Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Attending Face to Face

Attending Face to Face
Brigid Warnke

Over spring break, I was fortunate enough to attend Face to Face, a conference put together by the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable at CCNY.  I’d been looking forward to the opportunity to meet and learn from other theatre teachers and teaching artists since the beginning of the semester.  I teach theatre and music at a small special education school, and because I teach both, I am the entire performing arts department.  I’m also a first-year teacher.  It’s pretty intimidating and can be rather isolating, so I was thrilled to have this opportunity to connect with others in the field and see what kind of work they were doing.  But as thrilled as I was, I could never have imagined just how inspiring this conference would be. 


One of the sessions I attended on the first day was called In Full Color: Cultivating a New Generation of Leaders in the Field of Arts Education, a panel discussion involving James Miles and Michael Wiggins of Urban Arts Partnership, Courtney J. Boddie of The New Victory Theatre, and moderated by CCNY’s own Sobha Kavanakudiyil.  This panel set out to address the question, “Why doesn’t the make-up of our non-profit leadership more accurately reflect the demographics of the populations arts educators serve and how can we achieve more diversity?”  While this panel was set up mainly to discuss non-profit organizations, I attended because the same lack of diversity exists among school teachers and administrators; a lack of diversity that persists even as public schools are now serving a student body that is majority students of color.   As a white teacher of primarily African-American and Hispanic students in the Bronx, I am part of this trend.  I wanted to hear from others why they think this lack of diversity exists, what steps we can take as a community of arts educators to combat this and finally, as a person who is passionate about achieving equity in our non-profit and school leadership, but whose presence in those spaces symbolizes a lack of equity, what is my role in this conversation?  What can I do?

Well not to worry, because in the 90-minute panel discussion we totally answered all of my questions and solved all of these problems.  (Kidding, but wouldn’t that be nice?)  As one might expect, the energy in the room was tense, as conversations about racial equity frequently are.  The further we delved into the question, the more obstacles we uncovered; again, not an uncommon theme in these kinds of conversations.  But Sobha and the panelists did an excellent job of making us focus not just on the problem, but on action steps that we as teachers, teaching artists and administrators can take to combat the problem.  I was reminded that while this issue is incredibly complex, some of the action steps I can take as teacher are so simple, like teaching theatre and music history in a way that emphasizes the rich artistic contributions of people of color, or making a conscious effort to bring in guest artists of color to work with my students, because, as James Miles reminded us, it is important for all students to see people who look like them in positions of leadership and authority.

Another panel I attended that gave me some concrete ideas that I’m excited to implement in my classroom was Mixing the Digital and Drama: Making Performance-Based Online Maps.  This workshop came from a partnership between the New York City Department of Education and C&T, a UK-based applied theatre company that focuses on mixing drama with digital technologies.  They showed us an application they developed called Stratar that allows students to create their own interactive online maps.  As I was watching their presentation, I was frantically scribbling reminders to myself to talk to the computer teacher about working together on a project like this.  This workshop made the possibilities of a cross-curricular project between computers and theatre seem endless- why had I never thought of it before?  Apparently I’m not the only one who missed this boat- when asked what other organizations are doing work like this, the guys from C&T exchanged a smile and simply said, “No one.”  Well C&T, The New LIFE School will take that challenge!  The computer teacher and I are planning a trip along The South Bronx Culture Trail, a map of significant places in hip-hop history created by a non-profit in the neighborhood.  We’re going to have the students prepare performances to be recorded at some of the sites and try to create our own interactive version of The South Bronx Culture Trail.

Overall, Face to Face was a wonderful, thought-provoking, exhilarating and exhausting two days.  I wish I could write about all of the sessions I attended, but that would be less of a blog post and more of a book, so I’ll just say thank you to all of the presenters for sharing your work.  I look forward to doing this all again next year!