Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Proud of Your Boy

What I find most important is creating an environment in which students can feel safe and secure enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable.

That's a quote from my dear Meg's blog, and it is a lovely illustration of the techniques I learned at Camp Shakespeare. It's the reason my students and I check in each class. (I think most of you know about "check in" since you either experienced it yourself, or you've heard me describe/rave about it.) I'm a big fan of check in, but even I question it sometimes. I wonder if it's worth the time and the effort it takes to encourage the students who are oh-so-reluctant and complain.
Yes. Yes, it is totally worth the time.

The day after Romeo and Juliet, I asked my students to do the following for check in:
"Give kudos to anyone who deserves props for what they did yesterday. Then give some props to yourself for something you did in the show."

I braced myself for the arguing and the reluctance. But before the last words had left my mouth, the toughest kid in the class jumped in with "I want to go first!"

And he did. He complimented four of his classmates, then congratulated himself on being there, on showing up with his lines memorized.

He passed it to his neighbor. And one by one, the students named each other and named what they had done for their show. I was ready to balance the compliments, to rescue the students who might get left out in the kudos; but there was no need - the kids did it for themselves. Every student was genuinely recognized and validated.

I was so much more proud of them for that than for the show they had created.

The show was good. It was much more farce than tragedy, but the audience loved it and the kids took risks and succeeded.

Somewhere along the way (like when I found out I was going to be directing high schoolers. As in not-middle-schoolers), I decided that the risks the students should take would lead to art, to theatre at it's purest, to beauty and tragedy and Shakespeare as I've always wanted to create.

In other words, I wanted to my students to take the risks I wanted to take, rather than the ones they needed to take.
Which is a big part of my frustration the last few weeks. The show was nothing like I had imagined, and I felt like a failure as a director.

But then. After the morning show, one of the teachers who came to see it sat down to talk after school. She told me the backstory - the details of my students that I had only guessed vaguely at. Here's a rough list of situations I learned about my 14 actors:

- Asperberger's (diagnosed)
- Asperberger's (undiagnosed)
- Just moved to MT a few months ago so the family of 12 could get off welfare
- Parents moved away and left kid to live on own
- Lived on streets when under 5 years old
- Lived on streets for a few weeks this summer
- Constant runaway, including three times in the two weeks prior to the show
- Works at local restaurant to support his family
- Eating disorder (diagnosed)
- Eating disorder (suspected by school admin, but not confirmed)
- 16 office referrals so far this year (that's one kid, not all combined)
- Literally did not speak a word to anyone for entire 8th grade year. That was two years ago.
- Never acted before. Never spoken in public before. Terrified of being on stage.
- Flunked every single class last year.
- Flunked every single class last year.
- Flunked every single class last year.
- Flunked every single class last year.

"They set you up," my teacher-friend said as she wrapped up the narrative of my kids' histories. "They set you up, giving you those kids all together in this class, and you made a miracle happen this morning."

And I suddenly let go of all of my directorial dreams and remembered my dreams as their theater teacher. I wanted my students to take risks, to feel safe, to be successful, to create a play that they are proud of, and I want them to enjoy theater.

My students met every single one of those goals in exactly the way that was right for each of them. And the audience knew it just as well as I did, and they loved the show, too. By that evening, I had the right perspective and the right attitude that time. When Actor F showed up at call time, I knew he had just taken the biggest risk of all, and I cheered his arrival with total joy.

And when I asked them to check in the second day after the show by sharing what they planned to work on for the next show, their goals were the goals of actors.

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