By Shaimaa Yehia
The real voyage of discovery consists not seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” Marcel Proust
I worked as an Arts programs administrator for children aged 7 to 15 years in Egypt and the Arab World in non-formal settings. In parallel to my professional pathway, I explored as a hobby applied theater, creative writing, acting, drawing, filmmaking. At one point my career became a comfort zone, I was neither growing into it nor moving forward to new endeavors. At the age of 35,I lost compass of who am I, or my purpose, but the dreamer in me kept looking for different opportunities. Until I was exposed to a drama in education professional development program. During this experience, I remembered the children I worked with who struggle to acquire basic learning skills, and how those same children flourished and grow through theatre. This is when I decided to weave my interest in theater and practical experience with children and pursue an academic education. Through Fulbright Scholarship, I was able to enroll in the Educational Theater master’s program at City College of New York. I wanted to explore how theater contributes to children's academic learning skills and social and emotional development.
“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand” Chinese proverb
On an artistic level, I know theater engages children by playing an active role in their learning. Also, I learned that children display their engagement through being I witnessed the practice of this concept through my hands-on experience at PS 161 Drama Club. On the first day of my fundamentals of teaching theater class, Wendy said we will choreograph a scene from a musical. I freaked out literally. I never directed, or acted, or was engaged in a performance-based theater. All I was thinking of what am I doing here? In the second class, Wendy said “No one is expected to know how to choreograph, it is a learning opportunity try to push yourself out of comforter zone”. I was intrigued by this statement, it reminded me of my purpose to challenge myself and start a new journey. I decided to sit back and learn from students, teachers, and classmates how theatre engages. The first principle to motivate engagement Wendy said “We cast everyone who comes to audition”, every student will have a role on stage, off stage. I witnessed student’s ownership, care, confidence, responsibility, enjoyment, collaboration development as an ensemble at different moments with strategic adult intervention. For example, I saw how students started their rehearsal from chaos to self-organizing themselves to achieve the set goal. I saw students motivating each other at moments of disengagement. They created their discipline when they want to enjoy it. I witness the musical director building student confidence in themselves and their work. On performance day, I saw a show almost independently run by students who took the responsibility for their work. They oversaw their scenes cue sheet and backstage, reminded each other of the script line, calm down each other, help each other with the props and costumes, poking from the wings curtain to encourage their friends on stage. It was eye-opening to experience how everyone built on and worked from their strength, the directors, the teachers, and the Students.
PS 161 was one of the milestones in my learning journey. The diversity and the interaction with students are what made it feel like home. Walking up every Tuesday to Amsterdam hilly street in Harlem to reach PS 161 wondering what I will learn today from the children, was one of the inspiring weekly endeavors. I learned from Drama Club experience that Children are adaptable humans they strive for belonging and nurturing to flourish. This takes place when educator shows support, love, trust, direction, care, and listen to them. Through trials and errors, I have learned to be patient about my learning when experiencing a new field. I learned to trust the process, the children, and myself. I learned to let it go, and find the balance between planning very well and following the flow of the implementation.
“Normality is a paved road: It is comfortable to walk but no flowers grow” Vincent van Gogh
Developing an understanding of the pedagogical and advocacy potentials of the theater was another milestone in my learning journey. It took place through exposure to inclusive practices through arts, Culturally responsive teaching and learning, and Social justice lens.
I was able to see through the inclusion lens the barriers for such practice, and opportunities theatre provides. I learned that one of the barriers to inclusion is how society perceives disability, which “ is caused by the way society is organized, its structure, values, and attitude rather than by a person limitation, impairments, and difference” (Mooney, 150). The prevailing culture of ableism and normalcy is what leads to such attitudes of prejudice or stereotype about people with disability Accordingly, It impacts educator perception of children with different learning capacities. I was also intrigued by the understanding that children don’t need equal access to the same resources in their learning. But they need equitable access to learning resources based on their individual needs. It was eye-opening to learn about different examples of theatre inclusive capacity. I was inspired by how different artists with disabilities self-advocate for themselves and their communities. I aim to foster children self -advocacy in my pedagogy. I intend to seed it through letting them experience and know YOU are different and unique not despite your difference, but because of your difference; love yourself for who you are not who they are not, or who they should be. The first step I took towards this awareness is to self-advocate for myself and ask for accommodation to my learning differences in the program, which I was reluctant sometimes to ask for. The inclusive practice lens is a call for social justice and equity. This could take place through a paradigm shift that can happen through a diversity model that stipulates human variation as a new reality and having the right to be different. At end of this learning journey, I could not but wonder what if people realize inclusive practices and human variation would be the only key for humanity's salvation and co-existence?
Like New York City, Cairo where I come from is considered one of the highest racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse cities in Egypt, and it never sleeps too. I work with multicultural learners, educators, and communities. Being introduced to the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CRTL) approach, was another milestone in my learning journey. I was first inspired by the concept from James Miles Ted-talk when he said the school can be fun and educational when children connect to what they are learning. The application of the concept was laid out by Zareeta Hammond in her CRT & Brain book who provided us with four practice areas to utilize CRTL with our students to move them from dependent to independent learners. It calls for building our awareness of who we are as educators, and who is our students. It focuses attention on building learning partnerships and establishing allyship with our students. It points out the importance of developing content that stimulates, and of relevance to the student. This can only happen through building a conducive learning environment and communities as fertile ground for students to grow. It was mind-blowing for me to learn how students' brains positively function, expand, and learning happens when geared towards these practices (Hammond, 16). In addition, it highlights the value of being self-reflective on one's work, and it starts by knowing who I am, what is my privilege, implicit bias, cultural frame of reference as an educator and human.
This approach gave me tools, strategies, and new language when designing or implementing any learning experience. One of the strategies is asking myself the following questions: Who I am teaching, what is their cultural frame of reference? What am I teaching them, what are the skills and content that will let them connect, engage with, or be of relevance to them? Why am I teaching this content or skill? What is my guiding question? How will this question help students critically and creatively think and engage? How can I differentiate the instruction to cater to the capacities of these different learners? How will instruction and learning experience help learners to learn about themselves and others who are different from them? How this learning enables and amplifies joy? CRTL as an approach is about humanizing education which makes it another quest for access, social justice, and equity.
By the end of this journey, I realize this masters program took me through a reflective and exploration process of navigating educational theater as artistry, pedagogy, and approach to advocacy and social justice. My takeaway on the human level from this program is my colleagues who I have learned from just by being who they are. My professors who created meaningful learning experiences in classrooms through modeling the approaches they teach by example in their communication as educators, artists, and humans. I came to this program in search of Who am I? Today, I came out with more questions than answers, that put me in the footstep of my new journey. At age of 39 today, there are pivotal takeaways for my future self, Work from your strength, one step at a time, look for your element, identify your Why before exploring any endeavor, look for your passion, do not settle for less, less is more, life begins at the end of your comfort zone. A growth mindset is what you need for your non-linear Life Journey. Keep experimenting and exploring. Fail, Keep failing and Rise again because this is how we grow and learn. Find a life-work balance because your wellbeing matters. Remember Humans are wired for connection. Collaborate, find your mentor and your tribe. Keep working on your artistry, it is what will keep inspiring your pedagogy. Be resilient, kind, grateful, empathetic, and compassionate for yourself and others. Tell stories because this what keeps us alive.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution" Elbert Einstein
I believe the upcoming world needs children to think like an artist who seeks questions, solve problems, make connections, deal with ambiguity, imagine possibilities. Use these skills and creativity necessary to face the world, find their voices, understand it and perhaps change it too. I know that Educational Theater has the answer.