July 29th, 2013
altspaceeditor

Best Seat in the Islands | Daniel A. Kelin, II

As I sat in in the center of the newly-dedicated, freshly painted outdoor cement basketball court, surrounded by a couple of hundred local folks watching youth I had worked with perform, it dawned on me that these local audiences are truly the best audiences in the world.  At 7:00 pm on a Saturday night at the ‘Laura’ end of Majuro island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, people sat on rocks, the cement court, wooden side benches, make-shift chairs made from implements found around the nearby houses, their cars (parked at the far end of the court), or just stood-for the entire three hours of our performance. 

There is not a concern nor a complaint about sight-lines or softness of seats, but rather a relaxed desire to spend an unexpected evening watching this group of 25 young people perform in their backyard. As dogs chased each other across the loosely defined stage space and little children followed actors backstage, neither the actors nor the audience seemed to take notice of any kind, other than to make room for the kids and dogs.

I’ve painted a background only, however, of what has been a larger experience for me over my 22 year relationship with this islands nation. As happens so often in these performance, when rain suddenly bursts from the sky the audience quickly jumps to their feet, in practiced fashion, and finds the nearest covered area  all the while laughing and chatting but keeping their focus towards the stage.  As the tech crew runs about the stage and audience area, gathering electronics and covering speakers with plastic bags, the actors continue on, not missing a beat.  The audience misses bits and pieces of the particular scene being performed, but they generally keep their attention on the performance throughout.

As the rain slows, which often happens in just moments, the audience returns to their makeshift seats, the electronics are reconnected and the performance moves on, hardly affected by the controlled chaos. Occasionally someone steps on a power cord or strip and a light goes out or microphone goes dead, but someone from tech support tracks it down and rectifies it. This means that once in a while a techie must wander near or even on the stage, but it fazes no one.  Essentially you get the feeling that people are thinking ‘Well, what else would you do?’ if they are even aware of what is happening.  The audiences have this enviable capacity to concentrate on what’s important and block out the rest.

All of this is simply context to my assertion that these audiences are the best in the world.  They are so open, accepting, supportive and appreciative of the performances.  They literally eat it up, busting out in huge guffaws, applauding surprising and tantalizing moments that are simple in design, but constructed to play to this specific home audience.  They love the romance, since that is generally not on public display here.  Feats of simple action make the little kids stand up and copy them or jump up and down in barely contained joy.  An occasional audience member shouts out something at the actors, which makes the rest of the audience laugh and seems to feed the actors’ energy.  When the young actors discover that the audience will respond to them, they love to play with a call and echo kind of simple dialogue.

Most amazing of all is the engaged patience of the entire gathered group.  Everyone from two and three year olds to the elderly stay focused throughout the three hours of the non-stop performance.  Many of the pre-school or lower elementary-aged children ended up seeing the performance several times; earlier in the week they settled into the rehearsal hall, an open-air tin-roofed building, and watched the three hour rehearsals once or twice and then returned to the performance, ready to anticipate their favorite parts.

As the last song is sung, the audience simply gets up and walks home.  No standing ovation, no prolonged applause, a simple end to a simple and enjoyable evening.  And the actors take it in stride.  The responses during the performance are what matter and the actors worked hard for them.  Later you’ll see a few kids imitating their favorite moment, or calling out the name of a character to a young actor they see on the street.  These are my favorite audiences in the world — where theatre simply becomes a part of a good, and unanticipated, day.

imageAn ardent teaching artist, Daniel A. Kelin II is Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Drama Education and President of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). He is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and was Director of Theatre Training for both Crossroads Theatre for Youth in American Samoa and a Marshall Islands youth organization. A 2009 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in India, he has also had fellowships with Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA and the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. Dan is co-authoringThe Reflective Teaching Artist: Collected Wisdom from the Drama/Theatre Field for Intellect Books. More at www.DanielAKelin.com

Also by Daniel A. Kelin, II in ALT/space:
What’s the Message?
The Stranger Called ‘Creativity’
My Teaching Artist ‘Ohana’
Christmas in March
Enduring and Essential
My 80%
I Write to Own
Partners in Purpose
Reflexive Ventures
Listening to Learn
Postcard: Shantipur, West Bengal, India

July 1st, 2013
altspaceeditor

What’s the Message? | Daniel A. Kelin, II

I am not a fan of message plays.  Which is odd since a portion of my foreign sojourns have focused on training folks who do believe in the power of message plays. I love a good paradox, however, as often I learn from such contradictory experiences and gain great insight into what I believe and how I best work.  I present such a case here: a trip I recently took to Pohnpei in the Central Pacific.

Hired to train a mix of high school and college students, who possessed a little to no drama experience, the organization wished for me to not only introduce basics of effective performance, but to help them develop short dramatizations based on social issues; essentially, message playlets. As we began our work together, the program director constantly referred to the messages the trainees would build, the important information that might be embedded within the dramatizations.  As we talked, I encouraged him to consider how that the final product not simply verbalize the messages, but embody them within the storylines and the characters’ actions and intentions.

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Due to the short time allotted for the workshop (four days), after a brief training in basic skills we quickly transitioned to conceptualizing and dramatizing ideas. During this phase, we focused on constructing scenes based on character intentions, actions to achieve those intentions, the conflicts and consequences that arise because of those actions. The trainees, slow at first to focus on the dramatic rather than the didactic, began to embrace the possibilities that arose in their dramatizations as they focused more on the stories of the characters.  The program director, on a daily basis, noticed the change in the participants as they became more cognizant of how the stories embodied the ideas they desired to instill within their audiences, but also how more adventurous and expressive the trainees became.  The director also got very excited by the training and play development processes.

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It became clear what ‘message’ would result from this process. Just as each playlet embodied a kind of life message, as engaging plays should, the ‘message’ of the process was that the training itself became a transformative experience for the trainees. Their intense engagement in building both expressive and creative skills would help them more effectively reach and teach their audience.  They would become young role models, looked up to by their peers and children and praised by their elders for their desire to improve the community. In addition, by improvisationally devising the playlets, the trainees gained a sense of ownership over both the creative development process and the content of the dramatizations.  The importance of this truly struck home for me when I asked how they felt about the work, and one succinctly noted, ‘Good.  It is our idea.’ 

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In the end I saw just two performances by the group, as my contract allowed only a few days for the training, but I happily witnessed significant growth from the first to the second.  The plays grew and deepened in the second performance as the performers settled into their newly developed skills.  At the conclusion I asked one young actress her reaction to the experience. In her still developing English she said, ‘I am very happy of me.’

I think this is the message: The power they came to realize they possess that helps them reach out to and personally inspire their peers and fellow community members through the medium of theatre.imageAn ardent teaching artist, Daniel A. Kelin II is Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Drama Education and President of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). He is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and was Director of Theatre Training for both Crossroads Theatre for Youth in American Samoa and a Marshall Islands youth organization. A 2009 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in India, he has also had fellowships with Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA and the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. Dan is co-authoringThe Reflective Teaching Artist: Collected Wisdom from the Drama/Theatre Field for Intellect Books. More at www.DanielAKelin.com

Also by Daniel A. Kelin, II in ALT/space:
The Stranger Called ‘Creativity’
My Teaching Artist ‘Ohana’
Christmas in March
Enduring and Essential
My 80%
I Write to Own
Partners in Purpose
Reflexive Ventures
Listening to Learn
Postcard: Shantipur, West Bengal, India

May 25th, 2013
altspaceeditor

The Stranger Called ‘Creativity’ | Daniel A. Kelin, II

During an intimate workshop I conducted with first grade teachers, I asked what they had noticed about their students’ participation in a recent drama-based residency.  One noted that she felt “so surprised to see the creativity of some kids come out that I didn’t know about.” I took the comment pretty much in stride, as that is often the response I receive from teachers who have little experience with integrating drama-based strategies in their daily lessons.

However, the comment later took on greater resonance.  As a part of a professional development course for teachers from across the island, I conducted demonstration sessions in each of the participating teacher’s classrooms.  I worked with a wide variety of grade levels, ranging from K-12, once each for 45-60 minutes.  At the end of each session, I posed the same question: “Why was today’s experience important for you?”

I received the following answers:

1st Grade, “We really got to use our imagination.”

2nd Grade, “Our imagination. We got to try lots of things with it.”

3rd grade, “It’s so fun to use our imagination like this.”

5th grade, “We did our own creative stuff.”

High School, “You let us try our own ideas. Kinda brought out our own creativity instead of telling us what to do.”

I should clarify that I did not, in the course of the session, deliberately introduce nor focus on the words imagination and creativity.  Although the words came up casually as a part of our experiences and reflections, the two words were not prominently featured nor discussed.

What struck me most about this series of answers was the uniformity of joy expressed over having an opportunity to be creative.  I celebrate that the students recognized the centrality of creative choice within the strategies we explored.  I felt heartened that they all joined in with great abandon, considering they rarely had such experiences which often make students a little shy of such risk. 

However, what most captured my attention is the implication that creativity plays no role in the daily classroom and that these students recognized that fact.  Creativity related to any subject, in any form, for any purpose whatsoever. It strikes me as odd that with all of the education ‘reform’ that continually happens, embedded with words such as ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation,’ that students apparently do not benefit from such ‘reform’ efforts. Such an unfortunate truth as, judging from my albeit compacted experience, students welcome and crave such engagement.

For me this is a call to arms.  I do believe that I have always offered students plenty of opportunities for creative exploration, as well as the autonomy to develop and share personal interpretations of our content focus.  However, as a result of this recent confluence of events, I feel compelled to track how well I focus on the actual experience of learning, the HOW of the process, whether I teach through or about the art form.

It is essential, I believe, that I should be helping students reflect on and develop their own sense of artistry and an understanding of how they access, make sense of and take ownership over their creative development and interpretive processes. How they come to think and act as an artist, embracing risk, occasional failure and reflective revision that both inspires them and feeds their ongoing endeavors.

Leave it to students to inspire and reinvigorate my practice. Leave it to them to help me continue to tap my own creativity and avoid the trap of regurgitated experience.

 

imageAn ardent teaching artist, Daniel A. Kelin II is Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Drama Education and President of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). He is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and was Director of Theatre Training for both Crossroads Theatre for Youth in American Samoa and a Marshall Islands youth organization. A 2009 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in India, he has also had fellowships with Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA and the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. Dan is co-authoringThe Reflective Teaching Artist: Collected Wisdom from the Drama/Theatre Field for Intellect Books. More atwww.DanielAKelin.com

Also by Daniel A. Kelin, II in ALT/space:
My Teaching Artist ‘Ohana’
Christmas in March
Enduring and Essential
My 80%
I Write to Own
Partners in Purpose
Reflexive Ventures
Listening to Learn
Postcard: Shantipur, West Bengal, India

March 12th, 2013
altspaceeditor

Christmas in March | Daniel A. Kelin, II

As I finished a session with a class of second-graders today, I asked them to identify their favorite moments from class.  Amongst the ‘everything!’ answers and those noting the joy of being unusually physically involved during a lesson, one girl said, ‘Being the Christmas present.’ It’s true.  I bestowed upon her the title of Christmas present for a brief moment as the students were forming themselves into groups. I note that, in that brief moment, all eyes were on her and she held the greatest power in the room. Then she made a choice, the session continued and the moment forgotten until she mentioned it again at the session’s conclusion.

The moment came about when I tasked the students with creating groups of their own choice, bound only by the number to be included.  The students bustled about, as expected, choosing and re-choosing potential group mates until just the single girl stood alone.  I called her over to me, saying, ‘Look what I found. Look what I found!  A Christmas Present. Which group would like a present?’ Hands in every group shot up. The girl smiled and chose the group she wanted to join.

Such a small moment, such a simple task, the question might be why put so much energy and focus on it?  Why not simply assign her a group and move on?  I am the product of last choice sports teams.  All throughout high school I suffered the indignity of being last choice when teams were chosen. And generally it was very public, as the team captains slowly chose one team member at a time, until I stood there alone, last, undesirable choice. I was generally told to just toughen up and learn to get over it.  And I always wondered why should I have to?

So I have experimented endlessly, and continue to do so, to find as many ways to guide students to create and choose groups that support varied interaction, giving power to the oft powerless and finding ways to turn the dynamics, so that those who might have once stood vulnerable and deflated, suddenly become the most powerful and desired in the room.

More than just momentary power and good feeling, these tiny events contribute to positive, support working relationships in the room.  Trying to avoid telling the students how to treat each other, I offer models for how we honor each individual and their potential contributions.  In addition to the answer, ‘being the Christmas present,’ I have regularly heard from older students such answers as, ‘I got to meet more people in the class’ and ‘I liked working with the kids in class I never worked with.’

Christmas is a time for good feelings. I keep wondering, why not bring that to class every day?

imageAn ardent teaching artist, Daniel A. Kelin II is Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Drama Education and President of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). He is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and was Director of Theatre Training for both Crossroads Theatre for Youth in American Samoa and a Marshall Islands youth organization. A 2009 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in India, he has also had fellowships with Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA and the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. Dan is co-authoring The Reflective Teaching Artist: Collected Wisdom from the Drama/Theatre Field for Intellect Books. More at www.DanielAKelin.com

Also by Daniel A. Kelin, II in ALT/space:
Enduring and Essential
My 80%
I Write to Own
Partners in Purpose
Reflexive Ventures
Listening to Learn
Postcard: Shantipur, West Bengal, India

February 20th, 2013
altspaceeditor

Enduring and Essential | Daniel A. Kelin, II

“I have a question for you.” This starts most of my residencies nowadays, followed by, “But you cannot answer it. Not now.”  I fashioned the opening to grab students’ attentions quickly. They always show greater interest in a question when they are not allowed to answer it. I also find having a question to dangle throughout a lesson keeps students both more focused on our task and more clear about the purpose of their participation: find an evidence-based answer to that question.

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The concept of an Essential Question never played a role in my early training or reading.  Upon ‘discovering’ it and its partner, the Enduring Understanding, the pair quickly became a core part of my teaching and my training of others, which started with my own staff.

While reviewing evaluative forms with my staff from teachers and students, I discovered a reoccurring issue.  In post-program reflections, students referred most often to statements repeated by my staff many times throughout a program or residency; these tended to be management statements focused on how to behave, listening carefully, maintain concentration and the like.  These responses started to outnumber those that mentioned the actual learning objectives or central purpose of the program.  The obvious struck me.  Core ideas needed to be explicitly introduced through questions or big idea statements, repeated many times and involve students in realizing them in tangible ways that would help the students clearly understand the original, explicit question. In other words, Enduring Understanding statements and Essential Questions should permeate a residency to provide focused lesson design, re-occurring reflection on the questions, and a sense of investigation with a continuity of purpose.

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Quite simply, employing this pair of tools has helped me focus every residency, but more importantly, the students have shown greater understanding of the purpose of their experiences and are much easier to engage in reflective discussions.  In a more effective way than with my previous work, the students are ‘in’ on what we are exploring and discovering.  They have a heightened sense of why they engage in the ongoing sequence of activities. For some, they show a desire to want to answer the question that gets introduced daily but is almost a tease because answering it remains forbidden.

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I once guided a group of first graders to consider the following pair.  ‘Great ideas live inside of stories,’ and ‘When stories are different, can they be the same?’ The purpose was to get the students to compare a pair of stories and to uncover ideas and concepts that exist in many stories beyond the obvious elements of setting, character and etc. 

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Although the Essential Question isn’t one that elicits deep answers, I designed it specifically to trick the students. In addition, in combination with the Enduring Understanding, I would be able to guide the students to reconsider their kneejerk answers by first considering what great ideas exist within individual stories and then use that to compare the pair of stories we would explore.  One student couldn’t wait to answer the Essential Question and, despite the fact that I forbade any answers yet, the moment I said, ‘When stories are different, can they be the same?’ he blurted out “No!” several times.  As about halfway through the residency, as we finished exploring the first story, he answered the question again, saying, “They could be the same, I think, if the stories were by the same author.” At the end of the residency, when we finally had a full discussion on the question, he said, “I know now.  Stories have different parts that can be the same as each other.”

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I enjoy it when the students want to answer the question, want to discover the meaning behind an Enduring Understanding and become the ones moving a lesson forward in the hopes of uncovering a new possible answer.  When they develop understanding and ownership of an experience, I find the learning is that much stronger.

imageAn ardent teaching artist, Daniel A. Kelin II is Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Drama Education and President of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). He is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and was Director of Theatre Training for both Crossroads Theatre for Youth in American Samoa and a Marshall Islands youth organization. A 2009 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in India, he has also had fellowships with Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA and the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. Dan is co-authoring The Reflective Teaching Artist: Collected Wisdom from the Drama/Theatre Field for Intellect Books. More at www.DanielAKelin.com

Also by Daniel A. Kelin, II in ALT/space:
My 80%
I Write to Own
Partners in Purpose
Reflexive Ventures
Listening to Learn
Postcard: Shantipur, West Bengal, India

In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.