Shadows on Classroom Closeup!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Anti-Bullying Conference Coming Soon!

Franklin High School's award winning applied theatre program, (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Shadows-the-anti-bullying-drama/) Shadows,
in partnership with the Tyler Clementi Foundation (www.tylerclementi.org)
and the National School Climate Center (www.schoolclimate.org)
is offering their first ever hands-on
 
Anti-Bullying Workshop and Conference
 
The day will involve hands on arts activities to help student and adults explore bullying in their communities and brainstorm on ways to make their schools and towns safer and more inclusive. Presenters include theatre practitioners, spoken word artists and media specialists. Workshops run both morning and afternoon with a special lunchtime performance.

At the end of the day, adults and students will have the opportunity to come together to bring realistic, usable ideas back to their schools to try and create grassroots change in their communities. Lunch is provided.

Confirmed workshop leaders include (more being added daily!)

KEYNOTE SPEAKER FROM THE TYLER CLEMENTI FOUNDATION, www.tylerclementi.org

Richard Cardillo, Director of Education, National School Climate Center

Alyea Pierce, Spoken Word Artist, Finalist in Poetry Jam, New York City

All proceeds go to continue spreading the dialogue about anti-bullying and safer, inclusive school culture.

Join us for this very special event!

There are group rates available. Please contact Jennifer Little at Franklin High School, jlittle@franklinboe.org for more information.

Visit http://shadowsantibullying.eventbrite.com/?ref=ebtn for tickets and more information!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Finding Our Footing After Hurricane Sandy

Last Monday I decided to invest ten or fifteen minutes out of our forty-nine minutes of instruction to reconnect. Sandy changed us all. The students have varying reactions. Some were impacted minimally. They aren’t aware of the outside world beyond what impacts them directly and they only lost internet for twelve hours. Which was devastating for them at the time but survivable. Others lost power for days, had structural damage and struggled in the dark for over a week. Still more have family members who have no homes, no place to turn and are still reeling in shock from the events. Because the impact was as varying on them as it was on the state, this seemed a perfect time to once again get to know each other.

I wanted to reengage, revisit, reconnect, not just for my young people but for me as well. I needed to get back to my world and my work. I’m hoping this work will provide the path. As noted in Counseling Children After Natural Disasters:Guidance for Family Therapists by Jennifer Baggerly And Herbert A. Exum, “Due to the large number of children that will experience typical symptoms after a natural disaster, family therapists can maximize their efforts by training parents and teachers to provide supportive responses and basic interventions for their children (Harper, Harper, & Stills, 2003).For teenagers, positive coping strategies will include group interventions that process emotions through expressive arts, drama, and rapping/singing.” (82, 83) The common symptoms in adolescents noted by the mental health professionals post disaster included: “flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, substance abuse, and depression (NIMH, 2001). They may also experience headaches, stomachaches,risk-taking behaviors, lack of concentration, decline in responsible behavior,apathy, and rebellion at home or school.” (81)

After the initial three days back in school, which included a winter storm and half day impacted by more weather issues, power outages, road conditions and the stress inherent therein, we finally experienced our first full week of school. On the final Friday of our initial three days, I had noticed both within my classes and in the halls in general, the students were resistant to attending classes, there were many more outbreaks of bickering and argumentative behavior, name-calling was reaching new levels (escalating from normal “gay,” “bitch,” “stupid,” to “mutherf**er,” “cunt” and other instigating language) and in general the classes were tired, nonresponsive and reluctant to re-engage. And I noticed I was struggling to re-engage as well. I was cranky, short tempered, less willing to explore non-confrontational language when speaking with students and overwhelming tired of the whole situation. Getting to and from work was an exercise in frustration between gas rationing, traffic, accidents (which seemed to have tripled) and general malaise.

After Friday class, I went home very depressed. Saturday morning, I got up and rethought my strategy. I would use Monday as a new starting point. And see if the group theatre work could help refocus my young people and myself.

I decided to use the game “Good Week, Bad Week” to tackle the students’ experience as a whole with Hurricane Sandy. I allowed them to choose their own groups of four or five people and then asked them to share stories of one good thing about being off for a week and a half, or a good thing about the Hurricane’s impact on their lives. This was a struggle for some. Some students expressed that they couldn’t find a single good thing about the events. I reassured them that this was okay, perhaps as they listened to others a moment would arise, or perhaps they saw a story on television about the aftermath that had resonated for them that they could share. This wasn’t a do or die assignment. So, they went around and started talking about getting time to sleep, bonding with family, games of Uno and Dominos with siblings, lots of social media time due not losing power, other things that had been good about the storm. We then created tableaux from their good moments and reflected on what we, as the outside group, saw in their pictures. Included in other’s perceptions of the tableaux were sharing, eating, games, solitude, sleeping, pranking friends, social networking and hanging out. These tableaux generated a lot of laughter and dialogue as the students started to share funny moments from the events that many had experienced but hadn’t realized others had as well.

After the tableaux, we went back into our groups and shared a story about something bad from Hurricane Sandy. Again, I reassured them it didn’t have to have happened to them, it could be a news story they heard or saw, it could’ve occurred after the storm when they ventured out, it could be little or big. Anything they felt comfortable sharing. Then they created short scenes titled, “The Storm.” They jumped into this portion with more energy and enthusiasm. Everyone had something to say about the storm’s negative impact on their lives. Even those who had only lost power for a day spoke about trees or gas stations. The gas station fights, lines and tensions had clearly had a major impact on these young people. We then put the scenes on their feet and shared them with each other. As we reflected afterwards about what we had seen happening and what had worked (and why), personal stories started to emerge. I had anticipated this might be a part of this process. However, I felt it was important for my young people who are so used to being “connected” either through social media or school to reconnect after losing their ability to really communicate with each other for over a week. They spoke about the fear when they went outside with no lights in their neighborhood. A normally familiar environment seemed scary with no power. They spoke about the anger at the gas stations – they were not used to seeing adults so out of control. They spoke about bonding with their families and how that was really special for them. They spoke about wanting to come back to school but then returning and it was like being back after summer but there was no vacation. A particularly poignant moment for me was when one young woman spoke of how scary the week was because she was afraid of the dark. The shadows with candles are very different than electricity and the entire week had been enormously stressful. At that point, a large football player in the group spoke up and said, “I’m scared of the dark too. I just hung out with my mom the whole time.” There was this moment of synchronicity and awareness that it was okay to be in high school and afraid of the dark. Many of us are. You are not alone.

I told the students that we would be working on curriculum this week but that we would take some time to reconnect with one another and find our rhythm again. Many of them expressed their appreciation for this concept. They came back on Tuesday and they were far more focused and kinder to each other again. It seemed that by taking the time on Monday to acknowledge and address the elephant in the room, we had come back together and could find some head room for academia. And we could once again find room in our hearts for patience and listening. It was remarkable difference. We were still tired. But we continued to give ourselves a break – I slowed down the pace on the curriculum. I brought the group together on Tuesday and again on Thursday to discuss how we would move forward on the curriculum (when we would perform monologues, etc.). I made sure opposing voices were heard, ideas were explored and the students had a voice in the timeline. The stress in the room continued to drop. And even though we had a test midweek on our memorization of the material – everyone passed. We had given ourselves time to breathe and permission to fail. Somehow, that made it safe to pass.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dichotomy of Co-Intentional Teaching and Our Current Education System


Last week I attended a national conference on theatre education.  It was an illuminating and frustrating experience.  And this fall, I started attending graduate school in applied theatre at CUNY in New York, where I am participating in a wonderfully illuminating course, Group Theatre.  Part of the ongoing dialogue and work in Group Theatre has centered on challenging ourselves as facilitators and educators to push the boundaries, to ask difficult questions, to encourage student-based learning, to promote critical questioning and dialogue.  Sitting in a group of secondary and university theatre educators from across the country, I was struck at how strongly the field was focusing on banking education…still.  Freire identifies banking education as “the scope of action allowed to the students extending only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits…it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system.” (Freire, Paolo.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing, 1970). 

The workshops consisted of theatre teachers sitting in small rooms with facilitators in front of them feeding them information to file away and apply later.  Every time ideas were brought up that suggested socially responsible practice or truly comprehensive theatre education, as elucidated by Joan Lazarus in Signs of Change, a full fifty percent of educators shifted physically away from the presenter.  The discomfort in the room grew palpable.  The challenge to use theatre to engage students as members of society and citizens of school and the world seem to puzzle some teachers.  The idea of a holistic educational practice that allows students to learn and practice collaboratively in all roles from actor to researcher to audience frightened some.  It makes me question how we can continue to argue for arts education in our nation when we are so resistant to education and change ourselves.  If we are not willing to be part of a bigger, holistic educational process, which includes shared decision making, dialogue, collaboration, risk-taking and experimentation as part of socially responsible theatre practice than of what use are we?  The national debate of changing educational pedagogy from the industrial age of training workers for an economic factory environment to creating critically thinking creative members of global society centers around a holistic approach to not just theatre but all areas of education.  Why then are people so resistant to Zemelman’s list of principles of best practice outlined in Ms. Lazarus’ article?  The argument seems to center around “character education” versus “cognitive development.”  Zemelman’s list includes such ideas that learning must be expressive, reflective, social, collaborative and democratic.  The current educational system with standardized testing focuses more on math, reading and IQ – measurable skills with empirical data.  So, if future success depends on these cognitive skills, why have the arts at all?  Why have discussions about holistic, reflective, social learning? 

 When I go to these conferences or sit in the professional development offered by my school district, I often am struck by the exact same feelings expressed by Ms. Lazarus in Signs of Change.  “I know that a look at what is brings with it the realization of what isn’t that my vision isn’t yet my reality.  If I try to envision what might be and what ought to be, I get wildly enthusiastic, but then face fears of what may never be.  (Lazarus, Joan.  Signs of Change: New Directions in Secondary Theatre Education.  Portsmouth, NJ: Heinemann, 2004)   I embrace ideas that lead me into new opportunities within my own classroom to explore more social dialogue and co-intentional teaching.  But I feel isolated when I see the resistance and anger from some of my colleagues.  With that resistance is derision and scorn for the new ideas and applications.  I hear people saying things along the lines of, “That won’t work.  These kids are crazy, they’ll go nuts if I try that.”  “Right, try that with my freshmen!” “I have to get the unit completed otherwise I will hear from my supervisor, I don’t have time for dialogue and debate.”  And I can empathize with some of their concerns.  I currently am struggling with applying the group theatre activities from our class in my Intro to Drama course.  It has offered a much more engaged group than is normal for this early in the year, so I feel excited by that.  I question, is that the new activities?  Is that my awareness of trying to really be co-intentional?  Or are they just a great group of students?  But I also worry that we have a state and district mandated amount of material that I MUST cover.  Will I get through it all in the time allotted, given that I am allowing the students more time to debate, dialogue, really have a collaborative voice in the process of their education?  So, when I hear the concerns of the teachers who are teaching the standardized test material, I empathize.  Theirs’ is a concern not just of meeting their deadlines but also of keeping their jobs. 

There is an interesting study occurring that fascinates me and ties in directly with Ms. Lazarus’ article.  James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner, started a study to look at the success rates of GED graduates versus high school.  He discovered that by our society’s measure of success – money earned successful jobs, marriage and family life – that high school graduates were consistently more successful.  He questioned why?  The GED tests the same cognitive skills that the high school standardized tests do.  So why the disparity?  He came to the conclusion that the difference came in the reflective, social and democratic educational practice – i.e. character education.  So he has set out on a journey to empirically measure the impact of the United States’ shift of focusing on cognitive education in order to maximize standardize testing scores versus those schools who are still including more holistic collaborative, student-centered and constructivist learning.  He is attempting to find empirical data that there is a link between the holistic education, what Zemelman calls Principles of Best Practice Learning and Lazarus calls Best Practice in Theatre Education, and “success” in post graduate life. 
 
I agree with Lazarus that theatre has an ability to offer students the best of Zemelman’s practices – a holistic, student centered, catalyst for social and civic dialogue that offer students genuine challenges and an opportunity to re-create and reinvent the systems they encounter.  By analyzing existing theatrical forms, reimagining published scripts, devising new scripts, staging and designing technical solutions to theatrical problems; students can apply existing skills to new and creative problems.  They can find analogies between the fictional stories they explore and the very real world in which they struggle.  They can use the safety of creativity and “drama” in the theatre environment to explore and build solutions and dialogue about the challenges they perceive. 

The debate and discussion offered not just by Lazarus but by Heckman and others is relevant and necessary.  The pushback from the current educational community is real and based not just on a resistance to change but on real fear for the repercussions.  We can debate and dialogue and dream of a utopian system but we live in this very flawed one.  I am stuck in the dichotomy of what I am learning from the readings and the class and what I am experiencing in my job.  I am reaching a point of crossroads.  How do I resolve my desire for change and personal evolution within an antiquated and resistant system?  How do I navigate the waters I find myself treading? 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Will The Show Go On If Nothing Changes?

This is being reposted from Cooperative Catalyst.

I recently read the post about whether being a classroom teacher is how one envisions themselves. It is a challenging question. When I was the age of my students, if someone had asked me, "Do you want to be a teacher?" the answer would've been an emphatic, "Good God, NO!" I never wanted to be in the classroom. My parents are both professors, my sister is a teacher, my other sister is a professor - I've been surrounded and immersed in education my entire life. I never thought it was my "path." I was going to be a "Star!" Capital letters, of course :-) So, I ran off to California, studied theatre and music and began pounding the pavement of fame and fortune. I chased the brass ring for nineteen years, traveling the world, wearing characters and costumes like someone else's life. I had a blast. And they paid me to do it. I made it all the way to Broadway and film and television. I went to the opening night gala's; worked with the "stars;" had a fan club; slept during the day and worked all night; saw myself on television and the big screen; didn't have fortune but had plenty. Perfection, right?

One day, I woke up and thought, well... now what? I had this huge epiphany that although I had a great career and life; I wasn't sure I envisioned my life... here. So at forty, where do I go? And I started thinking back. Back to the awkward, shy, bullied adolescent that I was in middle school. When a funny, caring science teacher who also doubled as the theatre director noticed a kid in trouble. He reached out and rescued me. He introduced me to theatre, to friends, to a community who accepted me for who I was and gave me a safe haven. And it suddenly occurred to me, that it was time to return the favor. Pay it forward if you like. I figured I had survived the politics of professional theatre and film; education should be a walk in the park! So I went off to be a theatre teacher...

It's been seven years since I joined the ranks of fulltime teachers in public schools. I love the kids. I hope I reach one or two along the way. Maybe give one or two the safe haven that Mr. Williams offered me. But as I work, as I go along, I wonder. When did education become about covering your ass and protecting your job? When did education become about politics and political parties? When did our young people become pawns in an economic battleground that seems to imply our jobs as educators is to turn out "workers" in a global economy? When did we decide that creativity equaled wastefulness? That resourcefulness and independent questioning equaled rebellion and disrespect? That questioning how the material impacts daily life equaled misbehaviour?

I keep getting told - this isn't theatre - this is education. I get it. In theatre, it's pretty simple. We may not like each other all the time and we may not always get along but there is a simple goal. Everything needs to focus on the "show." It is the MOST important thing at all times. If the show succeeds, everyone succeeds. If the show fails, we all fail and are out of work. So, if there is a problem, you can't waste time with committees and debates and discussions, arguments and endless meetings - you have to solve it quickly. It that isn't the best long-term solution, put it in place today, figure out the long-term solution tomorrow and implement it. The show goes on and is top priority at all times. You don't like your co-cast member. Who cares? You do the show together. You cover each other's back onstage. You make each other look good at all times. And at the end of the night, you go home and forget about each other. The show is top priority.

You see, I thought education would be similar. That the kids were the "show." They would always take top priority. We would put aside petty differences, politics and divisions and focus on them succeeding. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we failed - ergo - we have to fix the problem. Not fix the kids, not kick them out of the system - but fix what we are doing so that the kids "go on." I was wrong. Things can work and get thrown out. Why? They're too expensive. Things that aren't working require meetings, committees, review, more meetings, more committees, more review. Endlessly with no action in sight. Meanwhile, the kids, every more resilient and strong, move forward despite our best efforts to screw it up.

So, when I envisioned myself trying to be a classroom teacher, I didn't envision this. I envisioned making a difference. Helping someone as someone helped me. Working in a community where everyone focused on the students and their success. Instead the endless battles seem to be about blame and greed. Firing teachers, kicking out students, passing mindless standardized tests that prove...nothing, punishing schools who lack resources, and using education as a grand political tool to divide an already deeply divided country.

And no one seems to remember the simple rule. Everything needs to focus on the "show." It is the MOST important thing at all times. If it fails, we're all out of jobs. We all go down. If our young people don't get our best, the show closes ... for good.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

How To Create A Community In Which Students Feel A Part


We are about three months until the end of the year. I have been meeting with the freshmen class once a month to discuss Bullying and how we, as a community, can work together to make the school safer, stronger, more cohesive. It has been challenging. There have been times when I have been feeling that the task is bigger than I am. That it isn't a matter of educating the students but rather overcoming the school's attitude - the adults, the administration, the parents, the overwhelming apathy in face of problems that seem insurmountable and unsolvable. There are days when I listen to the people I work with as they discuss the futility of creating change when there is no clear leadership - when the students are "disrespectful" - when nothing ever lasts long enough to have an impact. And I have a student who is being bullied while I do this work, and I watch in frustration and growing anger as her parent fights for her right to attend school safely and nothing seems to make the situation better. The bullies get suspended - they don't care. We organize a group of students to walk the victim to classes and offer protection in the halls and cafeteria - the bullies target her in classes and the teachers seem oblivious. We get the teachers on board and the bullies wait for her outside her house.

And yet, despite my frustration and my anger. My feelings of impotence. My days when I listen to colleagues as they vent about their lack of power and their feeling that it is useless to try and create change because change will never come. And then I have moments... moments when the students themselves (always the first to embrace change and willing to take leaps of faith) take my breath away. I went in for the March Bullying Awareness sessions (as the students have dubbed them). We had discussions about the ultimate fallout from bullying - bullycide. We talked about the Tyler Clemente case and the Dharun Ravi sentencing. And the students explored who Tyler's death impacted. And these young people, who in October questioned why we should "stick our noses where they don't belong," who asked me "were you raised to stick your nose into every one's business?" who claimed they would never "snitch," and that if it didn't impact them, it didn't concern them. These young people suddenly spontaneously began discussing bias and safety and how do we as a community, make it safe for everyone to be who they are and to have privacy no matter what. How do we change things? What message does it send to the gay community if they feel unsafe to be open about who they are? They argued passionately about posting videos that have the potential to embarrass others and how they would feel if someone was so impacted by their "joke" or "prank" that it shattered their life. They were engaged. They were passionate. They were a community.

When did this happen? I didn't even notice. Their teachers noticed. They have pulled me aside and thanked me for the dialogue; for the opportunity; for the growth they are seeing. And even though I still feel (on days) tired and the lone voice in the wilderness. I still feel anger and frustration for the victims who still are unsafe. I feel hope. I feel that if we continue the dialogue, the awareness building... we can build a community where bullying just isn't tolerated.

So to end this meandering... I'll add a diamond poem written by some of the freshmen about bullying and their feelings.  Poems created with nine words, utilizing what bullying means to them, how it looks, how it sounds, what safety means and then some sort of ending. Here are a few examples of their work:


Upset

Helpless            People

Laughing               Crying               Screaming

God                 Parents

Together

Disgusted


Pain                      Fear


Cries                   "Help"                        Laugh


Home                                 God


Overwhelmed

Frustrated


Pain                 Evil


Hell                            Tears                       Silence/Whispers


Acceptance                    Trust


Gone

Mad

Verbal               Physical


Cursing                        Shouting                      Yelling


Friends                Counseling


Relief

Monday, February 27, 2012

Am I "Living Behind The Mask?"

Applied theatre just finished their new device drama, "Living Behind the Mask," a look at the masks we put on... all day... just to get through the days.  We explored all the different persona's we wear during the course of our lives in order to be accepted, to be liked, to be promoted or appreciated.  And we explored what happens when those masks are ripped away, revealing what we feel is vulnerability.  The six month journey forced me to ponder my own masks.

There are days I ask myself, who am I?  I often look at other teachers and marvel at their ability to seem so calm, so centered, so grounded when often I feel that I am drowning in doubt.  I look at my students and wonder what impact I have on them.  Their ability to bounce back from rejection, to stand up, brush themselves off and keep going... it inspires me.  Their ability to forgive us, their teachers, for our mistakes, our bad days, our missteps, for all the things that haunt me late at night...  Is it youth?  Is it faith that as teachers, we are somehow held higher and therefore given more latitude than other adults?  My students' belief that all their teachers must like them, must have their best interests at heart, must do the right thing for them -- staggers me. 

First of all, I don't know about other teachers, but I often feel I do the wrong thing and then spend time correcting it.  I do my best, but it always needs work.  I can always be better.  I know so many teachers who are truly gifted, truly talented - and I try to emulate and learn from them.  On the flip side, every teacher must like their students?  I know teachers who don't like any students.  And I know some students who are difficult to like (at times.)  How do we live up to that standard? Their faith that we, somehow, will have their backs...  Where does it come from?  And do we justify it?

The mask I wear as a teacher tries to be empathetic, humorous, patient and firm.  And I know that I drop that mask almost every day.  And the human side of tired, impatient, a little "blah" comes roaring through, threatening to expose my vulnerabilities and true face to the teens who stare at me everyday.  And still, there are those days.  Those days that remind me that the mask I wear contains portions of the person I am.  I have days where I have become the mask and the best elements I try to project.  Those days keep me plugging along, trying to improve and somehow meld the mask of who I want to be as a teacher with the reality of who I am.

So, at the end of the six month journey of "Living Behind the Mask," I think I took as much of an emotional journey as my students. 

On a COMPLETELY, separate note, my book Changing The Way We Think, Using Arts to Inspire, Empower and Change Your School Community is now available on Amazon.  Feel free to leave comments if you read it.  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, December 30, 2011

School Year Resolutions

With the New Year rapidly approaching, I am readying myself to gear up to go back to work and back to the business of preparing our new Self-Esteem piece, teching our Shakespeare show, and continuing our year-long Year of Respect curriculum with the general student population.  I always ask the students in my class at the beginning of the school year to create "School Year Resolutions" - something they can do personally to make our school a better community.  In addition, I ask them to practice random acts of kindness - one per week - an act for someone they don't know in our school community.  Our theory being that if we all practice random acts of kindness, perhaps over time, kindness will spread.  We know negativity spreads - often quickly and virally - kindness just takes longer and grows slower. 

This year, I upped the ante.  I've been working with the 500+ freshmen students since the fall on anti-bullying and empathy curriculum.  I've been doing workshops with these young people, listening to their voices, their opinions and asking them to create scenarios and solutions to bullying they see and hear.  They have been wonderfully creative in this task.  They're starting to figure out that there is strength in numbers - that if more than one person stands up - they have a better chance of creating change.  They've figured out that humor is a wonderful distraction - and can be a safe alternative to confrontation.  They've learned that sometimes reaching out to the victim is an incredibly powerful step that has no risk to themselves - especially when they work in tandem.  One group split their efforts, several worked to distract the bullies while another group led the victim away to safety and support.  They are somewhat astonished with themselves.  They can't believe they came up with these ideas.  And although they are still not one hundred percent sold that this will work in real life, when we wrap up the workshops I often see lightbulbs in many eyes, as they contemplate their own power.  It is wonderful.

As part of the latest workshop, I challenged the freshmen to two resolutions - one to take the anti-bullying pledge with us.  And the other, a School Year Resolution - one act or daily decision they can do to make our high school a better place.  This vision the students could see -- if ALL of them tried one thing (just one) that the school would be better by all of us.

So, I enter 2012 tired but hopeful; pulled in too many directions but ready to go on; still behind on work but willing to continue the fight.  And my students -- well, they didn't even take the winter break off.  They've been emailing me and texting me additional information all week for our new Self-Esteem piece.  Gotta love the students.  They continue to be the reason I get up in the morning, ignore the media blitz telling me what horrible people teachers are, fight stubborn and scared administrators and enter 2012 with a sense of purpose and joy.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!