I have been a teaching artist for many years—long before the profession had this name.
I work with students and teachers in all grade levels integrating drama with oral language development and reading comprehension skills and like all teaching artists try to stay abreast of educational shifts and trends so that my work can be relevant and meaningful to students and to teachers. I have written two books on drama and the classroom and one book on integrating drama with reading comprehension skills.
After 35 years of performing, directing, presenting, writing, and teaching, I am still amazed by the joy and passion I still find daily in my work. When a student tracked as “low ability” unexpectedly utters a jewel of dialogue during a drama that demonstrates the student not only understands the text explicitly but implicitly I still often get the feeling that I had better sit down quickly or I may fall down. When a teacher after a professional development workshop or after observing a demonstration lesson looks at me in amazement and says, “This is the way I know I can reach my students.” I again feel so lucky to be able to do this-- amorphous, hard to define, and difficult to quantify-- work.
Often I work in urban schools with students who daily feel the crushing force of poverty and uncertainty about the very basics in life (as defined by Maslow)—food, shelter, safety, and loving care.
Often these students come to school tired, hungry and sometimes even at age 4--depressed. Yet their teachers are under great pressure for these students to perform at the same academic level as students who come from home environments where they do not ask the questions --“Will there be food to eat today? Will there be a place for me to sleep tonight? Will the people I love come home today and be alive in the morning?”
What stuns me and often shocks teachers as well-- is that often through drama these profound socio-economic differences do not seem to be a factor. If the story tugs at students hearts and minds and has relevance to their lives—all students can create work that is deep, thoughtful, and demonstrates what Common Core describes as a “close reading” of a text.
I remember one teacher, who I will refer to as Mr. Baker. He was a tall man who I am sure in his youth was an athlete as his room was completely decorated in a sports theme and his desktop was filled with links to sports related information and trivia.
Mr. Baker’s third grade was a tough group and I worked with them right after lunch. The transition from lunch was difficult and often they were late coming back to class because of some behavior issue in the lunch room or in the hallway.
We were working with the story, Polar Bear Son by Lydia Dabcovich—a beautiful Inuit tale about a lonely woman in the Arctic who raises an abandoned polar bear cub as her son. The bear becomes a great hunter—too great. The hunters of the tribe become jealous and force the woman to either release the bear or threaten to kill it. It is an emotional story about loneliness, love, loss, and living with injustice.
In the drama the students played the hunters declaring their anger toward the bear and stating their ultimatum. They also played the old woman begging for her “son’s” life and they portrayed the community saying their heartfelt farewells to their friend, the bear. The students were serious and focused. Their dialogue was rich and reflected their deep understanding of the text.
When we finished the drama we analyzed our work:
- How well did we use our acting tools and skills? What do we want to improve upon?
- Why did the author write this story? What message does this story tell us that has importance in our own lives?
Mr. Baker stood in the doorway of the classroom observing the lesson intently, his head just missing the top of the frame. When I glanced up at him tears were brimming in his eyes. He looked at them with such love and in a quivering voice said, “This is the kind of work I know you can do. I know you are capable of this. Now how can I get you to do this kind of thinking every day? ”
I ask myself often what is it the arts give our students and the answer I come back to over and over again is: Hope.
In every art form teaching artists around the country are opening doors for students to: create, express feelings, find new ways to think, allow thoughts and feelings to be heard and valued.
Teaching artists help students feel nourished and nurtured and feel hopeful that there is something and someone out there that hears their unique voice and values it.
I have a letter posted on my bulletin board near my desk that a third grade student gave me when I left her class. The last line of the letter says…
“Thank you Ms. Kelner…you taught me to show my emotions and let them fly free.”
For all of those reasons, I guess I will just keep at it until I simply can’t walk those hallways anymore. I may be the first teaching artist to die with my boots on.