Allowing students space to breathe and grow through theatre

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By Sherion Cosby, Theatre and Television Production teacher at Westland Middle School

Middle school is an awkward stage when you don’t know who you are sometimes. I believe that theatre has a special ability that allows students room to breathe and learn about themselves. So many of my middle school students—even some of my high school students—need this space. They are body-conscious and hair-conscious and wondering, “Am I good enough?” and, “Do I fit in this clique?” But when they step on stage, theatre helps them let go of these worries.

Young Audiences ensemble Synetic Theater recently completed a residency at Westland Middle and it truly was an awesome experience for the students to see role models who exhibit a carefree but committed attitude in theatre. The actors from Synetic showed my students that they can step out of themselves and go ahead and do their thing. It brought them so much freedom.

I knew of Young Audiences and reached out to them because I knew I had a wonderful group of eighth graders who I wanted to expose to another level of theatre through a residency program. I wanted them to look at theatre the way professional actors do and experience different methods and styles. I also wanted to include the sixth and seventh graders in the residency because I was hoping to whet their appetite for theatre. I wanted to build that desire to participate in theatre at school. I wanted them to see that it is not just fun—that there is skill involved.

Synetic taught students that they should think of their bodies as their acting instruments and introduced theatre exercises that focused on warming up the body. Students no longer saw acting as just walking on stage and reciting lines. With Synetic, they had to think of warming up the neck and the head and the eyes and the legs. During these exercises, students also practiced concentration and mindfulness.

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See more photos from the residency here!

Synetic worked with students on movement and characterization. I wanted my students to have the latitude and freedom to be someone other than themselves on stage. It is hard to overcome the fear of rejection from their peers when trying something new, but Synetic was able to pull them from where they were to a new place. As a teacher, it gave me what I needed in terms of getting students to step outside themselves. Synetic made my job so much easier.

At the start of the residency, I was concerned about one student, Matthew*, who is a talented athlete. I worried that he would be hard to engage in the program because he did not identify himself as an actor. During the program I saw Matthew change when he saw the male actors from Synetic demonstrating the theatre exercises. The actors also singled him out with praise during the various activities, saying, “That is really good. I like that. Keep doing that.” Matthew has totally changed since this experience. He can’t wait to get to theatre class now. He has come to see himself in a new light—he is not just an athlete but an actor, too.

During the residency culminating event, the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders all had a chance to demonstrate what they had been working on with Synetic in front of their classmates and parents. After they saw the feedback and applause from the audience, my students walked out of the media center like they had just delivered the best performance in the world. They were thrilled with what they accomplished in such a short period of time.

In theatre class students build relationships and bonds. They know that it is an environment where they can truly be themselves. They can express themselves and no one will judge them. They can be silly and ridiculous, and no idea is crazy or dumb. Because of this residency we were able to expose more students to the power of theatre, especially those who may not have opted to take a theatre class before this experience.

It is great to be able to rely on resources and partners like Young Audiences to reach the goals that you have in mind for your students, and that is exactly what happened with this residency. It took my kids to a place where they are comfortable being on the stage and outside of themselves.

Learn more about Synetic Theater and their program offerings here.

*Names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.

Celebrate Earth Day with songs by students

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In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to share some songs written last month by Hollywood Elementary second- and third-graders with teaching artist Sue Trainor during her residency at the school. During the program, students composed original songs about what they had learned about ecosystems, environmentalism, and recycling. Each of the seven participating classes performed their final piece for the other grades and parents. Take a moment to listen to some of the creative and fun songs they came up with!

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You can also find the songs on Soundcloud. Please share them with your networks in celebration of Earth Day!

Looking for an arts program that connects to environmental science for your students? Use Young Audiences’ searchable program database to easily find programs that align with specific Curriculum Connections.

Passing on a Baltimorean art tradition

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By Elaine Eff, folklorist, author of “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed,” and co-founder of the Painted Screen Society

The recent Young Audiences artist-in-residence at the Baltimore Design School was one of those serendipitous and wonderful coincidences you don’t often come across. John Iampieri, a member of the Painted Screen Society who we’ve been working with for a number of years, has taught all over Maryland through his work with Young Audiences. When he announced that there was going to be a residency at the school, it was like all of our dreams come true!

The Painted Screen Society has been involved in residencies since the society began in 1985 for the purpose of keeping rowhouse arts alive in Baltimore. The whole idea behind the society is to get the art form into the hands of people who are more likely to carry it on or would benefit from knowledge of the indigenous tradition. Nothing could be more useful than to maintain it in the hands of Baltimore students who are being schooled to be artistic in some way.

I wanted to make sure that the students working with John would get the full experience of the history of painted screens, so they came to MICA, and together we toured the recent exhibit, Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond (Meyerhoff Gallery, December 13, 2013 to March 16, 2014), which was a three-dimensional embodiment of everything in my book, “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed,” and focused on passing the tradition on. The students also saw the documentary film “The Screen Painters” and got to see the painters in action. They learned that painted screens were not just meant to be beautiful, but were also a practical innovation, used in private homes to discourage individuals from seeing into windows while still allowing those inside to see out. I wanted students to understand that this is something that is relevant to their lives and their environments, because this is a Baltimorean art form–born here, created here, consumed here, and beloved here for many years.

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Anybody who is able to get one more person to understand the value of painted screens in his or her own community is important, but John just happens to be an incredibly organized, thoughtful, and patient teacher. He has the right combination of creative ideas because he thinks in terms of the group working together as opposed to individuals creating single products.

John thinks beyond the screen. He isn’t thinking merely about putting an image on your window; he’s thinking about images that can be adapted to all sorts of applications, and the fact that he thinks big, in terms of banners and murals, brings him right into the intersection of the new breed of screen painters and the whole digital evolution. His approach allows many hands to collaborate to make large screens that can have a variety of installations. With his help, the students at the Baltimore Design School came together with a single purpose, which produced really impressive results that they can be proud of.

What was really important throughout the project was that the students realized that everything was up to them. They chose the subjects and the teams. They then learned about design, color, and new materials they never would have heard of. They were also learning to work as a group. Learning to do something in a prescribed manner sometimes trumps being an independent artist—a status they may not be ready for.

I’m hoping that, after this project, some of them say, “Wow, I can do that!” and will go home and add value to their own homes. I hope the students’ eyes have been opened to possibilities they didn’t even know about and also to a really important traditional art that is native to their city, one that couldn’t be more relevant to the rowhouses they live in and the lives that they lead. I’m hoping that connections were made and that one day they’ll say, “I remember that.” I hope they some will keep the tradition alive, because without people who know and value them, traditions do not endure.

Part of the beauty of this art form is that there’s always been an ebb and a flow. Painted screens have been everywhere and nowhere in the course of a hundred years, and my sense is that they’ll be back, and they’ll be in another form, and let’s hope that Young Audiences continues to play a role.

Learn more about Elaine’s book, “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed,” and how to purchase a copy online .

Read more about John Iampieri and his visual arts residency program here. 

Bomani promotes the arts during morning announcements

Young Audiences artist and Hip Hop poet Bomani took to the airwaves during the morning announcements at William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Harford County to build excitement for upcoming SMART Days at the school. SMART Days are a key component of Young Audiences’ ongoing SMART program in all five Harford County Title I schools. Each school has one SMART day per week, all school year. On SMART days, a teaching artist and an arts integration specialist spend the entire day with teachers and students. Teaching artist and teachers collaboratively plan, teach, and reflect on arts-integrated lessons. The lessons are always aligned with the College and Career Ready Standards and focused on skills and concepts students struggle with most, such as fractions or figurative language skills.

This “Hip Hop Public Service Announcement” highlights Bomani’s skills as a poet and “shout outs” for teachers who are arts integration leaders at the school. Listen to the full announcement here:

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The SMART program, formed in partnership with the Harford County Public Schools Title I Office, aims to help improve teacher practice through arts-integrated embedded professional development for teachers. At the heart of the program is the collaboration between teaching artists and teachers. The education expert and artistic expert work together to re-envision how to teach content in a way that challenges, motivates, and inspires students to learn more.

Learn more about the SMART program here.

Teaching Grit through the Arts

By Katie Keddell, Young Audiences/Arts for Learning Office and Volunteer Manager

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This story was originally posted as a part of the Americans for the Arts Teaching Artist Blog Salon in March 2014. See all of the salon posts here.

On Saturday, February 1, I had the wonderful opportunity to watch Young Audiences/Arts for Learning teaching artist, Max Bent, work. We were not in a classroom and we were not in an official Young Audiences program at a school or community organization. Instead, we were joining our neighbors, Single Carrot Theatre, in welcoming the neighborhood to our new home at 2600 North Howard Street in Baltimore. Max was offering a musical demonstration to anyone who walked in to say hello and hear more about Young Audiences. After an hour of recording sounds visitors played on a small steel drum and various other eclectic instruments, Max created a symphony of sounds by layering impromptu measures of four beats on top of each other. As he taught, I was struck by one phrase he kept repeating: “We have to re-harness the things that happen by accident.” I instantly connected this idea to my research as a graduate student.

As we talk about the young people in our state and across the country, one major trend is the desire to teach our students what one popular researcher calls, “Grit.” As defined by TED Talk speaker Angela Lee Duckworth:

“Grit is sticking with your future—day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years—and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

Watch the full Ted Talk here

Passing a paper test with a singular focus cannot teach this tenacity, but overcoming a challenge does. In 10 minutes, I saw Max demonstrate how he teaches grit through the arts-integrated programs he brings to Maryland schools. Our guests saw the value of sticking with the exercise themselves and heard the physical evidence created by their instruments. Each individual walked away with a small but powerful example of success through staying with something despite no prior knowledge of the steel drum or the technology Max was using to record and layer sounds

Before Max joined Young Audiences, he did not see a connection between his art and the school curriculum. Max applied to participate in the Teaching Artist Institute (TAI), a training program for artists developed by Young Audiences in partnership with Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS) and the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC), to deepen his knowledge of how the arts can naturally connect to the curriculum and engage students in learning. After successfully completing the program, Max now has a collection of lessons that connect beatboxing and music to a multitude of subjects, such as probability, fractions, graphing, and phonics.

That’s what excites me most about Young Audiences: the belief in arts integration. For me, it’s not only about teaching the future generation aesthetic appreciation, it’s also about finding the ways that divergent thinking and practical application speak to the future of what our children learn and believe they can achieve. It’s about giving all students a chance to explore their talents, giving them a safe environment to take risks, to make mistakes, to achieve, and to persevere. It’s about teaching grit.