On the Road to 30 and Broke: The Artist as an Educator

“If you’re gonna be an artist, it’s a time when you just have to embrace the responsibility and understand the power of music is something so special and to be able to do it on this magnitude where you reach millions of people, it’s like, why not use that for good? Why not tell kids something that they can connect with and use in their lives?” -Kid Cudi

 

Thank you's from Summer 2013: Summer Arts Literacy

Thank you’s from Summer 2013: Summer Arts Literacy

 

Some more amazing thank you's from my students at both Rawson Elementary and Breakthrough Magnet South in Hartford, CT.

Some more amazing thank you’s from my students at both Rawson Elementary and Breakthrough Magnet South in Hartford, CT.

Pieces of the Cheshire Cat costume created by a student from Noah Webster Microsociety, Hartford, CT.

Pieces of the Cheshire Cat costume created by a student from Noah Webster Microsociety, Hartford, CT.

 

I never dreamed of being a teacher. I used to play “school” with my sisters. We had a chalkboard in the basement of our abuela’s house and on the weekends I would draft up worksheets, collect workbooks my mom would buy for us, and assign them to my sisters. I worked at a summer camp for five years, volunteered at a boys and girls club in Rhode Island during college, and was a baby sitter when I was 13-14 years old. I had the energy and charisma needed to work with children. I always had a knack for teaching, but I never wanted to pursue it. After two years of freelancing as a teaching artist, I STILL don’t have the desire to teach full-time everyday. However, there are crowning moments that occur like the one today (August 4, 2014):

During a five-week Early Start Summer Arts Literacy program, a young girl struggled with retaining information and reciting what was learned. She would write down everything you tell her, but could not process information, organize her thoughts, and put them down on paper. Her reading level was at about second-grade and we were reading the ancient Greek tragedy, “Antigone” by Sophocles. By week five, our class was gearing up for performance and she was our designated Narrator. She was assigned to write, in her own words, what happened to Antigone after she was caught breaking the law by giving her brother, Polynices, a proper burial. I ask:

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Can you explain to me what exactly happened right after Antigone buries her brother?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do know. We have talked about it all along. Who finds Antigone?”

“Creon?”

“Not Creon. But close. Who does Creon send to find the person who broke the law?”

“Ismene?”

“Not Ismene. Remember, Ismene didn’t want anything to do with Antigone’s plans. So if Ismene isn’t around, who would Creon send? Who would be the person responsible to watch over the body?”

“A Watcher?”

“Also known as a-”

“a guard?”

“YES! and in the story of “Antigone” what do they call the guard?”

“I don’t know.”

“It starts with an S-”

“Sentry?”

“YES! So what happens right after Antigone buries the body?”

“I don’t remember.”

“We just talked about it. Use that bright big brain of yours that remembers every single episode of ‘Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta’ and explain to me what happens after Antigone buries the body.”

“Umm (*thinks for a moment) the Sentry? goes and tells Creon about Antigone?”

“Right…and why is it so important that the Sentry tells Creon what happens?”

“I don’t know!”

“Yes, you do know! It starts with an L.”

“Law?”

“Yessss! That’s why it’s so important! You also rewrote Creon’s Proclamation in your last narration. In that paragraph, he announces the Law, which is…”

“Polynices is to be left to the dogs and vultures.”

“Exactly. So, again, explain to me exactly what happens after Antigone buries the body.”

“The Sentry sees Antigone and goes to tell Creon because it is the law to not bury the body.”

“Exactly. Look at you! You remembered everything!”

“Miss?”

“Yes?”

“Can I add something else to it?”

“Of course! What would you like to add?”

“I want to add: Creon punishes Antigone by sending her to a cave that is blocked up and she is left there to die.”

“Honey, that is perfect.”

____________________________________________________________________________________________

That was a crowning moment because we literally sat there for about 15 minutes trying to organize the sequence of events in her mind. When she finally realized it IN ADDITION TO adding more material, it blew me away. I was so freaking happy! Then she practiced on her own all three of her narrations, read them back to me with so much ease and so much more confidence than she had before. She was so proud of herself that she ended up helping other groups with work that needed to be done.

I’m sure you are probably wondering, “Well, Katya, if you felt like this, why wouldn’t you want to be a full-time teacher? The way you moved this student is astounding!”

Well, the answer is pretty simple, in my head at least:

I don’t think I would fully be happy. I would ache for my own personal creativity. I would yearn to find a means to unleash my inner self: explore new words, physically and mentally exercise my muscles, and sing loud to the mountaintops a voice that needs to be heard. However…

That may sound somewhat selfish, but I think it’s in how you apply your inner desires to the world around you. It is these crowning moments that fuel the work that I want to do. I want to show the world, using this child, and many others, as an example of our broken education system. How it doesn’t make sense that urban children living in low-income neighborhoods do not receive the help and support they need in order to become big dreamers, creative thinkers, and innovative leaders. So many children have lost the sense imagination because they are forced to grow up so quickly. Many of them have witnessed domestic violence, murders, and robberies. Many of them move from home to home with the hesitation to call their biological parent “mommy” or “daddy.” Many children, like the one above, look at reality television and really believe that what they see on the screen is indeed “reality.”  How can I, as an artist, inspire our children to become active listeners, deep and critical thinkers, and innovative leaders?

Like Kid Cudi, I strongly believe that it is my responsibility, my obligation, my DUTY of being the artist as an educator, to encourage and inspire children to think big and act on their ideas. Teach them, in the work that I do, to analyze their surroundings and choose what is right and wrong. Critically think about the choices that they make and how they will affect their future. Be confident and courageous. Be risk takers and understand it is okay if you make a mistake and fall. Find the strength within yourself to get back up and try again…or try something new.

Future leaders in the making!

Future leaders in the making!

So why not use the power of storytelling, via performance and outreach, to teach these children how the stories of the past connect with their present lives? It’s what I tell my Youth Play Institute actors when I’m coaching them. How do these events, these character relationships, and their feelings affect you? How has this story moved you to think differently? Even if you don’t act on these thoughts, they’ve made you think in a different way; thus making you a better person than what you were before. Lastly, making the artist a powerful force in our community’s mission to prepare our children for the world ahead of them.

Some more future artists in the making!

Some more future artists in the making!

 

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