There’s a fantastic article in this week’s Stranger (a free newspaper here in Seattle) called “Make Art Anyway.” It focuses on MusicianCorps, a national program that is, in Seattle, being sheltered by the Arts Corps (which is based on Kennedy’s Peace Corps, while MusicianCorps was more inspired by Clinton’s AmeriCorps).
I’ve done a little teaching myself — not only have I taught theatre, I used to work for a company called Mad Science, which specializes in after school science programs to get kids engaged in their otherwise dull science and math classes. Of course, Mad Science focuses on rewarding the kids after class, with toys they put together, or sometimes even candy (the cotton candy machine at the end of the lesson on heat nearly caused a riot). I taught at schools all over the larger Columbia SC area — although, while I had some rough classes and some out of control kids, I almost never taught at inner city schools, because they couldn’t afford it. I do remember, the one time that I did teach at an inner city school — and it was a one-shot deal, not a semester-long curriculum — the kids were bullied into submission by their teachers, who obviously didn’t trust them to behave decently in front of this young, middle class white girl. So they were totally quiet, afraid to show any sort of interest because it might be interpreted as acting out. It was really sad. I could tell, though, when I had them come up to demonstrate some things about acoustics, that they were really fascinated and once they had the hands-on experience, the basic science made way more sense. As far as intellect, capacity, and emotional involvement, inner city kids are no different than suburban kids. When they act out, though, it is deemed less socially acceptable than when white kids act out (and are often sent to doctors and over-medicated to keep them in line).
I’ve also taught theatre to a full spectrum of kids. Again, mostly I’ve been involved with the affluent schools, including the University Cooperative School, where I helped with the year-end Shakespeare production. But my first introduction to teaching theatre was through Columbia’s Family Services Center. My mother worked there when I was in college, and one of her friends enlisted me as one of the teachers for a summer program she was developing for inner city, underprivileged high school kids. It was mostly to keep them out of gangs and away from abusive families, but this woman also wanted them to be exposed to art. I only taught three classes before the program fell apart, and apparently I lasted the longest of all the teachers. Most, including the dance and music teachers, only lasted one session before refusing to come back. What did I do differently? Well, I admittedly went in as a 20-year-old with no idea how to teach theatre to kids, and no idea what they might find interesting. So I deconstructed all the parts of a play — performance games to get them out of their shells and familiar with each other, script-writing, directing and stage managing, design for costumes and makeup and set and lights, and finally, acting. Not everyone wants to be an actor, by the way, and I think this is a great failing of a lot of introductory theatre courses and youth theatres — they focus on all kids being on stage, to appease the parents and not the kids. Anyway, so I started the first lesson with improv and sketch comedy games, including the classic “Park Bench”, which they loved. A couple lessons later, I divided them up into groups and each group started working on a short script, on a subject they found interesting (with a little approval from me, which mostly involved censoring out the more graphic stories about pimps and hos … I’m so not even kidding …).
That was as far as I got before the whole summer program was scrapped. The woman who founded it said that there was just too much turnover, as parents pulled kids out of the program or shoved kids in and left them there way after hours. The Stranger article talks about the same problem in public schools. It’s frustrating to us middle class white people, because part of going to school in the years from 5 to 18 is to force a sense of commitment and dedication, even if its to something you hate. I suppose this is to better prepare us to find horrible desk jobs with long hours and incompetent managers with less pay than we deserve and crappy health benefits, and suffer through it for the sake of our mortgage and car payments and weekend plans. Now, I am all for being dedicated and committed. And I am all for making money and surviving with a little leeway to have fun. But I don’t believe in living for the weekend or spending time away from the people and things you care about to the detriment of your personality and mental health. So, I can’t say that I don’t side with the underprivileged. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. On the other hand, it does not give kids a sense of belonging, since it rips them out of programs and schools, away from friends, just as they’ve set down roots, so they won’t be able to really make friends when they grow up. I see both sides of it, I guess.
Anyway, that’s besides the point. The point is, I love this article, and totally sympathize, having taught the entitled, privileged, too-good-for-you kids, and the underprivileged, attention-deficit, fuck-your-culture-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on kids, and I love them both. Children are naturally inquisitive, and most of them are natural performers and artists, so finding a middle ground of something they’re interested in, giving them space to be creative (instead of, say, forcing Shakespeare down their throats before they can even comprehend what a semi-colon does, just to make their parents feel like their kids are getting a really intense education) works wonders. Kids really do blossom with that kind of encouragement. I don’t know how else to put it, because that radiant smile and widening of the eyes really can’t be described any other way.
Teach art to kids. All kinds of art. Teach science and math to kids, and give them help where necessary, give them as much hands-on experience as possible, as many real-world examples as possible, and they will go with you. It is not hard to educate children, when you trust them and give them a little room to be themselves.
Also, thank you Arts Corps and MusicianCorps for doing that!