich the material they are teaching. Teachers often express concern over the amount of extra work that is mandatory for them to do and the pressure for them to increase their test scores. “How will the arts help accomplish those tasks and not be something extra added to what I already have to do?” is a question I often hear from teachers.  I encourage teachers to look at the arts in two ways: 1) Children will want to learn and teachers will get more accomplished because their students will want to participate in learning.  2) Using the arts will increase critical thinking skills and develop social skills.  I learned this from the work that I did at the Educational Arts Team in Jersey City, NJ, where both of these points were studied as part of the research for a Federal Department of Education Research Grant received by the Jersey City public schools and Educational Arts Team

Pre-service teachers often have questions.  Although there is a desire to use the arts in the classroom, there may also be hesitation.  Questions arise such as will I lose control of my class if I use theatre? How can I have them create something, take risks, respect the rules of the school? How can I trust my students to work well in this environment? What management strategies can I use?  I am a big believer in ensemble building.  It is important to take the time to develop the group dynamics and then move forward with a lesson, rather than plow through for fear that an end goal may not be met.  I have faith in the students that I work with and through my experiences I have found that if a teacher spends the time creating ensemble and developing a culture of learning, it will pay off.  I often say: “If you have a class that cannot make a circle, they will not be able to develop a performance.  Spend the time making that circle.  It will pay off in the end.”  Not only will spending the time to get your students in a circle, or ensemble, pay off, the support that students develop for each other will teach them how to work together. 

Working on "Yes and..." Photo: Alexis Buatti Ramos
In the Summer Teacher Institute we used activities that allowed teacher participants to develop art from an organic place, modeling for them the importance of negotiation when collaborating with students in role as a director, but also as their students’ teacher.  We discussed with them, how to allow students to create their own pieces of art, maintain the relationship of collaborator, but still be the adult in the room.  Teachers can do this by first setting up an agreement with their students.  The agreement should answer these questions:  What are our goals for this piece? How do we want to work together today?  What are our needs?  Teachers can also utilize the idea behind the  improvisational technique of Yes and…” which means, if a student has an idea, try it out, and get the class, in role as directors, rather than critics, to amend the suggestions.  In addition, the teacher can model the ensemble work also by approaching the work in role as the director and at times by participating as an ensemble member, perhaps even in role as an actor, taking feedback from students. 

We asked teachers to think about artistic experiences they may have had in their lives that might have contributed to their desire to use the arts in the classroom and the importance of creating those same experiences for their students.  I hope that teachers left our Professional Development with tools as artists and teachers, inspired not only to use the artist within each of them while working with their students, but enthusiastic about the prospect of using more theatre arts in the classroom.  



Sobha Kavanakudiyil Paredes has been a Teaching Artist with The New Victory Theater for eight seasons, with The Educational Arts Team for nine years, Adjunct Faculty at New York University, Hudson County Community College, and is currently Full Time Faculty with The Graduate Program in Educational Theatre at The City College of New York, CUNY. You can follow Sobha on Twitter @sobhakparedes and at www.sobha.net.

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