Listen to Your Teacher: Collaborating with Staff in an Alaska School Theatre Residency | Ryan Conarro

I’m engaged in a theatre residency at a rural school in the Copper River School District in interior Alaska. My focus is interview-based drama: elementary students and teachers are conducting interviews with community members, centering on the question, “What makes Kenny Lake home?” They’re speaking with the homesteaders who first farmed this area under a federal land grant program in the 1950s and 60s, some of whom are their grandparents. They’re speaking with people from the local Ahtna Athabascan community. And they’re speaking with relative newcomers to Kenny Lake, too. At the end of Week 1, I’ll edit and adapt the words of Kenny Lakers into a simple script. In Week 2, we’ll rehearse performances of the new script, and perform it that weekend.


The Kenny Lake Mercantile and gas station

I’ve been thinking about questions of collaboration in my teaching artist practice. I love interview-based work, in part because of the philosophical values that underpin it. “Your world matters,” a project like this seems to say to students. “You matter. The people you live with, the activities you engage in—you can learn from all of these. Such learning is legitimate and important.” This message is particularly potent, I think, for young people in rural Alaska communities where they often confront stark cultural differences between themselves and the cadre of teachers at their schools, and where mandated curricula convey an implicit suggestion that book knowledge comes from a far-off land of cities with subways and sidewalks. When I design a residency like this one, I like to think the work I’ll facilitate may be a small step in awakening students to their inherent value as humans, to their own power to control their learning. I often think of Maxine Greene’s sentiment that arts education can awaken students to “the power to act and the power to choose, [and their] capacity to become different” (Greene 196).


Ryan Conarro facilitates a story circle’ with five elder interviewees from the Kenny Lake community

My aspirations to address big questions with students are well and good, but the reality is that I’m often engaged in just a 2- or 3-week residency. It’s unlikely that anyone’s going to magically “become different” that quickly. It may even be a challenge to awaken any students to something different, in a long-lasting way. If the system and structure in which they spend their days doesn’t change, their own growth will be difficult. It’s the teachers—and staff and administrators—that can carry and reinforce these messages and practices, making changes that last longer and respond more concretely to each individual student’s needs.

But many teachers feel dis-empowered just like their students. Hamstrung by testing mandates and well-intended curricular calendars, educators I encounter too often feel undervalued. Last fall, as I prepared for this project, I began to question whether I engage with teachers in the same way I do students, with the same aims to support them and to listen to their valuable input.  I daresay I don’t. Too often, I’m entering a school with a grand idea in mind, and I make it my task to convince the teachers to jump on my bandwagon. Yes, I believe that part of my role as a visiting teaching artist is to offer visions for new arts-integrated challenges and possibilities in a school. And yes, there are teachers who match my enthusiasm. I recruit them as allies to bring along the reluctant teachers. But how can I offer inspiration to teachers and staff while also responding to their real needs and concerns? Those “reluctant” teachers are sometimes tired, or scared, or skeptical. They might benefit from a bit of prodding. But sometimes they’re wise, and experienced, and realistic. Sometimes, I ought to listen to them.

For Kenny Lake School, I first brainstormed the structure of the project last summer, with an administrator from the district office. She linked me with a teacher liaison at the school, who has since helped me navigate planning logistics and staff communications. As I arrived at the school for my first week-long visit this winter, the situation was familiar: some adult stakeholders were already engaged, and others were waiting to meet me before they worked to understand this project idea and to assess their own interest in it.

I’ve been lucky to conduct this informal self-study at this particular school–it’s a very positive environment among both teachers and students. Academics, arts, and sports seem to be approached with equal enthusiasm in Kenny Lake. Often, I’m working in schools with high truancy rates and high teacher turnover, where I could attribute my project challenges to a whole passel of factors. In a way, the health of the Kenny Lake School community helps me recognize more clearly the realities of my residency. Some teachers have personally invited me into their rooms; others have been told I’m coming. Some staff members have been on board with this from the beginning; others, understandably, have been focused on other projects and concerns. My task is simple, really: as I challenge students to aim high in their drama work, I must also authentically listen to each teacher, in each classroom, and do my best to meet them where they are. The attentive listening itself may well foster the spirit of collaboration I always hope for.


Kenny Lake students perform statues from interview moments

In the second/third-grade classroom, the students are brainstorming interview questions they might ask. This is the youngest group I’ve worked with on documentary theatre. As I attempt to coach the students to create questions that might yield juicy stories from interviewees, their teacher chimes in. “Let’s think about some ‘Experience’ words, friends,” she says. “What are some good words that are types of Experiences?” Soon, we have a list on the board: words like ‘adventure,’ ‘memory,’ ‘journey,’ and ‘trip.’ “What about some ‘Extreme’ words?” the teacher asks next. More words appear: ‘best,’ ‘worst,’ ‘hardest,’ ‘funniest.’

The students are catching on, and I’m learning a new way to guide this lesson. I’m grateful that the teacher took the reins of this session. I always hope for this sort of collaborative give-and-take in the classroom, but I want to continue to study how I can create conditions that will foster this dynamic, in my dual role as visitor and project leader.

Later that week, a teacher proposes an idea for a song we could integrate into the interview-based script. Let’s use it, I say. As this process unfolds and interviews begin, the more that the project belongs to the teachers, the better. In the present context of the mandated standardized-testing world, the more that teachers can imagine and create meaningful, emotional classroom experiences—the more they manifest their own “power to act and power to choose”—the more, I believe, their students will do the same.


The Edgerton Highway drops into the Copper River basin, a few miles from Kenny Lake School

Greene, Maxine. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

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