Sunday, August 21, 2016

Back to School Version 8.0

Any teacher knows that the eve before the first day of a new school year can induce some anxiety and mild depression that the summer is officially over. Tomorrow, there will be familiar and unfamiliar faces of kids waiting for you at your classroom and expecting you to be completely present for them for the next nine months. Self-care takes a backseat to lesson plans and putting out daily fires becomes more common than finishing a good book outside on the patio or getting an hour extra of sleep.

However, it’s especially important on this day every year to remind ourselves that we are making a choice to head back into those unforgiving hallways. We choose to because we care so deeply about the easy and tough relationships we have the possibility of building with students who need caring adults in their lives. We choose to come back because of the moments sprinkled throughout the year when they make us so inevitably proud of the growth they have made in their understandings of themselves as meaningful humans in the world. We choose to come back because we know that even on the worst of days, that we are making a difference, and that is important to remember.

So as long as we are making this choice day in and day out, might as well make it one of the best choices we have made and are making, right? One book I did complete this summer was “Better than Before” by Gretchen Rubin, (, which is an account of the massive effect that creating healthy and appropriate habits can be to improving one’s overall happiness and effectiveness in life. And so, as an experiment in reinvigorating this career I have chosen for an 8th year, I have decided to commit to doing a few things differently and reflecting on those habits and how they are impacting my attitude about teaching.  Here are the three commitments I am making for this school year:

  1. Reflection. Judd and I sat down and created a calendar (something I love, more on that later…) on our own commitment to blogging this school year and sharing all of our up’s and down’s and ideas and happenings in the lives of two teachers.
  2. Focus on the things I can control. This is tough! In my teacher training through Teach for America, this idea was highly stressed to us before we dove into the world of education. Unfortunately through the last seven years, I have noticed that I have become jaded about the education system in a lot of ways, and have forgotten this piece. It’s  important!
  3. Have fun! It’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Being authentic to who I am in the classroom, which is someone who likes to have fun, and teaches theatre because of the joy it provides to all who are involved as participants and witnesses.

So here’s to another new school year, a flavor that is more focused on the CHOICE to make it a great year.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Voice and Auditioning

I like to cover audition techniques and good vocal use in the first few weeks of school because it aligns with the school play auditions. My hope is that by doing mock auditions in my class, the students who don't normally consider auditioning might feel empowered to sign up.

After taking an amazing three day class at UNC this summer from Ms. Shelly Gaza, I had a lot of new knowledge on voice to share with my students this year- especially in the areas of the anatomy of the vocal chords and on good vocal hygiene and health. I showed this Google Presentation about the Voice & Auditioning over the course of two class periods and also had the students do a series of different vocal exercises and a bit of workshopping with Shakespeare's sonnet #29.

I also got a little help from a current opera singer friend/former choirmate Daina Fischer, who teaches voice. Because I work at an International Studies school, I thought it would be relevant and interesting to show a short video of Mongolian Throat Singing just as a fun and interesting example of what we can do with our voices, and also the video of the four voices singing with a camera on their vocal cords. Really interesting stuff!

Some wonderful resources for vocal pedagogy, exercises and sequences can be found in "Freeing the Natural Voice" by Kristin Linklater and "The Complete Voice and Speech Workout" by Janet Rodgers. Some of my favorite are these tongue twisters:

"Cinnamon, Linoleum, Aluminum" (repeat 3 times fast!)
"How many boards can the Mongols hoard, if the Mongol hordes got bored?"
"Pleasant Valley Pheasant Pluckers" (be careful with that one!)

The bottom line of this lesson for my students is to not get too hung up on mastering the technical part of speaking. While it is important and will help you to be successful in auditioning and competitive events, it is much more crucial to become comfortable and free with the voice that you have!

What do other theatre educators out there use to teach voice and auditioning skills?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thematic Teaching/Storytelling

'Twas the night before the first day of school, and all through the house... Teachers brains were so anxious and full, they'd never even notice the presence of a mouse.

I tried! This is the sixth eve of the first day of school, and entering this year I have decided on a true theme I would like to focus on with all of my classes.
Ideally, every year would have some type of theme to follow through all the lessons and performances you do with students. I think this helps focus your own ideas for curriculum and helps you answer the question of what is important to cover and what should you not worry too much about. Maybe not intentionally I have had my own themes...
Year 1: Survival (no, seriously like my own survival)
Year 2: Tough Love
Year 3: Improvisation (students and myself making things up as we go!)
Year 4: Play
Year 5: Build the plane as I'm flying it/Work Ethic

and now we are here at Year 6: Tell Your Story

I am designing a Storytelling Unit, but don't get too excited, it is still in the works. But I found two amazing clips that I am going to include:

The WhiteBoard History of Storytelling (which has a bit of a tilt to digital storytelling/movie making, which is totally cool) 

And this cool TED presentation by the PigPen Theatre Company out of Carnegie Melon

Other amazing theatre companies that I think tell stories quite well are Buntport Theater Company and Ten Thousand Things. Both do original work based on existing stories, or present well-known stories in very minimalistic ways to get to the truth of the story, for audiences that don't have access to theatre. 

I am planning to roll out the storytelling unit in a few weeks, after we do basic getting to know you activities, and then a unit on monologues/voice. But I would ideally really like the students to create something original, generated from stories that they have of their own, or stories that are important to them. 

How have you taught storytelling? What resources do you have to share? How can you get students to this total, creative take over, where they are the drivers in their own story of themselves? I think young people are so often silenced today, it is our job to help them develop their voices and see to it that their voices are presented thoughtfully, creatively and authentically. 

Stay tuned for more adventures in storytelling... 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Personal Principles for a New School Year

It's time to go back to school! It's been a week of meetings and planning time, and I can't wait to begin teaching for my 6th year, 4th as a Theatre Educator.

At a professional development this week, I read an article this week from Language Magazine called "Scaffolding Success" an Interview with Aida Walqui that expressed this teacher's desire to have a creed, philosophy or personal principles which guide their teacher. Whether they are principles spelled out by other educators, ed philosophers or even yourself, to have a guidelines for yourself to "walk the walk WHILE talking the talk" is so important to practice and model for students. I particularly liked these quotes-

 "There is nothing more practical than good theory" and "Theories help us describe and understand what we do, they can help us establish solid principles and practices and they give us a sense of strength, focus and direction. In accomplished teaching, theory and practice are inseparable."

While we spend time as educators studying theory and discussing it, how often do we consciously practice good theory, in its essence? Do we model to our students the type of people we'd like them to become or do we too often allow the stress that comes with the job overwhelm the way we present ourselves to our students (who are always watching us, by the way!)?

I've had these two signs up in my office the last year, and I've carried the framed one around with me since I first started teaching, thanks to my mom, just as little decorative pieces that would maybe catch my eye once in a blue moon and inspire me to change my attitude. But this year, I would really like to practice these theories, even if they are not deeply academic or even based in best educational practice. But I like the picture of the teacher that these paint, and I'd like to see myself as this teacher on a more regular basis.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Asian Shadow Puppetry

A few friends of mine tease me about my affinity for shadow puppetry. It probably stems from my short stint working at Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis, and the imagination of Michael Sommers and my other friends who performed there. But ever since I started my own career as a Drama teacher, I have found time in the year to incorporate teaching shadow puppetry. I have seen kindergarteners all the way to high school students design, develop and execute some very imaginative stories through the use of simple items like an old box, a flash light and cut out silhouettes.

At the end of the year, we as teachers scrounge for last minute lesson plans and projects that will fill up the remaining time of the school year sufficiently to keep students interested, but busy and calm! I got my 7th grade students started last week on the shadow puppetry project, but before I did, I showed them two examples of other cultures that have strong traditions of shadow puppetry in their storytelling.

Indian Shadow Puppetry
Chinese Shadow Puppetry

I then asked the students, "Why does this matter? What would be lost if no one preserved these stories and continued to performed shadow puppetry in other countries?" and of course, one student replied, 'it wouldn't matter.It's just for fun." And I let that sit for a few seconds until finally, and fortunately, one of my less snarky students replied, "because it is a big part of their culture!"  We then went on to have a short, but meaningful discussion about the craft and skill of performance that has been passed down through generations, how live performance strengthens us as sociable and courageous humans, and how the stories that were told before our smartphones need a way to be continued to be shared to help cultures survive and thrive. The outcome of making these connections, I believe, was a greater appreciation and understanding of why THEATER matters, and what the loss of performance would cost us as humanity.

I point out this lesson plan with 1 1/2 instructional days left of the year as evidence of theater being relevant in an international studies school. This argument has been a point of contention since I started my job this year, but an argument I have been hell-bent on proving is important! At a school that values language and the celebration and recognition of global perspectives, to leave out the arts would be to leave out an integral part of what those global cultures are made up of. Art is a universal language, therefore by providing it at this school for international studies, we are offering yet another language, which students may master and use to express themselves and communicate their ideas about the world they live in.

Luckily for me, throughout a series of stressful weeks and months with positions on the line and programs in contention, I made this argument this year at my school strong, and loud and clear. It has also helped led me to a greater mission of continuing to prove theater and drama's validity in not only all schools as an important piece of child development and learning, but specifically in a school with an international studies focus and mission.

So here's to a summer full of more investigation into teaching global theater, which will most definitely be inclusive of shadow puppetry, much to my friends' amusement.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Teaching Improv Refresher

Was needing some more inspiration to teach improv to 7th graders today and I came across this awesome list from Second City.

Additionally, this great TED Talk:

As a sort of Second City alum, I love his 7 rules of Improv that he also connects to life! 

1. Play
2. Let Yourself Fail
3. Listen
4. Say Yes
5. Say And
6. Play the Game
7. Relax and Have Fun

Finally, and I always share this with my kids, this quote from Stephen Colbert: 

“Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.”
- Stephen Colbert in a commencement address 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Antigone Project

Next week I am beginning my thesis project with my students. We are going to read and study Sophocles' "Antigone" and then create our own adaptation of the play, highlighting our own themes and ideas about the underdog, about civil war, about courage and justice.

I came across the National Theatre's 2012 version and a bunch of awesome videos teaching about the play. These videos really sell a brilliant adaptation that I am really attracted to as a teacher, director, actor.

I want to know what else is out there though. I am afraid a lot of times as a teacher that what we show or speak to our students about is very biased based on our own taste and preferences. What other adaptations or sources for teaching "Antigone" do you know about out there in the drama world?