Monday, June 20, 2016

How To Be An Artist-Educator and Impact Communities More Than Ever

How To Be An Artist-Educator and Impact Communities More Than Ever
These four CUNY City College graduate students in the Educational Theatre program researched this subject for their graduate thesis. Their answers may surprise you.  Keeping your life as an artist, not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, gives you even more value as a teacher, these four researchers found.  They realized through their research, teaching keeps you honest as an artist and reinforces what you do to make art.  It may be challenging and a lot of hard work to continue to do both but it is well worth it; and many studies show students’ academic learning is enhanced.  Read their stories below which shed light on the subject.

The day I realized that being an artist-educator is a “holy” thing
by Brigitte Barnett

I have been a teaching artist for many years and recently started to become disillusioned and maybe even a little burned out. I was finding it increasingly hard to balance both acting and teaching but I loved them both. I began to question if I should continue acting or if I should give up acting and be a teacher? In case you are wondering what a teaching artist is, it is a professional artist who uses their artistic skills (e.g., acting, dancing, singing, directing, writing, etc.) to integrate and teach their artform into a wide range of settings.  So I asked my colleagues such questions as, “How would you describe an artist/educator.”  One artist/educator, Godfrey Simmons, Jr., said, “Being an artist/educator is a ‘holy’ act.”  He goes on to compare being an artist/educator to being a Grio.  A Grio is a storyteller from West Africa that passes down stories and traditions. He continued, “When art and teaching are at its best, it is a spiritual experience.”  This lifted my teaching artist spirit.  Another artist/educator Nilaja Sun said, “I don’t know if I would be an educator if I was not also an artist. This work has to coincide with each other or one will…you will hate yourself. You will hate everything you’re doing like if I was just teaching and not acting. I would want to kill the kids, if I was acting and not teaching (which I have done). There was a whole part of me that was missing. Once you get into this work it’s like your DNA comes alive. It’s like something inside of you just says, yes yes, yes, yes.”  She continued, “We have our own lane and that lane…that lane is not titled yet. So, it's kinda like we’re driving, driving, then we went off the road and everyone says well, what are the directions to get to you? And you say, well, uhm…there’s no name on my exit. You can take a spacecraft... You could use your mind but there’s no actual way…there’s not one way to get to me because I’m not just one thing.”  When I heard these words from two of the top artist/educators in our field it gave me hope.
So if you are a teaching artist or an artist/educator and you are thinking about going into the business, or if you are already in the business and need some inspiration, I hope these words of wisdom inspire and motivate you as they did me.

How One First Grade Teacher Impacts Young Lives with His “Can-Do” Approach to Theatre Study
by Janet Girardeau

     When Bryan Andes, then a student teacher in Chinatown, was assigned to the Children’s Workshop Elementary School, what impressed him immediately was a tradition instituted there of visiting each kindergartener’s home in a study of community. This served not only to bond the class and educate them on the diversity and cultural motivations of those in their classroom community, but it was also a way to engage the students in hands-on learning. This study set the foundation for the style of learning that would serve as Mr. Andes’ hallmark teaching style going forward, a springboard for all the amazing educational ideas to follow in his classroom.
     “When I interviewed for the job at Midtown West (MTW), a Bank Street School of Education based school using social studies as the core subject each grade built lessons around, I suggested “Home Visits” as a bridge between home and kindergarten as the social studies subject focus was Community,” he remarked, “I think I got the job based on this suggestion; and MTW now uses the Home Visit as the core for all kindergarten learning.”
MTW structures its school so that kids stay with a teacher for two years in a two year loop.  Bryan has his kids for Kindergarten and First Grade.  He had this to say about how his Theatre Study was born:
The first grade teachers were developing a study of the community and I
thought it was so powerful.  And right away I thought, ”Well, if I ever do this study,
I should do a study of the theatre community because… why not?!! It’s all around
our school! That’s what I’m interested in!”
His theatre study is a model of arts integration at its best and is a successful example of bringing together the school’s community with the community the school is in, the heart of the Broadway theater. Using experts in the field as teaching artists, his kids learn every job in the theatre then take on the jobs and put on a show. Their show is based on fairy tales they have studied, they co-write the script and the songs are always by a musical theatre individual or team that they have studied. The arts integration involves illustrating the program, making their own paper mache puppets, set and props, having a child conductor for a parent-staffed orchestra and a child Stage Manager on headset calling the show.
This study is so rich and full and the children’s academic skills in vocabulary, literacy, music, art, math and critical thinking grows exponentially in a hands-on way.  As arts educators know, sometimes persuading teachers to see the value in blending arts, and especially theatre arts, into the classroom, can be intimidating for teachers not comfortable with theatre arts, scary for those concerned about time management and challenging for those not inclined to try this for a multitude of other reasons. The model of what Bryan Andes does in his classroom could be used in any setting (e.g., community senior settings, schools, prisons, etc).  He happens to be in the Broadway theatre district so has taken full advantage of his proximity to hundreds of experts in the field, but even one guest artist in any setting would be enough.
Here’s what parents and kids in Bryan’s study have to say:
Jeremy, Parent, Understudy for The Phantom of the Opera
Well, I love it because… that’s our life. I do theatre, I’m an actor, Ashley was a rockette, and… this IS his neighborhood. These are his friends, this is his community, this is his neighborhood. And this teacher not only does this study but he uses the community to help.

Ralph Buckley, Actor, Teacher
Every child in that loop knows what every job is in the theatre. And so when they go and see a show they have a depth and a density when seeing the show that other kids probably don’t have. It’s a great advantage for Ava.

Maria Postigo, Photographer, Parent
The theatre study allows the kids to dream. To imagine all these possibilities outside of reading, writing, mathematics. And the way they study it, through fairy tales, it’s really fascinating. Bryan stimulates them so much by talking about and reading fairy tales, and then showing them illustrators of fairy tales, taking them to a performance of a fairy tale, and then they want to write their own, and then put on their own play, so it grows and grows and is so exciting and makes them want to know more and more. And I think making it fun, other than you have to read this, you have to write this, … that way they’re learning and they don’t know they’re learning. They’re just enjoying the time.

Noa, first grade student
It’s great. My job is the House Manager.  So a house manager does like… talk to people. And try to enjoy them. I like helping my community. And if someone gets hurt- like if someone needs a bandaid- I’m the one who’s in charge of that! No one else. No one else can do my job!

       Bryan ties so much together with his use of the arts in the classroom that to me, his study paves the way for future artists, future arts appreciators, and more literate and open human beings aware of their place in this magical world full of creativity we all share.  Bryan sums up his purpose:
The arts help us make sense of the world. So it gives them a reason to read, to write, to do math, to critically think. It starts with the family study and fairy tales and grandparents and cousins and aunts and the stories we pass down from generations and how they evolve. It gives also a common thread for generations to connect to.
Finding Artistry in All Things
                                                       by Hollis Heath

After interviewing several teaching artists, I recognized that it’s important to recognize that your life as an artist doesn't end or begin with the stage. It's present in every area of your life. As middle school principal, Zora Johnson stated, "'my acting remains with me always. Whether I'm doing a read-a-loud in a kindergarten classroom or leading morning inspiration for our scholars. I'm using my acting skills to make these moments dynamic for our students and that's my artistry."
From dancers to actors to visual artists, they all reiterated the same idea. There is no need to feel insecure or that your idea is less than when you are not being paid to make art. The way we approach cooking or laundry or even our process in facilitating in a classroom is a direct result of our artistic life and should not be ignored.  In fact, it is our rich and diverse artistic life that makes us attractive candidates in fields that may not be related to the stage.  As Zora Johnson said, "No one can give feedback like me. When I walk in classrooms and observe teachers, I look at it like a character study. What's my environment, who's in the room, who are these characters? I notice and observe everything; and so educators on my team benefit from my feedback greatly, because I observe like an actor would, preparing for a role.  My detailed observations are a major reason I was asked to be principal at this school."
We learned from Britney Young, a High School teacher, that staying connected to her artistry is vital to her role in the classroom, "I started to get bored, and I realized it was because I wasn't acting and performing myself. So I started to make sure I perform for my students and on the outside, we perform for each other so that is a back and forth exchange."  
In closing, the goal isn't to land a Broadway role or necessarily train the next Broadway stars. The goal is to keep an active artistic life, an honor that in whatever way that takes form, whether it is in the classroom, the kitchen, a garden or on stage.

The Pros and Cons of Being an Artist-Educator
by Kristina Caprio
I interviewed quite a few theatre artist-educators both on the college and K-12 levels regarding the impact they feel they have had on their communities of both their student bodies and their audiences (from the shows they have taken part in professionally as well as scholastically).  One university professor from my alma mater, Stefan Novinski, posed the question to our group, “Can you make room in your teaching for your artistry?”  This one question summed up the quest of our piece as we are all trying to balance our day jobs, be it teaching or otherwise, with our artistic work while keeping up with the day-to-day responsibilities our personal lives demand.  The struggle is real, we found, to no surprise honestly.  The intensity of the struggle, however, was surprising.  Based on collective observations, it seems balancing artistic endeavors with work-life is somewhat “easier” for college level teachers; whereas, for K-12 teachers, it is far more challenging.  It seems that on the latter level, teaching theatre is more all consuming of one’s time and measures have to be carefully made and set aside to achieve an artistic life.
That said, it seems, however, talking to these teachers on both sides of the table, the level of satisfaction for K-12 teachers is more palpable knowing when they have broken through and reached their students.  Students on this level are usually coming to the table with no prior experience (or interest) so whenever there is a breakthrough of curiosity or even fascination, the payoff is significant.  These teachers know many of their students have had an epiphany for something with substantive appeal (and sometimes even an awakening).  The college professors, by and large, have students that are already interested in theatre (though some take a class as an elective, this case is in the minority) and, therefore, know going in, their students have a predilection for the stage and oftentimes even actual theatrical experience.  The classes are, in that regard, easier to teach because they have a rapt audience, in this case, a class of students.  Though it is easier for the college professors to have more of a fleshed out professional theatrical career (i.e., acting, writing and directing), and it seems from all the research that it is difficult to engage fully in both teaching and a professional theatre life as a K-12 teacher, the takeaway for me is that the payoff is greater for the latter.  K-12 artist-educators are able to have even more of a dramatic impact on these students who have little to no prior interest or experience with theatre, and even sometimes these students alter their lives and futures into new directions of not only acting but writing, directing, designing and devising theatre and even producing.  These same students also impact their school communities by working hard together on projects (some tried and true plays, some newly devised works written by themselves) and showing collectively the power of collaboration, working hard and presenting creative and ofttimes impressive pieces.  This is teamwork at its best and allows students to shine for their audience: their family, friends, each other and the student body at large.  
As we learned from our many interviews, though, however much “easier” it is to endeavor in your art while teaching at the college level, the reward for touching and affecting young lives might be even greater as the impact has potential to be greater.  We also learned by speaking to a select few teachers, that it is indeed possible to be a K-12 teacher or teaching artist of children and youth while still finding the time for your art.  We learned you must absolutely make time for your art, even if it is with the understanding that directing the school play is indeed fulfilling those needs!  Helping kids devise theatre, directing scenes and plays, and/or writing plays for kids for summer festivals all count as pursuing and “doing” your art.  So the short answer is: yes, we can (and will) make room in our teaching for our art!  Whether it is in school or outside school, it counts.  It is all deeply relevant.


    We hope through our research into some of the best and brightest stars of education and the arts today we have convinced you to:

  • Try it!  Bring literature to life in your classroom. Paint a theme from your poetry unit. Dance the mathematics lesson for a day.  Fail, and try again! The effort is worth it!

  • Invite a teaching artist program into your school. Open your classroom to adventure and surprise. It will be worth the effort!

  • Artist Educators--Know the artistic spirit inside you lives always.  The flame burns bright whether in the classroom or on the stage. JUST DO IT!!

In the words of Anna Deavere Smith, the penultimate Artist-Educator alive in the U.S. today:
This is an urgent moment. Wake up and DO SOMETHING. Whatever happens in your life to get you to get up, and DO something, stop thinking, stop ruminating… there are a lot of trains leaving from a lot of stations. GET ON!!!

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