Planting Seeds of Inspiration: ‘I done good!’

I’m often filled with self doubt.

I can hear those of you who have been reading me for a while now saying things like “Duh!” or “No, really!” or (the more vulgar) “No s*%t Sherlock!”

At least I acknowledge that I’m my own worst critic.

This negativity about myself isn’t just centered on my writing. There are times that I question every single thing I’m doing, whether it’s teaching, writing, parenting, directing, interviewing . . . Basically if its a verb I do, I criticize myself for not doing it well enough–for somehow screwing even the simplest things up.

But then there are days like today, when I realize that “I done good.”

This semester I’ve been teaching a course called Studies in Drama at Bryant University; a University that is mostly known as a business school, but has been expanding its liberal arts offerings. This is a 300 level course taught through the Literary and Cultural Studies Department that fulfills an LCS requirement that all students need to graduate.

Did you pick up on the key words there? Business students, 300 level, requirement.

Anyone who has ever taught an introductory level REQUIRED course in arts or writing will recognize that sometimes getting students involved is like beating your head against a brick wall. They come in with the attitude that “this has nothing to do with my life” or “why do I need to learn to write when I’m a _______ major?” Usually those courses are at the 100 level and filled with First Year Students who are struggling with the day-to-day reality of what it means to be a college student. I’ve had both successes and failures in those types of classes, but of course I always obsess about the failures and gloss over the successes.

Now, this particular course is kind of Intro to Theatre meets upper-division expectations.  My entire class is made of up seniors, some of whom will be graduating in December; all of whom are focused (quite naturally) on getting jobs after graduating.  In other words, students who put off this particular requirement for their Senior year. Students who, in some instances, had ZERO interest in theatre and ZERO contact with theatre; they just needed to fulfill their LCS requirement in some way. Several of them signed up for this course because the original instructor (whom I replaced because of a sudden medical leave) was known for his quirky teaching style and the fact that he NEVER MADE SENIORS TAKE A FINAL.

Knowing that I might have a reluctant group, I decided to try and make the course relevant to their interests as well as my own. Since I could design the course as I saw fit, I decided to focus on “theatre as a tool of cultural expression, political engagement, and social change.” (From my syllabus). The first thing I had them read was  The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey, which is a somewhat controversial monologue/play that questions the ethics of Apple, Steve Jobs, and the use of Chinese workers to build Apple products. What better play to intrigue the interest of business majors?

From there, we’ve traveled great distances in the class: from learning about the theatrical techniques of Bertolt Brecht, to discussing racism in Othello. We spent time with the Federal Theatre Project and discusses how a bunch of beavers led to the downfall of a federally supported theatre.  We’ve looked at the role of theatre in confronting feminist issues in plays like Trifles, A Doll House,  and even Lysistrata.  We discussed the role of race and gender in plays like Cloud 9 and for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf. I’ve introduced them to the techniques of Augusto Boal and today we looked at radical street theatre and the ways in which theatre can affect social change in public places.

Revolt of the Beavers

All in all, although there have been a few unenthusiastic and non-participatory students, the discussions have been excellent throughout the semester and the students have challenged me and each other with difficult questions.

Of course, there was still the issue of the final project. Since it was an LCS class I kind of felt the need (at first) to go with the traditional write a paper route. Then, after reading an article with the class about finding ways to incorporate the reality that this generation of students has grown up with technology into theatre classrooms, I opened up the possibility of some of my students finding alternative ways to present their projects beyond the traditional academic paper.

This lead to a surprising result today. As I mentioned earlier, in today’s class we talked about street theater using articles from Jan Cohen-Cruz’ anthology Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology. We talked about various forms of street theatre they have seen themselves, and I included in the discussion flash mobs which, although perhaps not as political as some other forms, have become (in my opinion) an important phenomenon in modern society. We looked at videos of  groups like Improv Everywhere who have mastered the art of producing moments of theatre in public places.  This is one of my favorite videos of theirs:

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a voice calls out, “Can we negotiate the final papers if we create a flash mob?”

“Um . . . let me think about that.”

The class continued until we neared the end.

“How about the flash mob idea?”

“Well. . .,” I said, not wanting to dull their enthusiasm. After all, this was a group of students who want to, suddenly, do a CREATIVE project as their final. These are the same students who refused to acknowledge themselves as creative individuals in the beginning of the class. Granted, many of them are simply trying to avoid having to write an academic paper. Still, to me this indicates that they’ve been learning that theatre does, indeed, have power.

At the same time, I don’t want their final project to be a mediocre piece of fluff. “If you want to do this, then it needs to have some meaning. It can’t be just a fun flash mob. You need to make some kind of statement. If you can, as a group, come up with a reasonable proposal by next Tuesday, we’ll see.”

“Everybody, stay for five minutes,” another student said. “Let’s brainstorm.”

I left the class in discussion and headed toward my basement office cubby.

Ten minutes later, two students walked in. “We figured it out.”

They explained their idea. (I’ll leave the details for the future).  I negotiated a little to raise the expectations (there needs to be a research component and a little writing by everyone in the group). I told them I would still make the final decision next Tuesday, pending their figuring out some of those research details and a few other logistical things.

Meanwhile, all I could think was, “Wow! I think they really learned something. ‘I done good!'”

Stay tuned for the end results.

Why Write? A Reflection on Writing vs. Talking

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been meeting with a few students who wanted the opportunity to revise their midterm take-home essay exams because they were not satisfied with their grades.  As I sat down with each one to go over their paper, I realized that, for the most part, they understood the material and could express their ideas clearly when talking to me about them. The problem came when they tried to put their words in writing. They simply cannot express themselves as clearly or logically in a written form.

After talking to these students, I returned home to my 9-year-old daughter who moans, groans and complains every time she has to write a paragraph–and she has a lot of paragraphs to write this year. “I don’t know what to say,” she says. “Can you help me?”

“What do you have to write about?”

Sometimes it is a response to a reading, or a prompt to use her imagination and tell a creative story. I will ask her questions, and she can (usually) answer them. If she can’t answer them, I tell her to reread the passage, and then she is able to answer well. In terms of creativity I’ve heard her make up stories inspired by something small, and sat through endless puppet shows created by her and her friends. She has also written numerous poems that you can find sprinkled throughout my blog posts. But, when it comes to assignments for school, she struggles. Her topic sentences are often vague. Her supporting details are sometimes weak. Her concluding sentences non-existent.

Like the college students, she struggles with conveying ideas in a written form.

As a teacher, I’ve often struggled with my own inability to understand why people have difficulty writing. I know, it sounds naive, because everyone has skills that differ from each other. But expressing myself in words has always come naturally to me. When talking to these students or my daughter, they express themselves in words. So why, I wonder, is it so difficult to put those words onto the page?

It’s possible, I suppose, that the difference lies in how people use their brains. The students that I have been working with are predominantly business majors, so I am sure their comfort with numbers, statistics, and graphs is much higher than my own.

But still, that doesn’t explain the gap between the ability to talk fluently about something and the ability to write eloquently and logically about the same topic.

Perhaps the difference lies in how we perceive writing. To me writing is part of my thought process. When I need to work through a problem or an issue, I write. When I am frustrated or angry about something, I write. At times I have even written letters or e-mails to explain an important issue to someone. I am more confident in my ability to express myself in writing than I am in my ability to talk.

Why? Well, as a talker I have a few habits that I have never successfully broken, especially if I am nervous:

  • I giggle
  • I talk with my hands
  • I pace.

In other words, I do all the things I shouldn’t do if I want to be a great speaker. Somehow these habits in addition to my short stature makes me seem less authoritative even when I am the expert in the room.

However, when I write nobody knows what I look like. Nobody hears the giggles or sees the talking hands. Nobody notices my quirks and my pacing.

When I write, I become the speaker I wish I could be.

For me writing is my language of comfort. For my students they communicate in other ways. In Introductory Theater courses I usually give an option for my projects which allows for any type of presentation; including written papers, performed scenes, artistic projects, etc. I try to leave it open-ended to allow for the variety of learners that come to my classes.  For this upper-division course, however, which is filled with seniors, I am requiring written research/analysis papers as their final project.

Am I doing them an injustice by demanding that they express themselves in writing?

These are students who will soon walk out into the world. Most of them will enter the world of business. Most of them will never have to write another long paper. They’ ll never have to do library research. They’ll never have to turn in a written document with a well-thought out argument.

But then again, maybe they will. If they want to move up in the business world, they need to be able to express themselves clearly. They need to be able to write  well-constructed letters; develop well-thought out and researched reports. They need to be able to express themselves in ways beyond the numbers and graphs.

In other words, they need to be able to write.

And I need to be able to speak the words I write.

We all have something to learn.

 

 

Complete Disillusionment

Three students in Theater Appreciation–100% plagiarism on their final project.

I’m devastated.

One of them is an ESL student from Korea. Maybe the assignment was too challenging for him. But he didn’t even make an effort to hide the plagiarism. He cited sources, but the article is word for word from another source. (Although it does look like he took information from various sources, word for word).

The other two, part of the basketball team that has made my life challenging this semester. (As you can read about here) Again, word for word. Cut and paste of an entire paper. I gave them a higher grade at midterm so they could play (even though I didn’t want to). And this is what happens.

People around here keep asking what they can do to make me want to stay. They don’t want to see Nathan and I go. But how can I continue to teach when I am disillusioned with teaching? How can I continue to share my passion for theater in a place that bombards me with challenges and disrespect?

I don’t know what I want out of life anymore, but it is certainly not this.

My heart is aching.

Open the Door to Imagination


“Art is communication–as simple, and as profound, as that.” (Sally Bailey)

The door stood upstage center.

“When you walk through the door,” I said. “I need to know who you are and how you are feeling. But you can’t tell me who you are. You have to show me.” Over the next 20 minutes or so we met characters of all types:  grumpy girls who didn’t want to do homework; flying unicorns that shot flames our of their horns; fully armed bank robbers determined to get the money;  Annie, played by the girl who just got cast in the role for the summer theater production; someone running from a terrifying monster . . . the list goes on and on.

All in a day of my Youth Theater Studio.

Yesterday, in responsible to my Horrible H post (in my opinion, it was horrible), the talented AmblerAngel  from Hey from Japan, Notes on Moving wrote,

“Have you ever thought about writing what it’s like to teach? I really enjoyed your series on the production…to me working with kids is really a tough job- would love to hear the stories.”

I have a few posts about teaching, although most of those focus on the challenges of teaching college classes this semester, which hasn’t been fun. I haven’t written a lot about the other teaching I do, except this post about Magic Boxes. But I owe AmblerAngel a huge

 THANK YOU

for breaking me out of the block I was in and reminding me that I have something to write about.

I teach theater. But this week I ventured into another realm of this teaching, by presenting a workshop to a group of adults with development disabilities at Class LTD. We are hoping to turn this into a larger project, allowing the participants to share their stories and create some kind of performance to present to the community. We also hope to integrate other community members into the project as one of the goals of the project is to encourage community interaction.

I was nervous about this workshop. I know I have a slew of activities to do, but I haven’t really worked with this community since high school. If I am going to be brutally honest with myself, I was a little afraid. What would happen? Would they react badly? Would something go wrong?

Last week I attended a one-day workshop with a talented Drama Therapist named Sally Bailey and bought her book entitled Barrier-Free Theatre. That workshop was excellent, and I learned a lot about how to adapt the activities I already do with drama classes to the needs of people with varying cognitive and physical abilities. I was so lucky to have that opportunity.

But I was still nervous. I asked my friend Jackie to come with me, as I am hoping to involve her with this project as an art teacher. (She is also the woman who has been guiding me through the Moon Lady project).

Armed with a bag full of silky scarves, paper plates,a paper towel tube,  and classical music,  I arrived late for the class (there was a little confusion about locations, they had moved but that move didn’t show up on Google). I walked into a room full of nervously smiling people.  I thought I would be getting a tour of the place first, but no, we swept the tables out of the way and dove write in.

“Hello. My name is Lisa. I would like you to help me learn your names. To do that, I would like you to say your name and show me something you like to do. For example, I’m Lisa, and I like to dance.”

I perform a perfectly silly of butt wiggling clumsiness.

Laughs and giggles.

We went around the circle with varied success. Several of them merely repeated the movement done before (we almost got a full baseball team) and some were too shy to say their names. But we were off.

Next we passed around the “Magic Tube.” This is an activity directly from Sally Bailey. The paper towel tube has magic properties that can become anything you want it to be. It went from a flute to a golf club, and many places in between. It finally turned into a conductor’s baton that lead the entire group into an orchestra rendition of happy  birthday.

This was then followed by a group scarf dance to classical music (again borrowed from Sally). Some students wore the scarves, some flung them around in a kaleidoscope of flying colors. I managed to get two of the more shy students to dance with me, even though one remained seated.

Before I knew it, the half hour that I was supposed to be there extended to about 45 minutes of high energy creativity and smiles. We ended taking a giant bow and giving ourselves a great round of applause.

This was followed by thank you’s and a special gift from Kevin who wrote it for the ladies.  Here it is:

I am very honored to have received this.

Thanks to AmblerAngel’s question I learned something this week. I learned that I am a teacher, and what’s more, that I help people open doors to their imaginations.

I wonder what will happen when I open the next door.

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