Thoughts on Teaching and Connecting and Change

By Alex La Torre

Posted on Friday, May 15, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. 

Starting a class now means clicking “start meeting” and then staring at my own face for a little while. There’s this moment in that silence that I can only compare to the sensation of being a kid and fearing that no one will show up to my birthday party.

I make sure my lighting is okay. I glance over at my windows to make sure they’re all the way shut so I don’t have to deal with unexpected background noise. My brilliant co-teachers log on and we chat the way we would before any class, I suppose: making sure the flow of our lesson plan still feels right, looking over the roster of students, etc.

Our very normal conversation makes me forget how different everything is for a few seconds. Of course, we also have to talk through the Zoom-version of our theatre game and wonder if it really will work on screen. I never thought I’d miss asking students to make a standing circle in the middle of the room so much. And then names start appearing in the waiting room. Another reminder of how so much has changed.

 

Things that aren’t the same:

  • I’m never really sure if I’ll see these students again. I don’t have the luxury of long-term curriculum planning and the knowledge that I’ll watch them grow through a whole semester or the full length of a class. Old models have gone out the window.
  • I can’t check in with students in the same way. I may notice someone seems distracted but there’s no discreet way of having a one-on-one conversation with them to see how they’re doing. I can’t use the chat function to connect with one student and continue to lead class for everyone at the same time – I am not that skilled a multi-tasker.
  • It takes an entirely new type of focus. Breakout rooms are cool. But I can’t stand in the middle of all the small groups and soft focus and go in and out of all of their conversations and ideas; hearing one group deciding they’re creating a hero with the “super power of silent farts that can paralyze a villain in their tracks,” another dreaming up a “magical gemstone that will grant their wishes.” Instead, I have to figure out whose mic is making that noise so I can mute them and keep an eye on the chat for questions.
  • I don’t know how to care for students in an individualized way when I’m staring at 20 faces on one screen. In those same breakout rooms, I can’t keep an eye on the student who has a hard time speaking up and pop into the group to make sure they feel safe. I can’t remind the idea person with one knowing glance to make sure they’re leaving space for other people’s thoughts.
  • I can’t casually assess how students interact with each other during drop off and pick up or transition moments. It feels impossible to get a feel for their comfort with each other in the same way. 
  • I can’t high five them. I can’t have a student come up and ask for a hug on the last day of class. I can’t take a moment to walk a student to their car and tell their parent or caregiver that they came up with some brilliant ideas in class that day.

 

Things that are the same:

  • I can look around the “room” and try to discern where my students are at. The information I receive is different, sure. But it’s there. How are they feeling? What does it mean to them to have a space in which they get to be creative? Is it an escape? Is it a release? Is it a way to get the sillies out? I can still meet them where they are to the best of my ability.
  • We can find common ground. Someone makes a Harry Potter reference (I adore that this has not changed since my own childhood), everyone laughs, they ask to know what house I’m in. (Hufflepuff, and proud of it.) 
  • Students support each other. If one student struggles with their lines as they adjust to Shakespearian language, then another chimes in with words of encouragement. 
  • We can create a true ensemble. One that is committed to working together and cheering on each member. A kid tries out a funny accent they’ve created for a character. The Zoom room gets filled with thumbs up and applause emojis, some kids unmute themselves so we can hear their laughter. It’s different, sure. But it’s also the same. It’s kids showing up for each other in whatever way they can. 
  • It gets messy. Sometimes you try out a new warm up or game and it’s a dud. I still invite kids into the process, “Listen, they can’t all be winners! Thank you for trying that experiment with me.”
  • There’s still emails from parents. They still include both heartwarming thank yous for the class and the more banal questions about registration and can my kid have more lines in the next class and so on. 
  • We still reflect. I still linger at the end of classes to check in with my fellow teaching artists. How did that feel for you? Should we try something different next time? Did so-and-so seem quieter to you today?
  • Personal expression shines. There is still seemingly always a student rocking something with a unicorn on it. Or a cat ear headband. Now there’s the bonus of seeing that they’ve got a matching rainbow bedspread or an actual pet cat. They are the coolest kiddos in my eyes.
  • We make art. There’s still characters to be created, stories to be told, and laughter to be had.

 

I miss so much. My heart physically aches for all the things that have changed. It is a terrible lump in my throat, welling up of feelings that doesn’t seem to go away no matter what I do.

But I see names fill up the waiting room. I look at my co-teachers faces, we take a deep breath together. I hit “admit all.”

 

*****

Alex La Torre is a bilingual teaching artist, arts administrator, and stage manager. Her various hats have allowed her to teach, create, and supervise programs at McCarter Theatre Center and throughout a variety of school districts in central New Jersey, working with students of all ages. She holds her BA in Secondary Education, English, and Educational Theatre from Boston College.

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