Sunday, January 19, 2014

My journey from private studio instructor to public magnet school teacher

In 1993, ten magnet schools were created in my city.  Federal funds were used to set them up.  There were a variety of magnets:  science and tech, math and applied arts, academies where students had to wear uniforms (shudder), a Montessori school, and a visual & performing arts school.  I found an ad in the classifieds announcing a search for "community arts specialists" to teach theatre and dance at this new magnet arts school, grades 4 - 8.

At the time, I had been teaching acting at a local performing arts studio for a number of years. The studio offered various dance classes, piano and voice training as well as acting.  I was the sole acting teacher, and taught classes ages 3 to adult.  I was synthesizing and applying everything I had learned about acting during my years away from Akron, especially the physical training work I'd learned at Earth Onion Women's Theatre in Washington DC and the Leonard Pitt School of Mask & Mime in Berkeley, CA.  When current professional responsibilities overwhelm me, I often think of those glorious studio days when I could teach without any interference from administrators, politicians and educrats. In those days, I was free to design and implement each course, focusing on the needs of each individual so that each could develop and grow at her/his own unique pace. 

I also had rich experiences teaching creative drama/theatre with the elderly, leading a senior citizen's theatre company as well as teaching drama classes for every senior citizen's community club around the city.  I spent two summers working at a CYO summer camp for students with special needs,developing ways to involve every kid in camp, creating radio dramas for the blind students who loved using their voices to act for their peers as well as improvised movement to music for kids in wheelchairs paired up with kids who were ambulatory.

So when I went to interview for the job of community arts specialist, I spoke with complete confidence, stating at the top of the interview that I was the best acting teacher in town, then showing them my portfolio.  I brought along some of the masks that I had made over the years, and I think those sealed the deal.  I was hired.  By the way, the title of my job category meant that certification by the state was not necessary and that I'd be paid hourly.  I was not in the teacher's union and I had no health benefits.

Since this was a brand new school with a brand new population and teaching staff, that first year was one of the most challenging yet invigorating years in the lives of everyone involved.  Our mission was to not only teach the arts, but also integrate arts and academics in every classroom -- art teachers would integrate academics in their lessons and academic teachers would integrate the arts in their classrooms.  All of this meant massive professional development. And we dove right into it!  This was our mission -- we were hired to make this notion of enhanced learning using the arts to inspire students who had talent for one or more of the arts.  That first year interested students went through an audition process but were selected by lottery.  By the second year we were holding auditions for students to get into the school.  The state education department granted us that authority.

In retrospect, I do believe that the magnet schools movement in the early 90s was a harbinger of charter schools to come.  Here is a fascinating history of the magnet school movement in the United States.  Our school was and still is a public magnet school.  However, sometimes I think we'd be better off going charter -- more money from the government and less interference!

Next up -- developing my own curriculum and standards.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Everybody needs an Education

There are so many great education blogs going on all over the place.  Anthony Cody, Valerie Strauss, Mark Naison, the Jersey Jazzman and more -- I add to the list at right whenever I am moved to action or struck by new research, or find myself connected to another teacher's daily experience.  I am so grateful for the ever expanding education blog world uniting us all in resistance to the forces of corporate greed and domination.

I want to write here more regularly and let my own experiences find their voice in the greater picture of the push to privatize education.  But first, I must come clean on my own philosophies of education that grew out of a unique family life and my own anti-authoritarian leanings that began in high school during the US involvement in Viet Nam.

My parents were passionate supporters of A S Neill, whose book Summerhill described life at a radical boarding school in England where students didn't have to learn if they didn't want to and the place was run on democratic principles, with school meetings where staff and students each had a vote in decision making.  Our family modeled itself on those democratic principles.  This was quite a unique way to grow up in 1950s rural Republican Granger, Ohio.  My parents were the only Democrats in the precinct and I can't imagine there were any more left-wing in the entire county! 

I was the only one of the three kids in our family to go through K - 16 straight through.  My youngest brother went to several different "free" schools, including one started in Akron by a group of parents including my folks.  But I was a good student all the way through the regular ranks of rural all white public schooling.  The biggest diversity would be along religious lines of Protestant vs Catholic with maybe a couple of Jewish families as the minority population.

I liked reading, writing, science, social studies, drama and art from elementary school through college.  I hated math but I loved the cut out colorful felt ducks and rabbits on the felt board used to teach basic addition and subtraction.  In second grade, I attempted to avoid math by turning in blank sheets without a name on them when math homework was collected.  That tactic did not last very long. 

In fourth grade, I appeared on stage for the first time in a play.  I was First Mother in the chorus of Rip Van Winkle, a children's operetta.   I remember being in the cafeteria prior to the performance and looking around with great wonder and delight at my friends now magically transformed into dwarfs with beards and townfolk dressed in pre-Revolutionary war costume.

 In 5th grade, we had a teacher who liked to put us in groups to collaborate upon a variety of tasks.  This was revolutionary to me at that time.  The teacher, Miss Lyle, was young and energetic.  And she earned my undying devotion for putting us into groups to write, rehearse and perform a play based upon a historic event. I wrote and directed a play based upon a youth historic fiction book I had just read about Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile.  I made the fatal novice mistake of casting the most beautiful girl in the group as Cleopatra.  She could not remember her lines and our performance was a disaster.  It was one of the best learning experiences from elementary school.

I ended 6th grade with an F in math for the final 9 weeks.  Our teacher had vanished without explanation, whispers went around that he'd been removed from the classroom for inappropriate behavior.  We had a long term substitute and somehow for me paying attention to math got lost in the drama of all that was going on.
In middle school, I continued to explore various interests, reading a whole lot, drawing and sculpting with clay.  I began to experiment with group pranks for April Fools Day.  I also got into Shakespeare big time, going with my family to see so many memorable productions at the Lakewood Shakespeare Festival.  I was in a Christmas Play, but didn't get the lead angel -- that went to the girl who would become the high school valedictorian.  I directed my own adaptation of the last act in Hamlet in 8th grade.  Talked my English teacher into letting me cast it and rehearse it during lunch recess in an empty classroom.  We got to perform it for all the other English classes!   Clearly, directing was going to be a part of what I do on a regular basis.

High school could be an entire blog post by itself -- or not, depending upon what sort of a mood I am in.  High school was not a good time for me as I really didn't fit into the structure of it -- the great sorting into societal roles.  Suffice it to say at this time -- I continued to draw, write, sculpt, act and did well in English, Science, History, Latin and German.  Geometry was fun but Algebra was a misery.  I refused to take Algebra 2 and Calculus, signing up for Journalism and Typing instead, two classes that have served me well over my life time.

I must say that college was my best educational experience!  I started my freshman year majoring in visual art and supporting the Black United Students take over of Buchtel Hall, and ended that first year as a theatre major, camped out on Jackson field.  The campus was closed down and hundreds of students put up tents on the athletic field, camping out and mourning the deaths of students on the campus of Kent State University, some twenty minutes away from the University of Akron.  Those were heady days to be on a campus anywhere in the US. 

I am still very inclined toward radical philosophies of education.  I never set out to be a regular teacher in a public school.  I did find out quite early on while in college, that I enjoyed working with young actors and began teaching creative dramatics at summer camps at the Akron Urban League.  I've been doing similar work ever since, and getting better at it along the way!

That's the context, something Common Core doesn't want your child to be studying.  No context, nothing but the facts.  More will be forthcoming on how I developed my drama practices over time and how I use them today and how I expect they will be changed if the education reform madness continues.