Wednesday, January 25, 2012

People most disappointed in their education may be the best teachers.

            I'm re-reading Keith Johnstone's book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. I have been acquainted with that book since my first year in college. I was taking a class called "practical skills" taught by Libby Worth. The class was all about theater games - how to play them, understand how they enrich us as actors, and, eventually, how to teach them to others. Keith Johnstone's book, along with Augusto Boal's Games for actors and non-actors were the two references we used throughout the course.
            Playing and teaching theater games has been a big part of my life since that "practical skills" class. When I lived in France, I tried to apply what I had learned to teach English to two little girls. My efforts met with moderate success. Then, I became an apprentice at Touchstone Theatre, in Pennsylvania, and was immersed in theater workshops for children and teenagers where we played a lot of different games, all in an effort to establish kinesthetic learning, i.e "learning by doing". And now, I'm a French teacher in a nearby college, trying to get my students to speak in French and to use the language as a communication tool. All of these teaching moments have made me realize that I care about transmitting skills and knowledge to people, even when the students appear not to be ready or willing to learn. Of course, I see how a group of attentive and on-task students makes the teacher's life a lot easier. But teaching becomes truly creative when you have to find  ways to get through to the students, when they are being challenged and when they end up responding positively by learning something new for themselves.
               My  inexperience teaching makes me sometimes underestimate my responsibility as the leader of the group or overestimate it, at times. It's hard for me to know how much my students need to do for themselves, and how much I need to give for them to be able to learn. Keith Johnstone puts great emphasis on group dynamics and very clearly states that it's the teacher's responsibility to establish a cohesive group:

"There seems no doubt that a group can make or break its members, and that it's more powerful than the individuals in it. A great group can propel its members forward so that they achieve amazing things. Many teachers don't seem to think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all. If they're working with a destructive, bored group, they just blame the students for being "dull", or uninterested. It's essential for the teacher to blame himself if the group aren't in a good state." (Johnstone, Impro:Improvisation and the Theatre, Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1979, p.29)

            This makes sense. And when thinking back on the group dynamics that are being established in my classroom, I see where improvements are needed. The students create a spatial pattern on the first day of class. They choose implicit partners - they sit next to someone - and are very reluctant to change, to move. As the leader, I have the option and the authority to change those patterns to allow greater participation and interaction. I need to make a conscious effort, as the teacher, to fight the accepted consensus and to render the group truly dynamic, making all students comfortable working with each other.
             Theater and language acquisition are not that far apart, it seems, when it comes to teaching styles. Both are, after all, about communicating.  In order for the communication to happen in theater and in a foreign language, trust has to be established. That's why, once the trust has been established,  the games offered by Johnstone can be tweaked to fit a language class. And Johnstone gives a lot of advice on building trust in a classroom, too. It turns out that he was deeply scarred by his education - feeling like  his creativity and intuitive ability to learn decreased as he was being educated. As a child at school, he stopped being pliable and submissive but only cooperated when he liked the teacher :

"... but gradually I realised that I wouldn't work for people I didn't like. [...] When I liked a particular teacher and won a prize, the head would say: 'Johnstone is taking this prize away from the boys who deserve it!' If you've been bottom of the class for years it gives you a different perspective: I was friends with boys who were failures and nothing would induce me to write them off as 'useless' or 'uneducable'. My 'failure' was a survival tactic, and without it I would probably never have worked my way out of the trap that my education had set for me. I would have ended up with a lot more of my consciousness blocked off from me than now." (Johnstone, op.cit, p.21).

            Because Johnstone knows first-hand that students can block their learning because they don't trust, he has spent his career figuring out ways to break the implied barriers between teacher and pupil in order for the learning to truly happen (in his case, in the field of theater). As the teacher, believing that students can learn is probably the first and most important step. It sounds obvious but how much do we, as educators, truly believe this? Do we really believe that everyone can learn? Because if we do, the question is no longer "can this student understand what I'm teaching" but "how can I allow this student to understand what I'm trying to communicate?"
          As I go along, I realize that structured activities tend to work really well when they are structured just enough for the students to understand what is expected of them, but also making the activity loose enough for the students to bring something to the table. My preparation for classes is changing - switching focus. There are key elements that I need to teach. But instead of focusing on teaching those specific elements in a spoon-feeding way, I try to create a structure in which the students will be using the language element I want them to learn. So I end up becoming a 'facilitator' rather than a 'teacher'. And that suits me a lot better, actually. I tend to thrive in collaborative environments and less in top-to-bottom situations. And, from my observations, the students seem to have learned expressions and French structures more permanently when they were initially used in a playful, non-threatening context. Of course, French grammar is a beast of rules and exceptions and complications. So, there is, inevitably, some drilling to do. But even the drilling can be creative when it becomes a partner game and when the trust in the group reigns.
      I'll be failing a lot as an educator, I'm sure. But the pedagogy Johnstone advocates is all about games and playfulness from which learning and art can fully develop. His pragmatic wisdom gives me something to strive for.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Interview with Bill George, theater artist.

I sat down with Bill to interview him at his house in Nazareth, PA. The main room has a large wooden table at its center, and the fire was burning next door. Lovely smell, and the sound of crackling wood (which you can faintly hear in the recording).
Bill has been making theater for quite a while - since the 70's, he's been accounted for by the profession. He met some influential mentors along the way while forging his own, very specific path. He co-founded a theater, Touchstone Theatre, in Bethlehem, PA of which he is currently an Ensemble Member. He also runs an artistic retreat at Little Pond in Nazareth, PA, and produces his own shows.
If you've ever seen him on stage or been his student in a workshop situation, you know that Bill is a performer, and a constant creator of original work. He's a seminal figure in the artistic scene of the Lehigh Valley and beyond. I feel privileged to have been Bill's student at Touchstone when I was an apprentice there, and I'm so glad that we were able to have such a great discussion about his career.

Art Echo is being born

This is it. The Art Echo blog is being born. It shall be a place for reflections on the performing arts as well as other art forms and for interviews with fellow artists.

My focus has always been theater - not quite sure why, but that's the way it is. At first, I was charmed by the social aspect of putting on a play: we're all in it together, and we have a common goal. As I pursued my interest in the performing arts, I realized that I got an added kick when watching and making original work. The stage as a laboratory for anything that involves bodies and voices, for any story that needs to be told.
But a good piece of theater, like any essential piece of art, is made of the fabric of life and is fueled by our experiences. So will this blog - fueled by the wise words of others before us, and those of our contemporaries in order to better understand the stuff we are made of.

 In addition to written posts, I will be uploading some spoken interviews with artists. I have been living in the Lehigh Valley for 2 years + now, and I have been fortunate to meet some inspiring people along the way with fascinating lives and stories. Forgive me for the poor audio quality of the first few podcasts - I have been learning as I go along. But I dare think that the content of the interviews will make it worth your while to take a listen, and I promise to make the listening experience more enjoyable with each new podcast.

I hope that you'll enjoy this blog, and feel free to comment and join the discussion any time!