Teaching Artist Development Studio Part 2: Design Cycle | Suzanne Makol

Editor’s Note: This is the second of three posts by Suzanne Makol detailing her experience in the Teaching Artist Development Studio. TAD Studio is funded by the Fry Foundation, supported by a wide range of arts education organizations in Chicago, and run under the auspices of CCAP at Columbia College Chicago.

For Part Two of TAD Studio (find Part One here), we jumped right in to designing curriculum to teach in a Chicago Public School classroom. Everything we had done thus far in TAD Studio was to investigate our strengths and philosophies about being teaching artists. Now it was the exciting time to actually engage with students and schoolteachers using what we had learned. We worked in groups of two teaching artists with one teacher to plan a two-unit project.

I worked with Alyssa Ramos, the theater artist with whom I collaborated in Part One of TAD Studio, and Molly Myers, who teaches AP Human Geography to freshman at Linblom Math and Science Academy in the Englewood neighborhood. Our goal was to relate/integrate our two-unit project with the human geography curriculum.

I thought it was a challenge earlier in TAD to combine my photography with theater in a lesson plan, but now we had to combine photography, theater and human geography somehow! I was very anxious at first about how this could possibly come together and make any sense in the end. It was a particularly new experience for me because I am used to teaching photography technique alone rather than incorporating content from other subjects. But I am glad to have received such an experience through TAD, because if it wasn’t a challenge, I wouldn’t have gained so much from it.

I entered the design cycle of TAD thinking that Alyssa and I would do some kind of variation of the lesson we taught to our peers based on feedback and our own reflection of how it went. So I was perplexed about how we would incorporate our art mediums into the class curriculum. Molly told us that her class of eighteen students was finishing up a unit on language, and that they were soon going to begin a unit on borders and boundaries. Our task was to relate our teaching to one or both of those topics. Our teacher told us that her students could benefit from activities that would help them see from a new perspective, establish self-awareness, explore abstract ideas, and connect classroom topics to personal life.

As we brainstormed with Molly, we decided that we would explore borders and boundaries in the students’ personal lives through visual and physical language. In their discussion of language, the students mainly learned about written and spoken language, so we would introduce them to some of the tools of visual language (through looking at and making photographs) and physical language (body language through theater). We would use the language of theater and photography to explore examples of borders and boundaries in everyday life, so that when their teacher began the unit, they would expand to discussions of society and the world as a whole.

Although I was nervous at first, after the brainstorming session with Molly, and an additional session with Alyssa, I felt like we could actually accomplish our goals in the classroom.  We had been given two 90-minute sessions with the students. We split our first day in the classroom into two mini-workshops. We would each take half the class for 30 minutes and then switch, with me teaching a photography activity and Alyssa teaching a theater activity.  Before splitting up, we brainstormed with the students about what a border is and examples in their everyday lives. This was to get their ideas flowing, and make the two workshops relate.

Private self, public self.  Photos by a Linblom student.

For my photography segment we made double portraits representing the public and private self. The idea was to explore how people have an inner and outer self, and how we transition between them. When a photographer is making a portrait, he or she often tries to break the boundary between these two. We looked at the work of Dawoud Bey and Yousuf Karsh as examples. We talked about whether we thought a portrait was public or private, how composition informed our opinions, and how the photographer might interact with the subject to create the portrait. Then the students worked in groups of two to make double portraits of each other using digital cameras. They had about twenty minutes to take as many pictures as they needed, and by the end of the workshop they had to select one image that represented the private self, and one that represented the public self.

In the theater segment, Alyssa had the students interact with each other in viewpoints exercises. They explored movement and gesture while interacting with each other to create mini-performances about boundaries.

At the end of the first day, we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to discuss connections between the photography and theater segments. But we were happy that the students were overall engaged in the work we did with them. I began to realize that when you are a TA doing short-term work it is difficult to know (at least at first) if you made an impact. A typical teacher has a much longer period of time to build relationships with students and to reinforce knowledge. In the first day, I was just beginning to see the students’ personalities come out. What impressed me was their willingness and ability to give their opinions about the photos that we looked at, which is a testament in part to their teacher and school for encouraging them to be vocal about their opinions.

On our second day, we wanted to combine the theater and photography more seamlessly, while also delving a bit deeper into how borders are manifested within Linblom. In the first fifteen minutes of class, we discussed the portraits from the previous session. The students picked up on how they switch between private and personal selves in daily situations. Then the main focus of the day was to make a short theater piece. To warm up, we did an exercise where we slowly went from being bent down to standing up to get a sense of when we became aware of other people watching. We talked about possible spaces within the school where they switched between their public and private selves, such as the cafeteria, and the hallway between classes.

Then we gave them their assignment of working in small groups to create a short and silent theater piece that investigated the public, private, and the border in-between. They also had to include one frozen moment, which would be photographed by the students not performing. Although I am not an expert in theater performance, I helped the student groups to consider composition and activating the architectural spaces they were working in. An area of the school that many students agreed related to borders was the stairs. (Two out of three groups performed on the stairs.) At Linblom, certain stairways are unofficially designated for upperclassmen or underclassmen, so there is tension if that boundary is crossed.

Linblom students represent the ideas of borders and boundaries through performance.  Photo by a Linblom student.

One group performance on the stairs involved a student entering the stairway, while a group of girls point and laugh at him because he is not part of their group. The frozen moment was when I entered (as a teacher) and held up my arms for them to stop. Overall the performances were successful, and it was a unique experience for the students to photograph the performances during the freeze. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to look at the photos as a class with the projector. Our second day at Linblom was more focused on theater, but I think being more focused helped the students relate what they did to the topic of borders and boundaries within their school.

After our experience with arts integration at Linblom, I felt more confident that arts integration could be achieved without totally diminishing the art making. I still have a lot to learn about how fine-tune the balance between teaching art techniques and incorporating class content, but participating in it first hand was very helpful. My third and final blog about TAD Studio will be about the process of reflecting on, presenting, and critiquing the teaching work we did at Lindblom.

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