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Archive for Relationships

Millennials in Theatre

I do not have a television in my house.  Some guests comment in disbelief, “How can you live without a television?” Television is not bad; too much television was bad for me. It was hypnotic and encouraged me to waste a lot of time, so I got rid of the machine.  I also got tired of the news and commercials telling me what to believe and what to purchase.  Similarly, I hate visiting friends and their entire living room is arranged around a television, which remains on. Hello; let’s look at each other and talk. Can you imagine growing up today? The relationship our students have with technology is beyond description.  My three-year-old niece operates her mom’s cell phone!  How has technology effected our students and what is our role in teaching theatre which is about people, not gadgets?

I grew up in rural Texas; our closet neighbors were the Sellars family, 3 miles away.  I grew up playing outdoors. Jan Sellars and I often rode our bikes for miles, but my favorite childhood game incorporated my chores and my imagination.  It was my job to feed our livestock. I had to cut down some of the maize or milo from the nearby field and wheel barrow it to feed the calves and pigs.  Instead of efficiently cutting down the green stalks from the nearest corner of the field, I sliced winding paths into the living greenness creating a meandering maze of trails and secret rooms and hidden passages.  I knew the paths.  I can still hear the wind gently vibrating the leaves sounding like a giant hand gliding across a rusted harp.  And each day I fed the animals, the maze got deeper and more complicated and the High Plains’ wind was my soundtrack.  When my city cousins came to visit, we would spend hours devising games and scenarios in the mysterious paths.

But today, many of our students only play indoors and they are attached to their devices, computers, and video games. Some of the games have great effects and soundtracks, but it’s all been designed and created for them.  I grew up with friends, real friends; I still visit with Jan Sellars Bates.  Our students have virtual friends. Today’s Millennial boosts his or her self-esteem by counting hundreds of Facebook friends.  But the truth is that they have never seen most of them and they only know them superficially and add friends from the invitation of an intrusive app suggesting, “You might also know…”. A teen today sends an average of 3,000 texts a month. I use to get one snail mail letter every two months from my pen pal in Minnesota.

There is much negative criticism of Millennials.  Many say they are tough to manage, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy, entitled.  I’m not quite that harsh but, I admit, I sometimes describe my students as so, until I need help with my computer or, sound system, or downloading something, or hooking up to Wi-Fi. Then I’m reminded that they are actually efficient, genius and skilled! Millennials grew up in a Facebook and Instagram world. They grew up with filters that only show the good and happy world.  Consequently, many are suffering from depression and low self-esteems. The trauma for young people to be unfriended is real.   It’s no fault of this generation; this is the time they were dealt.  They grew up with instant gratification and yet older people describe them as impatient and wanting everything now, now, now, with no understanding of having to work for it!  If they want information, it’s at their fingertips.  I had to plan for a week and drive 30 miles to see a movie. They don’t even have to worry about movie times; they just click and download.  Food? Click, order, pay, delivered, and not just pizza.  Same with shopping; Amazon order and it’s in your possession tomorrow.  And dating?  They did not have to go through the awkward humiliation of breaking the ice and stumbling out words that sounded more like soggy Jell-O than courting. They just swipe and bam, a hook-up.  They swipe and crash, a break-up.  They are failing at building meaningful relationships. They rarely practiced the skills.

But theatre teaches communication and relationships.  We teach the essential social coping skills. We teach that the process matters more than the immediate outcome.  Today’s kids do not have a realistic understanding of the journey.  They care more about the short term gains than the life-long lessons.  Through the rehearsal period, we model patience and teach that projects come to fruition with time, flexibility and persistence.  Theatre rewards with the fulfillment of working hard and seeing a project brought to fruition. Theatre teaches that we care about people rather than corporate gains, or profits, or brands, or how many likes your posting gets.

It’s always been tough teaching actors character development and relationships; it’s even harder now because of how alienated they have been raised.  It is even more difficult now to teach looking at one another in the eyes.  It’s more difficult to teach touching.  Remind yourself of when your students grew-up.  Discuss the humanity necessary for theatre and all art.

There should be no cell phones while your company is creating art and while you are teaching communication and relationships.  The presence of the phone invites distraction, and allows kids to surrender to the addiction of the cell phone, just like me and television. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out on a table when you are supposed to visit with family or friends. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out during a business meeting where you are supposed to be engaged and communicating.

Theatre directors teach art, but we also teach life-long skills.  Thank God I did not have an I Phone in my childhood maize field; I would have laid down on the cool dirt and played a video maze game, like Portal 2, rather than cultivating my own imagination. Instead I built my own life size magical world of green corridors and giant hands playing the High Plains harp.

Counting Down to Year’s End- Strategies For Review, Reflection and Celebration!

 

Almost there, almost there, almost there…  The days are warming up and the students are starting to talk about their Summer plans.  You are in the home stretch, the annual countdown of days has started to be posted on your classroom white board and ending the year on a high note is a priority.  As I sat down to write this blog installment, I scrolled through Facebook one last time for the evening.  I saw teachers asking for advice on how to use independent study time in the final days of the year as multi-level theatre classes are pulled each day for various grade level testing and asking for ways to revive the students through final reviews.  Yes, It is that time of year again and you too may be looking for ways to review, reflect, discuss, and most important, celebrate the learning and growth your students have experienced this year.

Here are a few strategies to engage your students in a variety of reflections that not only close out the year in celebration but help you to take positive steps into even better instruction for next year:

#1. LEARNING TIMELINE:

Start first with a long piece of butcher paper that you will eventually display on the classroom or auditorium wall. Review with the students all the learning that took place during this school year or production cycle. Pick a scribe or scribes to help document, via timeline, the key activities, projects, and content from each unit of study in class or objective mastered in production. Have students create visuals to add to the timeline to help students with recall as they gather from the past school year all the learning they’ve done (for example, display a photo of a project, an image of an author, designs or production photos). Have students write statements on the timeline about how what they learned made them feel or how they see it helping them in the future.  Once completed, this is not only a great way to review for final exams, but also a great introduction to the class for next year’s students when you cover the syllabus at the start of the year.

#2. TWEET ABOUT IT:

After reviewing the year or production experience, ask students to use no more than 140 characters to summarize their experience with units or the class as a whole or productions.  If they have a twitter account you can encourage them to send these reflections as a tweet. They can even create a hashtag that reflects an aspect of each unit you studied in the year or production you created. Do a twitter board in the class where students can physically post their tweets and hashtags and have the whole-class share out so students can comment on the tweets and hashtags of fellow classmates.

#3. SYNERGIZE WITH SOCRATES:

Socratic seminars may be a technique you have used throughout the year or you may be trying it for the first time.  They are one of my favorite ways to engage in meaningful student-led discussion — and reflection. In Socratic seminar, the goal is for students to help one another more deeply understand ideas, values, information, and concepts. Essential questions — or guiding questions — drive the discussion. Consider the following guiding questions:

  • What has been some of your most important learning this year?
  • What has been some of your favorite experiences and learning this year?
  • What learning moment made you feel the most accomplished?
  • What did you think you knew when you entered the class or production but you realized through experience, you had much more to learn?
  • How might you be able to apply what you learned this year in the future?
  • What activities made the most impact on your learning?

#4. LETTERS TO FUTURE STUDENTS OR YOUR FUTURE SELF:

Invite your students to write a letter to a student in next year’s class.

  • What advice might you give him or her?
  • What should the student do in order to be successful in this class or in auditions?
  • How will what they learn help them in other classes?
  • How about in life?

You keep the letters and pass them out to incoming students during the first week of school in the fall. This is a great task for seniors.

Students returning to your program can also write a letter to his or her future self. They record some memories and important learning from their experiences in your class or productions. They can also write their hopes, fears, and expectations for the next year. Keep the letters for them and give them out on the first week of class next year. Before sealing the envelope, invite students to share excerpts of their letters with each other and with the whole class.

Reflection is a great way to help your students process all they have learned in one year.  These activities can bring about awareness of just how much they have accomplished and also help them make a plan for continued study.  As an educator, these activities also engage you in a process that supports your continuous improvement as well as you process what they learned well and areas that need reinforcement.

In all the review, don’t forget to celebrate.  Great learning happened and both you and your students have been inspired.  The slow chug up the incline of the rollercoaster is well worth it when your hands are high above your head, the wind is whipping through your hair and you are screaming with joy at the drop to the end.  Enjoy the final days of this year’s ride!

To Every Thing There Is a Season

If there is one thing that is constant in life, it is change. We all know it’s going to happen, and yet we carry on as if things will always remain the same. Sometimes, we embrace change. It can come as a relief and be a very positive thing. But sometimes, we struggle with change. It upsets the world in which we live and brings about that terrible fear of the unknown. About the only thing we can control is how we respond to change. As Bob Dylan says, “…you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changing”.

Lately, I’ve been experiencing the pain of going through a lot of changes at work. We recently lost our headmaster, and only last week I found out my principal was also leaving. To top it off, my closest friend at school (who is also our Fine Arts Director) is moving to California. “Change” doesn’t feel good right now. These are not changes that I’m excited about. I love these people and don’t want to see them go. I realize, however, that the only thing I can control now is how I respond to these impending changes. I am excited for each of these wonderful people as they travel to their new schools and begin new chapters of their lives. It’s also time for me to open a new chapter of my life as well. It’s time to swim.

For the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of being a one act play clinician and adjudicator. I’m always impressed with the tenacity of one act play directors and students. They attend each clinic and contest seeking to improve, and they return to their schools, eager to make the changes needed to strengthen their shows and become better storytellers. The point of the clinics and contests is to grow, to continue to work hard and to effect positive change in a production. Directors and their students have to swim or sink, and I’ve witnessed many times the commitment to just keep swimming no matter how many obstacles are encountered. I’ve seen Facebook posts about directors experiencing frustrating and sometimes even devastating setbacks. I’ve witnessed directors encouraging and supporting one another and also act in ways to comfort and display incredible love to their students. I’ve observed companies demonstrate class, dignity, and good sportsmanship after the disappointment of not advancing or the heartbreak of disqualification. You don’t hear this enough, but thank you, directors, for choosing to swim when you’re faced with the sink or swim choice. What you do for your students each year is so very valuable. You are teaching them not only a love for theatre, but also lessons in life. As your students watch you, they learn how to adapt when faced with difficult situations, be resourceful, deal with stress, accept wins and mourn losses, collaborate, find joy, and heal heartache. Yes, the play you choose may resonate with your students, but directors are the navigators of not only the story you tell on stage, but also the story you create with your students. The story of your one act play 2017 company journey will be one that students will remember long after plaques and medals are gathering dust on a shelf. Never underestimate the impact that can have on a young life or that they can have on you. Before long, they will graduate and be off to their next life adventure. Life will change.

I’m not usually an overly-sentimental or wistful person. I know my current feelings have a lot to do with the upcoming changes at my school, but there is a far greater reason for my melancholy. I received word this past weekend that one of my former students passed away on Saturday. She graduated in 2005, making her around the age of 29 or 30. Kaye was our backstage wonder. I would hear her name called frequently when actors needed help. “Kaye, my button came off of my shirt”, “Kaye, I think I split my pants”, “Kaye, do you know where my prop is”, “Kaye….”. The guys in the cast would randomly call her name at times, playfully teasing her just to see if she would come to the rescue, and she would faithfully come to their aid, just in case they really needed help. I have such fond memories of a smiling girl with a small sewing kit, a stopwatch, a mini flashlight, and a small first aid kit stashed away in a fanny pack and ready to go in case she had to jump into action. The passing of a young person is hard to swallow. We just assume we’re going to outlive our theatre kids. Kaye is the age of two of my own children and was a classmate of theirs. Although I haven’t seen her in years, we remained a part of each other’s lives through Facebook. And it was on Facebook, within hours of learning of Kaye’s passing that one of my other friends posted a link to Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth singing the song For Good from the fabulous musical Wicked. I thought to myself, “Don’t click on that link. Do not listen to that song right now”, and then found myself clicking, and sobbing, as Stephen Schwartz ‘s amazingly appropriate lyrics were masterfully sung. I’m going to post them below. It may remind you of someone who has changed you for good. Let it remind us as teachers to leave our handprints on the hearts of those we’re blessed to touch each day. Change is out of our control. How we choose to respond to it isn’t. Lisa, Joy, and Kaye, this is for you…

“I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend…” (Stephen Schwartz)

Drue, Peggy and Marsha

 

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from my old high school journalism and English teacher, Drue Porter-Burt (now Parker). I credit Drue with teaching me how to write. I have not seen her since the 1980’s!  The recent phone call was a sweet reunion; she’s now in the Dallas area and I am in Austin. I am excited because we are meeting in Waco later this week. I was her student from 1975-77; it’s beautiful to still be in touch.

I begin every Maestro workshop with, “Relationships before issues.”

I remind my workshop colleagues that we must see one another as friends and as a support system before we can begin to address the issues of education and art. In this sense, “issues” are the frustrating fall-out or the frustrating spill-over or repercussions to the business of education which are beyond a classroom teacher’s control. Remember: “Relationships before issues,” no one is a self-made success story, no one.  I am surrounded by many, many dear and kind friends who have held my hand and guided (and still guide me) to a healthy perception of myself. As educators, our relationships connect us with some obvious people: students, co-workers, volunteers, colleagues. Ms. Drue Porter-Burt taught a 16, 17, 18 year old Ricky Garcia how to write and how to savor literature (she almost got fired for teaching the anthology, Black Voices. Needless to say, she brought much light to Ralls, Texas). I went to State in UIL Feature Writing under her instruction. I edited two ILPC winning yearbooks under her advisory. She gave me opportunities to succeed. She was also a gifted photographer and poet. She and her then husband, Bill, were cool young teachers. They brought much energy and vision to an isolated cotton farming community. She cared for us and opened my eyes to much.  My continued relationship with Drue teaches me that the best mirror is an old friend. She knew me in formation and in very ugly 1970’s attire. She is a living record of my journey. Our reunion has caused me to reflect on relationships which helped shaped me.

Peggy Keelan is one of my dearest friends and the epitome of a parent volunteer. Peggy is the most organized person I have ever met. She works on a “get it done now” mentality. Peggy loves to shop for the best deal and has saved our department so much money. She possesses skills I do not. I allow her to do what she does best and I stay out of her way. Some theatre teachers hate parent booster clubs. The most cited reason is that directors find some parents intrusive and believe that parents are only involved to earn preference for their child. I love my parent volunteers. Peggy Keelan has been my anchor and sail at St. Andrew’s for the past 9 years. Her son, Conor, graduated in 2012, yet Peggy has remained to assist me, our department, and school at large in ways that I can never repay. Heathy relationships are always centered on clear communication and understandable parameters. Even marriage is based on a contract. Peggy was devastated when I did not pick a musical to feature Conor his senior year. Was he talented enough to merit a lead? Yes. Had he proven himself and earned a lead? Yes. Did I know the Keelan family would be hurt? Yes. But there were other factors involved that had nothing to do with Conor; the title selections were based on transitions to a new facility that year. There was a bigger picture.

My relationship with Peggy survived this heart break because of our communication and trust, sincere love and support. I am clear and define parent roles when they offer to assist in our program. My advice to teachers is to outline the parameters. Some of mine are: 1. The director makes all artistic decisions. I welcome input, but it is my duty to make a decision. 2. The director casts all roles. 3. Respect and allow the staff member who is assigned to take care of their own duties; do not step on other’s toes.  Not all my time with Peggy is perfect.  There have been difficult talks where feelings were hurt; times when misunderstandings created ill effect; occasions where gratitude went uncommunicated. All relationships have ups and downs; talk it out. But most times are excellent times. Peggy often just shows up with gifts, like the time she just showed up with a new microwave for the lounge or the time she stayed alone in the theatre to hang up the newly framed show pictures (which she got framed). Sometimes she just shows up because she misses the theatre. The theatre feels empty when she is absent for a while. My favorite times with Peggy are when she makes me get away from school and share a bottle of wine and laugh and just catch up. Peggy has taught me that monetary gifts can help fund a show, but giving time and giving care is a connection, a relationship. And where two or three gather to serve, something very holy happens.
We often spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our home life. I have worked with Marsha Russell for 20 years. She is the Art History teacher at St. Andrew’s. Sometimes I need to vent; I go to Marsha. Sometimes I need that knot on my back worked out; I go to Marsha. Sometimes I just need to talk something other than theatre and I go to my friend. I am lucky that one of my closest friends is on the same campus. Sometimes we just go for a walk around campus. We work on a beautiful 80 acre campus; my favorite off period is when Marsha and I walk the cross-country/nature trails: bluebonnets, the pond, Oak trees, birds, and my dear friend. She reminds me that I don’t always have to be the in charge director nor be strong and always lead. Sometimes I need to share my failures and my stress and my “issues”. Marsha is always there.

Marsha’s room is filled with art:  Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Warhol, Dali, O’Keefe, Klimt; even some student originals. It’s a beautiful space. Marsha brings me much beauty. She also always has a stick of gum or a snack. I urge my teacher colleagues to make connections and not isolate themselves; find a Marsha. Marsha Russell has taught me that blood may make you related, but loyalty makes you family.

Many theatre directors are the only one in there department. No one is strong all the time. We have a need to share our thoughts. Make connections. No one is self-made. Allow those who love and respect you to help. Create relationships; this will ease the issues. Thank you Drue. Thank you Peggy. Thank you Marsha.

 

Some Things Some Good Teachers Taught Me

Recently I gathered with some high school alumni, now old enough to have a drink with their old theatre director, and one of our conversations inspired this blog.   In our reunion of 12 alumni, they all insisted that each of them was my favorite student.  One kid finally summed it up, “in your class, everyone feels like they’re your favorite.”  Wow! What a compliment.  So I thought I’d list attributes of good teachers. I don’t think a teacher has to be liked to be an effective teacher, but I do think good teachers share similar attributes.

  1. Reflects passion for the subject matter.  I hated math, but my high school teacher, Michael Fisher showed so much love for math that I recall his geometry class with fondness. By assigning some very creative projects, he made math fun for me. My journalism teacher, Drue Burt, inspired me to write.  She privately shared some of her poetry with me and we began to exchange writings. Seemed like she was always at school working on the newspaper or yearbook, not to mention grading English papers; she taught me how to write.  Drue kept us busy and engaged.  If you love what you do, it is not work; it’s a pleasure.
  2. Show the lesson; do not just lecture the lesson. Mike Fisher again, many of his lessons demonstrated geometry theorems via projects that demonstrated the idea.  There were several art based projects that showed me the properties he wanted us to learn.  I still carry a crude drafting design of a house I designed in his class.  Our Maestro textbook utilizes this technique of providing models for assignments.
  3. Have High Expectations. My University of Texas Voice Class teacher, Cathleen Conlin kicked me out of class once.  I was not prepared. I never forgot that lesson.  Just last month, I rejected a prompt book from one of my most loyal theatre students.  She was one of seven who submitted prompt books to hopefully be selected to direct a play in our Senior Directing Series next year. She came into my office and cried and argued that she knew all the details which I listed were missing in her submission. She argued that I knew her abilities.  I knew she knew the material, but I was grading her on a physical product, not what was in her head or on history.  The product was messy; she though that because she knew me, it would be enough…
  4. Let Students Know That It’s Ok to Make a Mistake. We learn from our mistakes.  I grew up on a ranch and broke much equipment.  My Dad once told me it would be cheaper to put me through college, than to keep me on the ranch.  But failure and to give-up was never an option for my Dad.  I leaned to remedy the problem.  There were always consequences for my mistakes, but that “hard love” makes sense now.  As an adult, I now welcome my failures and mistakes as an opportunity to grow, learn, and conquer issues that merely remind me how strong I can be.  My students now quote me, “Bring me a solution not a problem.”
  5. Learn From Students and Staff. Rod Caspers was in Graduate School when I was an undergrad.  He was one of the most creative people I had ever met.  I would sit in on his rehearsals and take advantage of any opportunity to work with him.  As great and confident as Rod was, he still listened to all he was working with.  Design a method for evaluation which allows for feedback and growth.  Most of my evaluations are long one-on-one debriefing oral conversations.  After every production I set appointments with every actor in the show.  It is an opportunity for me to communicate what did not work for me and compliment what did work.  It also allows the student to communicate the same to me.  This past year a student told me, “Please don’t require the chorus people to take a day off from rehearsal to do homework.  We can do homework in the lobby. I can do my homework at the theatre where I feel happy.  I won’t do it at home.”    I never would have known that if I had not listened.
  6. Be Humble; Be Kind, Be Patient. Smile. Laugh. Teaching is not easy.  Good teachers teach the entire student:  the mind, the body, and the soul.  Learn to laugh with the class; learn to laugh at yourself.  But set parameters, you are their teacher, not their best friend.  Treat them all equally so they can argue that they are each your favorite.

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