Hey folks, [Apologies, this will be a longer post.]
In my last post I talked about the SIX questions I need to answer in order to solidify the foundation on which our La Salle theater community is built. I wrote about my answer to, “What is Theater?” in the last blog. What’s my Line? Building a Foundation.
In today’s post I’d like to share some of my musings in answering the question, “What is Community?” more specifically, “What is a healthy, thriving theater community?”
The more specific I can be the better.
Ideas are powerful. Ideas which can be translated into solid anchors…that…that is transformational.
As I’ve mentioned before. Intent matters. Impact matters. A healthy, collaborative community requires authentic reflection and growth in both. I have to ask myself, “What is my impact?” AND I have to ask this of the student technicians, designers and artists. Together we need to wrestle with this…all…the…time.
What is my impact?
I bring this up because throughout my vocational journey as an educator, I’ve often gotten enmeshed in good ideas and how I’m articulating those ideas to others. Sometimes I’ve mistaken good ideas in my space for a good space.
Vulnerable moment alert:
Sometimes, I’ve been really, really good at articulating the “why” and not always so good at the “how”.
I don’t know. In some small way, maybe that’s part of why I want to share with you all this #theatrelife. We are better together in community AND in part, this blog is a way for me to connect with all of you who are a part of this La Salle Theater Community. To share not just what we do but what we are about. Not just “why” but the “how”.
Many years ago, at a different school, a principal proudly announced to us, “We are a school who produces life-long learners!”
I LOVE IT!
It’s aspirational AND…
…it can be worthless.
It’s a beautiful “why” with no practical “how”. I know I’m splitting hairs here and perhaps I’m being too critical. It’s for a reason. I want myself, I want ALL of US to think about our practice.
What are we trying to achieve in the spaces in which we move?
We have a sign on the door into the backstage area of the La Salle Theater which reads, “All are Welcome, Always” and by association, everyone matters in this space.
But what does that ACTUALLY mean?
I mean…really. If I say everyone matters in this space. What specifically does that mean? How does it look day to day? What am I doing as the educator in the space to check if students are taking all of these ideas and talk and practice to heart? To check if I’m taking them to heart? What do I do when students don’t take them to heart? Or when I don’t? How am I de-centering my own voice as a white cis-gender he/him and building relationship that allows for more student voices? BIPOC voices? LGBTQUIA+ voices? Women’s voices? All voices? In other words, how am I taking good ideas, good intentions and honestly assessing their impact?
So that’s part of my why…what about my how?
Here’s my how…
The doors are always open. Period.
My office door. The theater door. The backstage door. Period.
There is a caveat. The caveat is what we call our Space Agreements. Every year during the first week of classes I take time with my student actors, designers and technicians to collectively create Space Agreements. Some folks call them classroom norms. They are the things by which we all agree to abide and when I say we all agree, we work through the process collectively until everyone agrees. With some groups this can take a very long time.
Long and tired sigh just thinking about it.
Step two. Parent(s)/Guardian(s) are sent the agreements to sign AND the students all must sign a contract saying they will abide by the agreements during the school year.
The agreements are posted in the space. The agreements are posted online. The agreements are posted on assignments. I verbally remind students of the agreements often. The agreements, the agreements, the agreements.
Every student who comes into the space knows the agreements and the expectation is that when you walk through those open doors into a space OPEN FOR EVERYONE there is an agreed way upon which we will treat ourselves and each other. For the students there is an agency, a voice and they hold themselves and each other accountable.
It’s not necessarily about the agreements. That’s just something I do because it works for me. It’s about developing a culture of personal accountability and agency. It’s about giving the students voice. It’s about recognizing the power of brave spaces which have been created collectively.
I have found with my students there are many classroom management issues that go away when instead of dictating to them how things will be; I invite them to take ownership of how things will be.
And while I can write about Space Agreements in just a few sentences I hope the briefness doesn’t take away from the deep challenge it can be developing a collective code of conduct. Most of my students, most of us, do not necessarily have ample occasions to learn to play nice with each other. We don’t often get purposeful training on how to create a healthy, collaborative environment. So, it’s not always “pretty” trying it on in the classroom. It’s often raw and difficult and sometimes painful.
It is also essential.
If I am trying to help my students be the highest versions of themselves, to value community and be proactive about authenticity and, using a former principal’s own words, “…create life-long learners” then helping model for them the importance of collectively giving voice and coming into agreement is HUGE.
If I have to take the whole first week simply being in the throes of the processes of giving voice and agency and collectively coming into agreement…that’s a powerful first week!
Shelton, you’re a theater teacher, why are you focusing on this? What does this have to do with acting? I cannot expect my students to be vulnerable, to be in an emotionally open space which is a requirement in theater, if I don’t first guide us into community. Throw back to the last blog. Trust matters. Trust is essential.
We have to build community, collaboration and trust. My students cannot be expected to be vulnerable unless they know it is safe to do so. They cannot be expected to be brave unless they know it’s safe to do so. They cannot be expected to fail unless they know it’s safe to do so.
What about the content? The content will never matter if I don’t create an environment in which students can receive that content.
So…that’s our lesson for today class. 🙂
There will be more on all this later.
It’s already a long post.
AND It’s still summer.