I’m the Worst . . .

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I’m the worst parent because I expect my daughter to treat me with respect, and don’t allow her to blame me for her own mistakes. I’m the worst professor because I expect my students to read, do the work, think … Continue reading

Clear Writing Counts

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  We can’t all be brilliant writers. Just as we can’t all be brilliant mathematicians, painters, doctors, musicians, scientists, speakers, etc., etc. I get that. The line between basic skills and true talent is a thick one–one which requires training, … Continue reading

Excuses, Entitlement, Expectations, and Education

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Over the past few years (and particularly over recent weeks) I have heard variations of these from any number of students: “I didn’t come to class last week because I had to go to court. If I bring in proof … Continue reading

Pirate Captain Sarah Lee* Reporting for Blogging Duty

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Yesterday I mentioned I was going to a Pirate Picnic at Sarah’s school, which really entailed her fourth grade classmates sharing a booklet of writing about pirates with their guests while sitting on a towel in the gym and nibbling on snacks.  They all prepared little booklets that contained narrative writing, descriptive writing, opinion writing, and expository writing. For those of you newish to my blog, I occasionally share my daughter’s writing, to encourage her to keep at it. So today’s post is an excerpt from the booklet, her descriptive writing piece:

The Evil Caribbean Pirate

Ahoy there matey. AHOY THERE MATEY, ugh . . . avast you shall go no farther. I have something for you! I have met a pirate, her eyes are like black holes of darkness sucking you into a dark world and she has short brown dread locks with the rest snarled like a rat’s nest. The pirate has thin scarlet lips that seems as if she were a vampire. Whenever she opens her mouth it smells like a garbage can. Her nose is as pointy as a sward and it appeared to me that she was as tall as the Empire State Building, leaving her body as skinny as a twig. Now her weight was as light as a flamingo feather. I glanced at her face and noticed weird marks on her eye and under her scarlet lips. Near her left eye there was a red scar that reminded me of the red lines on an electrocardiogram (or ecg). She had black and white stripes with a cream tank-top underneath. It sounds like she came from prison,a m I right? Looking at her expression on her face it seemed to me that she was happy to steal treasure and destroy a ship. Along with that she had two ear piercings on each ear and a black cross. The piercings on her ears had a pair of sparkly stubs and a pair of skeleton bone earrings. She has a shiny hook and sword that were both smooth. This buccaneer waddled like a duck with her splintery peg leg. I hope one day you will find me pirate friend.” (by Sarah KramerLee)

Black Kid Bonnie and Captain Sarah Lee

Black Kid Bonnie and Captain Sarah Lee.  *Note: Sarah decided her Pirate name was Captain Sarah Lee because it worked better.

In her expository writing, Sarah wrote about Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Sir Francis Drake. I am pleased that she explored a little about Anne Bonny, as my fascination with women who broke out of gender roles to carve their own way in the world remains strong. I still have a book, or two or three in mind that somehow explores the histories of these interesting women in some way that I still need to discover. Months ago I had actually started research on female pirates, including reading Ireland’s Pirate Queen by Anne Chambers. I’m encouraged that women’s names aren’t completely obliterated in a struggling education system, and I hope that Sarah continues to follow the history of amazing women as her own interests grow. Maybe someday she’ll read something I’ve written. Perhaps writing for my daughter is the kick in the pants I need to pursue a project I’ve long pushed to the side as impossible.

Only time will tell.

I have requested that Pirate Captain Sarah Lee respond to comments personally, although I might have to tie her to the mast to get her to stay still long enough. 

 

Literacy Learned and Performed

“Hello everyone,

Saturday’s performance of In our own voices was a great success.   I estimate that we had 150 in total attendance and most of the attendees were families of the children in the program.   I know it was a bit stressful for the staff to do the extra work, but it payed off to see parents happy about the program.  Some expressed gratitude for helping their children become more confident reading, while others thanked us for inviting them on campus . . . It’s this kind of team work that will make our community better.

Thank you for your hard work and enjoy the summer.”

As the above quote from the administrator of the “In Our Own Voices” program shows, in the end we had a successful performance and achieved many of our goals. It was a long and difficult journey. However, there were a few things that made everything better:

  • Hugs I got from kids who didn’t want to go onstage, after they exceeded their own expectations.
  • Watching the smiles on kids faces as they found the joy of performing.

Juan Bobo

  • Having kids clamor to get their t-shirts when all along they complained about having to wear one.
  • The happy smiles as they received a copy of Tales our Abuelitas Told and a certificate of excellence at the end of the performance.

Certificate

I always knew that in the end all things would work themselves out–they always do. Parents are always pleased seeing their children on stage, taking risks, breaking out of their shells and comfort zones.

However, the struggle to get to that point, caused by things beyond my control, has made me really think about what type of programming I want to be involved in and what the goals of theatre/drama programming can and should be. It shouldn’t be a struggle. It should be a challenging  journey.

The struggle to achieve quantitative evidence in a field that works mostly with qualitative results is a struggle anyone who works with arts education has to deal with.

The people who control the money want numbers and evidence, not anecdotes. But isn’t that the flaw in the education system overall? Learning cannot always be quantified by numbers.

I know my program was a success? How?

  • Because of the girl who told me she couldn’t do it before the show started, but got up on stage, read loudly and clearly into a microphone, and hugged me afterward as if she never wanted me to leave.
  • Because of the Nepalese girl who had the most difficulty with the English language, but practically leaped at the opportunity to read her lines.
  • Because of the art work, designed by the students, that ended up on the back of the t-shirt.

inourownvoices

  • Because I could hear their voices grow louder every time I met with these students, and see them gain confidence with each rehearsal and word.
  • Because of the boys who caused trouble during rehearsals but saved the day when some performers didn’t show up, by taking on more roles and improvising when necessary. The improvisation alone proved they knew the story and the goal of storytelling.
The backdrop was designed by two students. The girl reading had the most stage fright.

The backdrop was designed by two students. The girl reading had the most stage fright.

But the problem still remains. How do we “prove” success when some of what we achieve may not be realized immediately? We don’t know when our work will have its influence. One day, one of these children might find she has the courage to perform on stage because of the roots I laid; or another one might decide to design something because I allowed him to create a backdrop; or another might find confidence in public speaking; or another might realize she wants to write. These are results we cannot measure in the immediacy of a flawed performance, where microphones don’t work correctly, voices aren’t as loud as we hoped, performers don’t show up, and blocking is forgotten. Not that the parents noticed these flaws or cared, but they did exist. These are the things that cannot be measured in numbers.

Yet numbers seem to be all that matter.

Now I find myself asking some serious questions:

  • How can I function, create, and teach in a world of numbers?
  • Do I still want to?
  • What role does theatre still play in my personal life goals?
  • Where do I want to go now as an artist, a director, an educator, a writer, a person?

The answer remains to be seen.

Learning My Own Lessons

Since January I have been involved in an after-school literacy through drama program at three inner-city schools called “In Our Own Voices.”

Carlinsky reads

Reading circle.

The intent of this program, which is being supported by grants from 21st Century and United way, was to reach out to English Language Learner’s from the various populations at these schools (but particularly from Latino populations as the program is under the auspices of Worcester State University’s Latino Education Institute) and help them improve their literacy skills in a fun and creative way through a 16 week program that will end in performance.

It has been a journey full of unexpected challenges, as well as some wonderful moments that remind of why these things are important. At this mid-point, I’m not sure what will happen at the end, although I have hopes. I think in many ways this program has been a journey into reflection about my own goals and desires as an artist, an educator, and a person who believes in the power of the arts to make a difference in people’s lives.

I wish I could say it was a journey without bumps, and that it has been an easy ride, but that would be dishonest. However, I think its valuable to reflect on the program in order to improve it as I move forward into the second half, and learn from my own mistakes.

Focusing on the Positives

  • Being greeted with hugs and smiles by students who only see you once a week, never gets old.
  • Having a girl run up to you excited about reading Charlotte’s Web makes me smile.
  • The creativity and enthusiasm of kids given permission to play, act, and explore is amazing.
  • My initial plan of action (although I’ve had to adapt a lot) was exactly what my mentor would have done.
  • Many of the kids are already showing more confidence in speaking, reading, and writing.

Dealing with the Challenges

  • The biggest challenge I’ve faced is that I believe that creating a valuable process is more important than focusing on product, especially with a program that is attempting to do so much. The administrator who hired me for this program is very focused on product and assessment–the kind of assessment that can be proven by charts, graphs and numbers, not the more esoteric assessment that comes from working with the  kids.
  • Another challenge that I’ve had to adjust to comes with  the specific population of one of the schools. Each of these three schools has completely different personalities. The most difficult of them feels like a prison. It’s an old, dark, cavernous building with confusing twists and turns. The walls are empty, lacking the decorations and celebrations of the student population that attends.  The after school programming is chaos, with over a hundred children gathering in the gymnasium for their various after school activities because they have no place to go otherwise. Many of the kids in my program are foster children. Many of them miss their lives with their parents but can’t go back. Some are dealing with awful home situations. They all have tough attitudes and can easily turn on each other with a word or a look (not necessarily physically but they become loud and aggressive). We end up spending a lot of time just trying to control the chaos enough to achieve one small thing. I consider the two-hour day a success if I’ve gotten  everyone  to focus for a short time. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for a final polished production (see the first challenge). I will get them to perform, but I can’t guarantee their focus. Every day there is another adventure with this group and sometimes I feel like I’m failing the challenge.
  • How does one assess the learning that goes on in this program when it’s not easy to chart in graphs and figures? The administrator wants things like audio on each child that proves improvement from the first day to the last. She wants evidence in written form as well. I know this is the never-ending battle when it comes to arts/theatre education. I can see the change in my students. I know they are learning things beyond literacy–things like teamwork, confidence building, creative thinking, etc. However, those things are qualitative not quantitative. The constant frustration of how to communicate that has made me realize why I would never want to work in the public school system as a full-time teacher–at least not  in the current environment where:

“STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education . . . (Gerald Conti in his “Teacher’s Resignation Later” as posted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post)

Looking Toward the Future

While I have, in some ways, had to revise my plans  for this program, I have faith that in the end every it will turn out to be a success.I believe in these kids and in their ability to learn, grow, and create.

That’s what makes it all worthwhile.