I’ve been teaching a kids’ playwriting workshop the past few weeks and yesterday my teaching partner couldn’t be there so I had the class all to myself, which is potentially terrifying, except that I’ve somehow been granted the seven most amazing children on the planet and they are funny and creative little genius angels who listen well and just really want to write plays. So even though the venue where we teach was overrun with noisy actors (they were holding auditions in another room) and also the ceiling was leaking and we ended up in a room that had a prop sword lying around, my kids were focused and well-behaved and one of them even suggested a class activity that went over so well that I am going to use it every single time I teach anything ever again. (It’s called “High/Low”, and it’s basically a group check-in – you go around the circle and everyone shares a high from their week and a low.)

I’ve also been working on the second draft of a play, which means I’ve had a headache for the past month. I’ve been frustrated and cranky and trying to force it out.

And yesterday in class, while everyone was scribbling away in their playwriting notebooks, 8-year-old R. looks up at me and says “I’m having so much fun writing this!”

So today I finally finished my damn second draft and then went and had an ice cream sundae. There’s more than one way to make writing fun, you know!

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Flipping out

September 8, 2010

Sometimes I like to put kids in the newspaper. For last week’s Popcorn Panel, I had a couple of pre-teen girls talk about a movie about a pre-teen girl. It was an experiment, but I think the results were pretty cute. Think of it as a trial run for my theatre criticism course for 11-year-olds (still in pipe dream mode, but hopefully to be a reality within the next year).

Playing catch-up

June 9, 2010

I’ve fallen way behind, haven’t I? Oops. Here are some things I meant to share over the past month:

Popcorn Panels:
The Trotsky was poorly paced, but charming nonetheless, and impressively unselfconscious about being Canadian (take a letter, One Fucking Terrible Week). I like that Jay Baruchel kid. He reminds me of my sister.

Sex and the City 2 is a blight on humanity. You should watch some Nicole Holofcener films instead.

Art

Old news. Banksy was in town last month. I found one of his creations around the corner from the bookstore where I used to work. See:

Banksy in TO

More art

This awesome photography/conceptual street art show is up at a little gallery around the corner. These Montreal artists stage scenes featuring people using potholes in different ways: sometimes silly (party girls cooling their champagne), sometimes charming (Alice chasing a white rabbit down a hole), sometimes creepy (a drowning person’s hand stick up out of a puddle while a Baywatch-esque lifeguard races over). If you’re in Toronto, you should head to Leslieville to check out these photos – they’re gorgeous, and a lot of fun.

Chicago

Cloudgate

I went to Chicago a couple of weeks ago. It was the best. I finally saw the NeoFuturists in action, ate deep-dish pizza (and wasn’t hungry again for 24 hours), saw a very proper production of Endgame at Steppenwolf Theatre , and drank a punchbowl of gin. It’s a great town and two days is nowhere near long enough.

Class is over

My artist-educator foundation course ended last week. My awesome project partner Andrea and I presented a lesson plan about arts criticism. We have lofty goals regarding raising the general level of discourse in society. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Last week in class we went for a walk and talked about our feelings. After we made collages that represented what type of learners we are.

It was that kind of a class.

Prepare for geekery: I am pretty much in love with lesson planning.

Now that we are learning practical stuff in my Artist-Educator class, like curriculum requirements, class is getting to be really interesting. This week was especially fun, because I was in an excellent group (we do a lot of group work, which is sometimes amazing, and sometimes annoying) and we made up a great media literacy lesson plan predicated on the game “2 Truths, 1 Lie” (if you went to theatre you probably played this game. If you didn’t, well, too bad you didn’t get a degree in lying like me). The curriculum itself is written in obtuse bureaucracy-speak, but it’s kind of fun to decode it and figure out how “describe how forms and styles of visual and media arts represent various messages and contexts in the past and present” can be translated into an engaging activity. (It’s not always easy. I don’t think the Ministry of Education wants learning to be fun.) After getting all depressed by Laura Penny’s diatribe about how levels of critical thinking and discourse are going down the toilet, I am particularly interested coming up with sneaky ways to teach kids how to think critically, like a media literacy ninja!

Creating a proper lesson plan is one of the big takeaway skills from this course – it’s one thing to come up with ideas about activities to do, but it’s even more important to figure out what order to do them in, how they prepare the students for what they’ll learn, how to develop their skills and confidence, etc. It’s a fairly intuitive process, but it’s not something I’ve ever broken down and thought about in terms of “preparation” and “development” and “application”, which is a helpful, organized way to create a lesson plan.

The other incredibly useful thing we’re starting to learn about now are “ages and stages”, that is, what kids are capable of at what ages, which is something I have only the vaguest inkling of from my own teaching experience, and a very important thing to keep in mind when creating a lesson plan. To personalize the information, we shared stories about our experiences at different ages, and it was a really nice way to get to know some of my classmates better.

So now we have to do independent projects in pairs, and getting our partners assigned was a bit of a nervewracking process: at the end of class last week, we each had to secretly write down the names of three people in the class we wanted to work with. It was terrifying, like speed dating, and you didn’t know if anyone would pick you and what if you got paired up with someone terrible and and and. But it worked out ok (for me, at least), because my partner is an incredibly talented writer whose work I have admired for a few years. (To be fair, we are the only two journalists in the class, so it’s not a crazy surprise that we’ve been paired up. But I am very pleased to be working with her.)

For next week, we have to read an excerpt from Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. I will let you know how many intelligences I have after I read it.

Bet you thought that disjointed last post was all the arts education blather I had in me today, didn’t you? Nope! I promised myself I’d keep and account of my classes week by week, and I didn’t really write anything about what we actually did this week.

The course is designed for artists who want to teach in schools, so there’s been a lot of stuff about school and teacher culture so far. This week, the two instructors re-enacted a teacher-artist planning meeting, which was both instructive and entertaining. (Their fake planning meeting went very smoothly, and I was hoping for a second example that would demonstrate a less amiable meeting – I wanted drama!) The one thing that struck me most was that Michelle, as the artist going into a classroom, asked the Andrea (as the teacher) what her kids had been doing recently in class, so that she could plan to incorporate things that the kids were already familiar with and interested in into her own lesson plan. I really love this type of integration, and it really makes sense to me.

After their demo, we broke into groups based on our various disciplines (there are writers, musicians, dancers, actors, painters, sculptors, and more in the class – it was hard for me to choose between “writing” and “theatre”, since there is so much overlap for me, but I joined the theatre group) for one useless exercise that led into a more useful exercise where we started planning a project that we could take into a classroom. This is my favourite stuff – I had a great time coming up a puppet- and playwriting-based project that could be incorporated into an elementary level curriculum.

For next week, we’re to think about how a planning meeting with a teacher might go for this project, which I think I will do by way of scripting a little scene. We’ve also got a list of “teaching tactics” that we’re supposed to think about incorporating into our project. The tactics themselves aren’t bad, but the cutesy names are a bit much, and there are a couple that are sort of pointless and needlessly complicated (“Placemat” and “Lighthouse”, for example – can we please just brainstorm like normal people instead of wasting paper and time seriously come on!) But the tactics for getting the group’s attention and winding things up are helpful.

A lot of things in my life have been pointing towards arts and literacy education – my job at Roseneath, the artist-educator foundation class I started last week, and this book by Laura Penny that I stole from work last week, and my obsession with TED Talks.

I’ve obviously always cared about arts and literacy (being somewhat – I hope – artistic and literate myself), but until a couple of years ago I only thought it was important in that vague abstract way that I think that organic meat is important. But two and a half years ago I started teaching playwriting to children (aged 8-13), and arts and literacy education became a much more tangible subject. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been figuring out this teaching thing as I’ve gone along – making things up, seeing what works, trying my best to listen hard to the students. For my trouble, I got an OAC grant and a bunch of heartwarming e-mails from happy parents and kids, so I guess I’ve been doing something right. But my reach is very limited, which is frustrating, and I teach a specialized group of kids whose parents already care enough about creativity and literacy to bring them to a playwriting workshop in the first place. Not that I feel this isn’t worthwhile, but I feel so daunted when I think about the public school system and the emphasis that’s placed on anything that is not art.

Laura Penny’s book, More Money than Brains, only made me feel even more daunted. The book is a great read if you want to get riled up about idiots and feel like you are smarter and better than everybody. Penny is a hilarious crank and her book is full of vitriol, skewering the way the North American value system has morphed into something shortsighted, individualistic, and ugly. Not all of the book deals with education, but the message comes down to education: as the humanities become ever more devalued (since that English degree won’t make you a living anymore), our society’s level of discourse will plunge ever downward to incoherence. Because the humanities teach us how to think and reason and create ideas. Some of the examples that Penny uses will make you want to cry (she talks a lot about the insane Christian right, who would be hilarious if they weren’t so influential). Ultimately, though, the book is frustrating because while it unmasks the flaws in the North American education system, it offers few ideas about how things can be changed on a personal level – all the changes that need to happen must come from the government, which is a daunting and gloomy prospect.

Here are a few TED Talks that I’ve found very inspiring lately, although they also make me feel daunted.

I’ve got a couple of things underway that I hope will make the prospect of contributing to arts education in Canada less daunting. This class, of course, is one of them, since I’m hoping it will make me more confident and employable in that sphere. Unfortunately, the class is still sort of focused on the theories behind arts education and why it’s important – I know it’s important, that’s why I’m here. The essays about how literacy will empower children are nice and true and I agree, but I already know that. What I want to learn is how better to teach the things I care about so other people will know too.

Back to school

April 3, 2010

This week I had my first class in Learning Through the Arts‘ Artist Educator Foundation Course, which is designed for artists who want to build up their classroom management skills, which is something I sorely need. The scariest part of teaching is facing a group of short young people. I’m confident that I have plenty of good things to teach them, I’m confident that I know how to make lessons fun, I’m just terrified of being outnumbered. And I’ve never, you know, been to teacher’s college, so I’ve got a few things to learn about teaching.

I think my instincts are pretty good, but I could stand to build up some teaching skills and confidence, so I’m really excited to be taking this class. The first class had a lot of typical first class business (man, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a class!) – learn everyone’s name, pair up, learn things about your partner and share them with the group, randomly get assigned a colour and play some convoluted version of musical chairs, watch a scene from the amazingly overwrought inspirational teacher movie Freedom Writers.

Seriously, though, the class is good. The instructors, Michelle and Andrea, have a calm air of authority – right off the top, Michelle was demonstrating her quiet method of getting a roomful of people to shut up and pay attention, and then she impressed us all by getting 90% of our names right after just one go-round. The intro games were fun because the class is such an interesting mix of people: writers, cartoonists, sculptors, painters, even a breakdancer. The average age is older than I expected, and I think I’m one of the younger people in the class.

The biggest challenge for me was not getting all snarky about Freedom Writers, which was shown to us in order to demonstrate how to create an atmosphere of trust, respect, and empowerment in a classroom of high-risk youth (aka violent gang members whose lives are saved because they start keeping diaries. IT’S ABOUT THE POWER OF WORDS DO YOU GET IT?!?). Hilary Swank is an idealistic young teacher whose students are wild illiterate gang members, except for the one white kid who looks like Zac Efron but isn’t (I looked it up). She wants to teach them about The Diary of Anne Frank and Romeo and Juliet but the snobby bureaucratic librarian Imelda Staunton won’t let her give copies of the books to her students because they are obviously savage gang members who will tear them up or sell them for smack or something. (I hear a good edition of Romeo and Juliet will get you at least a couple of grams if you know where to look.) Anyway, Hilary Swank complains to her boyfriend Patrick Dempsey that she works for racist jerks and then she buys her kids their own journals, wins their trust, and they play her masterpiece symphony at her retirement party and stand on chairs and recite poetry.

Seriously, though, we analysed the scene where she changes up her teaching methods, gently demonstrating to her students that even though they are in rival gangs, they aren’t so different, they’ve all lost people to gang violence, her class is a safe place to grieve, and they can write whatever they feel in the journals she’s giving them, and she won’t read them if they don’t want her to. So we talked about the importance of creating a classroom atmosphere of trust and respect.

The point is, cheesy overwrought inspirational teacher movies are the best, and this class is awesome.