I am sixteen years old. I smile at my teacher, Mr. Roma, as he tells us all about his favorite philosophers. I laugh at his jokes and write down his every word. Later tonight, I will write an essay that repeats his version of his apparent “heroes,” and I will receive my A. I do not challenge him because when other students challenge Mr. Roma, he rolls his eyes. The teachers call these students, “problem students,” and I am not one of those. After I leave class, I go to drama rehearsal. The director laughs and calls me a “funny ingénue.” He even has me model what “truthfulness” is to the cast of Annie. As I drive home, I stress about all of my commitments, but I remind myself that I must keep pleasing these folks in power because it will lead me to success.
It was not until I went to grad school that I learned I was trying to be perfect in what Paulo Freire described as the “banking system,” where teachers are the holders of knowledge and they fill the students with this knowledge. The students’ voices do not contribute to the learning process, just as I had experienced in some of my schooling and theatre practices. Freire also wrote about how the banking system perpetuates the “culture of silence” where critical awareness is not possible (this comes from his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Because I was try to please my teachers in order to advance, I did not generate my own awareness, ideas, and dialogue.
I felt frustrated. After I graduated from college with a BFA in acting, Theatre, which I loved so much for its encouragement of expression and collaboration, was doing the opposite! It made me feel competitive and isolated from others, and it often made me conform to the director’s ideas and the playwright’s words. I felt like I was perpetuating the very values that I had resented growing up, and I wanted to break this pattern and work in spaces where all people can express themselves.
Then I found teaching artistry. As a teaching artist, I felt thrill to facilitate curriculum, devise theatre, and develop strategies in which the young people’s ideas are integral to the work. The NYC community of passionate educators inspired me and challenged me to develop my practice.
Yet, my greatest struggle is with one of arts educations most used phrases… “Classroom Management.” When I first started teaching, I did not have rules. Rules seemed contradictory to the practice of encouraging young people to express themselves, and I was trying to be free and awesome! This lack of rules led to challenges with people talking over one another. Also, in any physical activity, there was risk of injury because I did not gently remind people to take care of themselves and each other.
Saying “If you can hear my voice clap once” until I was red in the face, I felt like I had no control. In these challenging moments, I became my previous teachers. In a way, I became Mr. Roma! In one of my first teaching jobs, I made the rule “Positivity” in an effort to get the students to all participate with “enthusiasm” and listen. As I reflect on this, I see that I was asking the young people to act in a way that I deemed worthy, perpetuating that banking system.
The moment that really changed my perception was when Jay, a young person in middle school, continually hit other students. “Keep your hand to yourself” I repeated. When he hit someone for the fourth time, I got so angry I asked my supervisor to come in and “help me.” Jay was removed from the classroom. I will never forget when Jay came to me crying afterwards, “They called my parents. Did you know they were going to do that? I was having a bad day and you didn’t even see what the other kids were doing to me.”
In that moment, I realized that I needed to completely change how I “manage” a classroom. In fact, I do not need to “manage” at all! I need to “Support”.
Tools I’ve learned through “Classroom Support” along the way…
Beginning a session
Create a community agreement with the young people!
At the beginning of each class, go over their expectations and ask if they want to change or add anything. For Pre-K, this can be done with frozen images and gestures instead of words.
Create and review a “call and response” that the young people have made together.
I find the most success when the call and response incorporates a physical response or an elongated sound cue that promotes unison vocalization (like a shhhh or mmmmm). In a class I facilitate, a young person create a call and response where I say, “Quiet on set” and the young people say “shhhhhh.”
Check in with the energy of the room before diving into the activities.
Starting sessions in a circle helps us “get in the room together.” Also, checking in with the question, “how is everyone?” gives an opportunity for people to express themselves before we start. To avoid putting someone on the spot, it can be helpful to have everyone create a frozen image of how they are feeling.
Supporting behaviors, learning styles, and abilities
If a young person needs additional support, finding time to check in with them away from the class avoids putting the spotlight on them and gives them the chance to say how they are feeling (which I should have done with Jay).
Ensuring that there is ALWAYS a support teacher in the classroom
There have been moments where I have been alone, and this is not allowed. As Teaching Artists, we must have a teacher in the room at all times. When this happens, I need to say something to my administration and make a change.
Creating multi-sensory session plans that use a variety of movement, props, songs, and/or a combination of small group and large group work supports a variety of learning styles and abilities
Encouraging participation, but never forcing it.
This can be hard when people then influence each other to sit out, but I find that it ultimately supports people to come in when they’re ready. If several young people sit out, I encourage them to observe class and sit apart. Often, they join the class.
The book How to Talk So Kids Can Learn really supported me when speaking with a young person who is struggling
In working with early childhood, Helen Wheelock, the director of the Early Learning Program at the Creative Arts Team, uses sounds & gestures and the phrase, “let’s all say that,” which has really supported me to engage young people
When giving directions, for example, Helen will have the whole class repeat the directions with a sound & gesture
Helen will say “let’s all say that” with interactive storytelling, using phrases from the book and phrases that young people suggest! This is engages everyone to participate.
For moments of “Chaos”
As Helen White (my professor at the CUNY MA Applied Theatre Program) often says, I need to remember that this work is chaotic! Chaos usually signifies engagement (even if it looks a little “loud” and “rowdy” to people outside)! Allowing for and embracing the chaos is important. This is a balancing act that I am still finding…
When it is hard to get young people’s attention, I find that singing and using character voices in moments of chaos has been SUPER helpful (and hilarious)
Side-coaching: reminding people to take care of themselves and each other
Routines & Language
Start and end class with a song, game, or ritual. Using language like “I’m going to invite you-” or “I’m going to challenge you-” can support people to try new activities and it avoids that “forcing” feeling (Helen White also taught me this)
Use a talking device for any discussion that acts as a “mic” for the person speaking. There is a specific method that the company Yo Re Mi uses that is amazing. They use the ball pictured below that gets passed around the circle. When a person gets the ball, they share their idea and expand the ball so that everyone breathes in, and then they close the ball and everyone exhales. This is MAGIC for people of all ages….
All this being said, I am still making discoveries! I was just teaching with an early childhood group, and I asked a young person what character she wanted to be. She stared at the ground, and I thought maybe she did not hear my question. After about 30 seconds, other students began to talk over her. I felt nervous and repeated my question. She raised her head and said, “I’m thinking. Please don’t rush me.” I apologized and thanked her for telling me. What an amazing reminder! She showed me that I had reverted back to my old schooling when teachers demanded answers at a fast pace, where that “culture of silence” existed because young people did not always have the support or the time to express how they felt. It is so important to create spaces that embrace discovery instead of demanding answers.
This is an ongoing, beautiful process of learning. So, now I turn to you.
What are YOUR tools and strategies as Teaching artists that you have developed to SUPPORT your classrooms? Answer on the TA Facebook group.
Meghan Grover is a Brooklyn-based, Ohio-born actor, director, and teaching artist with a passion for devising. She is currently getting her MA in Applied Theatre at CUNY. She is really excited to be a member of the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable's Teaching Artist Affairs Committee.