via poetica

a poet & storyteller observing society

In the last several weeks I’ve applied for teaching jobs for the next semester. While we all know that being a teacher and being a teaching artist are not the same, a book I just finished reading has given me a new appreciation for the common ground — and common goals — that both types of educators share, as well as a better focus on my intentions as an educator. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character makes a fresh case that success is not found in scores on tests, but in something much harder to quantify: grit, curiosity, resilience, and creativity.

Of course, there are many educators who know this already, so in a sense a teacher or teaching artist reading Tough’s book may feel like he’s preaching to the choir. But, I always find it useful to keep in mind an author’s intended audience, and what that means for the book. In this case, Tough isn’t writing for teachers. His case is meant for the layman, and true to his roots as a journalist, he’s backing up his arguments with interviews, case studies, and extensive research. It’s one thing to argue for students needing skills for success beyond what can be measured on a test (this is, after all, part of why arts integration claims to work so well). It’s another thing to be able to point to literally thousands of pages of research in psychology, sociology, economics, and human development when making your argument, and say, “Look what these facts are telling us.”

I came to appreciate Tough’s approach. First, though, a couple caveats.

First, he covers a lot of ground very quickly, and I’m now finding it difficult to make sense of the jottings I made, or recall specifics of the research from memory. So in hindsight, I would have taken much more thorough notes on the book, so that I could dig up more of the research for myself.  The information is great, but there’s a lot of it there. So if this book is to provide the arsenal of research that it could for educators, keep a notebook close by.

Second, I think that the first few chapters were a bit slow to put together his point — lots of interesting examples and bits of data, but to my mind it didn’t yet have a structure of how it all fit together. He covered everything from the mindset work of Carol Dweck, to Martin Seligman’s idea of Learned Optimism, to health clinics in the inner city, to the character report card used in KIPP charter schools, to an extended case study of a chess program at a middle school in Brooklyn. All were deeply engaging, and offered insights into what a whole body of research is saying on the value of “noncognitive skills” like optimism, curiosity, and the like. It was a lot of ground, and it felt a bit meandering as much as it was an engrossing read.

By the end, however, Tough’s arguments became clear, and the breadth of his research paid off. The skills we need to teach are students aren’t just about having fundamental literacy or numeracy, but a deep appreciation for what that learning can do for a student later in life. As it turns out, a lot of that research outside of education settings translates into a pretty clear view that if we consciously worked to develop the non-cognitive skills of our students, then the whole education reform debate would radically change. Having well-developed curiosity, a dedication to learning, and a sense of optimistic resilience about what school achievement can mean actually ameliorates the effects of poverty on students. Issues around race, class, and the quality of inner city schools are critical dimensions of current discussion in education, but as Tough’s research shows, all of those issues also need to consider, “How well can our students handle those challenges? Are the resilient? Do they have the mindset, the optimism, and the character so that they can handle those stresses and motivate themselves for achievement?”

Stepping back from those questions, there’s also the question, “What’s an educator’s role in this process?” Thankfully, Tough demonstrates that too, with fantastic examples from teachers in cities around the country. This, to me, is where the book really shone for teachers. I got to a point where I said, “I want my students to have those skills! I want to challenge them like that!”  There are great examples of teachers doing what we all hope to do. So with the New Year around the corner, Tough’s book prompts me to make a resolution — that in the coming year I will do whatever I can to focus on the resilience, grit, and curiosity of my students. I hope you do the same. Tough persuasively demonstrates that when we focus on these skills, the test scores and other conventional measures of success will follow.

If you’d like to learn more about Paul Tough, you can buy his book, or check out his website at PaulTough.com

“We don't define play. But we do have a phrase that we use to help us identify what is play. And that phrase is that: Play is a set of behaviors that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. And we use that as a touchstone for testing out whether we've provided a rich play environment for children.” ~Penny Wilson, Alliance for Childhood

What might that definition of play — “behaviors...freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated” — mean for our artistic experiences? For our teaching? For learning through the arts, stories, and games?

Among books on community engagement, Margaret Wheatley’s Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future is incredibly unique. It is not a book on facilitation, or pedagogy, or community building — and yet dives to the heart of all three: dialogue with others. With all of the incredible tools and methods at our fingertips for engaging communities, working with young people, and creating spaces for learning, Wheatley asks us to go back to the basics, and have a conversation around the issues and questions that matter most to us and the people around us.

The book is not something I expect that every community builder, educator, or teaching artist will immediately think to read. This is partly why the book intrigued me. Wheatley is deeply influenced by Paulo Freire, and quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness throughout the book, saying that conversations are the staring point for empowerment, engagement, and education. Sharing her commitment to education through dialogue and sharing of personal stories, early in the book I thought, “Okay, so how can I deepen the conversations that guide my practice?”

This question led me to love portions of the book, and have mixed feelings about other parts. On the one hand, since Wheatley is someone who can recommend practical and actionable tools for dialogue, and clearly knows the world of organizational development and leadership, I was left wanting a bit more of the how-to. On the other hand, Wheatley clearly doesn’t intend this to be a book on how to have those dialogues. She even says that, “once something becomes a technique, it gets too complicated.” She wants something simple and straightforward — having genuine conversations around the issues that matter in our communities. I found that keeping this goal in mind was especially helpful.

We live in a world where too often issues are delegated to “leaders” to solve because of their “expertise.” Wheatley's book is a humble reminder that expertise is an outgrowth of experience, something that everyone has in a community. Therefore, genuine conversations around the issues that inspire or anger us are what really brings a community together for change. In Part 1, Wheatley makes a case for why this should be done, and the healing potential it has for communities. In Part 2, she asks us to pause and reflect, offering artwork and key phrases from the book. I saw this part as inviting us away from our notions of expertise and finding outside solutions to intervene, and toward a more asset-based approach — the primary asset here being a community's innate gifts of being with one another in dialogue.

The conversation starters in the book help with this, daunting as it can be to not have “methods.”. Part 3 is a collection of essays and poems organized around twelve different thoughtful questions that can start conversations anywhere, with anyone. This is also where the most powerful feature of the book is found — the quality and depth of the questions. Conversations are guided by questions like, “What do I believe to be true about others?” “What is my role in creating change?” “When have I experienced deep listening?” ”Can I be fearless?” In other words, they are questions that indeed invite us to turn to one another and have a conversation — no methods, no goals, no outside expertise. Just genuine sharing for the health and wholesomeness of our lives, and how we affect each other in community.

All in all I found the book to be very nourishing, and a rewarding read. It affirmed what many of us who engage communities through the arts and civic dialogue are trying to do, but left it up to the reader as to how to proceed in ways that felt the most authentic and giving.

Since reading the book, I've used several of the poems and portions of the essays as prompts for my students, as they create poetry and theatre around the issues important in their lives. What I found is that the book does not call us to simple answers, or quick chats. It asks that we take time to think about the crucial conversations in our communities, and then, with the essays and poems as possible starting points, we begin that journey. It is not something that can get packaged up as a neat “teachable moment.” Those conversations form an ongoing process, one that each of us as citizens and artists concerned with the life and well-being of our communities, would do well to partake in.

This week I cam across two articles that got me thinking about what exactly the arts teach to students.

The first article was from the grandfather of teaching artistry, Eric Booth. His essay “Prescription for Health: Empathetic Entry Into the Stories of Others” claims the arts to be a source of ‘cultural nutrition’ for our society, inspiring empathy, connectedness, and community. He concludes, too, that teaching artists are critical in this landscape:

“Teaching artists have the creative gift of empathy. They know, intimately and articulately, what it is like for those unfamiliar with the arts to enter artistic experiences. They are the tour guides of artistic process. They design their work in an inventive crucible of remembering what it is like to experience things for the first time and knowing deeply the ways inside the arts. They are natives in the foreign land (for a large majority) of artistic practice, and have developed the skills of customized guided tours that enable almost anyone to take action because they feel they belong. Their work has power because it is authentic; it is a creative act to design such learning journeys, and they bring an artist’s flair and an expert’s true joy. To participate in a teaching artist’s entry into the work of art is to be the artist you are, even if only in a small way. To be the artist you are is to be an active participant in a healthier life, healthier family, healthier culture.”

The second article is “A Call to All Social-Emotional Learning Leaders” from Maurice Elias. His point is simple: there’s a lot of talk around social-emotional learning and youth development, but it’s a bit like the Tower of Babel. There’s overlap, differing terminology, and no unifying statement of what our goals as educators are. I’m all for this discussion, but it raises some hairy questions for me:

  • If educators want a discussion around social-emotional learning / character education / youth development / [fill in the blank], who are they going to bring into this discussion? Only teachers and policymakers, or also students, parents, and (teaching) artists?
  • Would the creation of a shared definition and platform in fact exclude certain nuances from this dialogue?
  • How would such a dialogue (and the manifesto that may result from it) impact different approaches to this work?
  • Finally, what claim do the arts have in this process?

My bias is of course to the last question. There’s tons of evidence citing how students who participate in school and community arts programs develop more of the “noncognitive skills” that comprise the social-emtional learning curricula. There’s even books on using readers theatre for character education, and how drama can contribute to a citizenship curriculum. So I’m left wondering if the most practical solution is not to get “leaders of the social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education fields to jump in the sandbox together and create a set of common guidelines” but instead to explore commonalities by seeing the overlap in how it is done. It’s no surprise to teaching artists that games and role-plays are a part of these curricula; it’s those very strategies and more that lend the arts part of their learning benefit.

Whatever we call it, the point is to develop our young people into better, more compassionate citizens — learners in the most holistic sense. If we should declare anything, I’m of the opinion that we put forth guidelines for how to do it, not what it is. We all know what it is, we just name it differently. If we can agree on guidelines for doing it though, then maybe Eric Booth’s vision (and mine) for a richer, more creative culture won’t seem so out-of-reach.

What are your thoughts? Do you as a teaching artist share these kinds of goals? How might the kind of shared platform Elias describes be beneficial to your practice?

With all of the wonderful reading I've been doing on games and creative play lately, I realized that some fun insights could be had around words stemming from the Latin word for play.

  • Ludus — Latin for play, game. Also the name for primary schools in ancient Rome.
  • Ludi — Latin for players, or students, depending on context. Also refers to spiritual, festival games.
  • Ludus Magnus — the largest gladiatorial arena in Rome; literally “great game.”

And now for some word in English...

  • Allude — to reference, to play with.
  • Collusion — playing together, an agreement.
  • Elude — to escape, literally “away from play.”
  • Illude — to trick, literally “in play.”
  • Illusion — tricking, deceiving, literally “playing upon.”
  • Interlude — between the playing, a pause
  • Ludicrous — outrageous, over-the-top, out of control
  • Prelude — before the playing, a getting ready
  • Postlude — after the playing, a conclusion

What words on this list stand out to you? What connection did you find the most interesting? Are there others you can think of?

Back in 1978, lover of games Bernard De Koven published a little book called The Well-Played Game: A Player's Philosophy. Before computers, video games, or the voluminous research on how play affects the brain, Bernie De Koven put forth the seeds of what play, games, and the community that creates them together could mean for our world. Fast forward to 2013, and the book has been re-released by MIT Press (and I hope by the end of my review that artists and educators will be as excited about this as I am). The new edition also has a foreword by game designer Eric Zimmerman, author of “Manifesto for the Ludic Century.” While the words “game,” “play,” “community,” and even “mind” have taken on new meanings in the last 35 years, the book's central question remains a valid one for all of us: What makes a well-played game?

A well-played game is more than a “good game,” where someone enjoys winning. It goes deeper, to the intention of playing well together, and the kind of ongoing negotiation that playing well together requires. Bernie then goes through all of the things that can affect a well-played game. What conventions are allowed? Can we change a game? When would bending the rules or cheating be allowed? What is the role of winning or losing? What are the goals of our playing together — and do they support who we are as people?

These questions — not always answered by De Koven, but posed and mulled over — are possible because well-played games do not happen in a vacuum. They are well-played because we are in them with other people, feeling both challenged and cared for. If the game is about the risks and the strategies, play is about the care and connection between people playing, regardless of team. This care Bernie calls “the play community.” It is the spirit of the play community that fosters the well-played game, and provides the players permission to do things like change the rules, switch to a different game, call a time out, or any of the other features of games that we may take for granted. De Koven  argues that these things aren't only features of the games themselves, but of our play community. Moreover, if a rule is bent too much, changes not agreed upon, or if people lose the intention to play together, then the play community quickly disintegrates. The question, in the end, is how far we are willing to go to maintain and care for our play community.

Then Bernie made a distinction that seems like a premonition of our time: the playing mind versus the gaming mind. With all of the talk around the use of games in education, business, and everywhere else, we seem to often think with the gaming mind — in terms of rules and structures and meeting goals; making something into a game to be won or lost. But there is also the playing mind — the side of us that loves freedom and spontaneity and random acts of kindness and joy. It's the mind that says, “Change the rules that don't work, so we can keep playing.” Balancing the playing mind and the gaming mind is part of the delicate challenge of maintaining the play community. This, Bernie says, is why sometimes we can get lost in the game (I must win!), or lost in the silliness of play (who cares? Let's have fun!).

All in all, I think The Well-Played Game offers something unique that the volumes of writing out there now on games and play. It's central question — the nature of a well-played game — is something that extends beyond gamers and game designers to those who play in others ways: artists, teachers, parents, and so on. It's important to remember when reading it that it is a philosophy, an eloquent examination of the underpinnings of our play communities. It does not lay out in concrete terms the steps to create such a community, or which games to play when doing so. To those sorts of questions, I can imagine Bernie saying, “Let's just play and see what happens.” But nevertheless it contributes something important to the ongoing conversations about the role of games and creative play in our world and our work: when we play, let's ensure we are playing well.

If Eric Zimmerman is right, then we are entering the Ludic Century — a new era of play. Bernie's book asks us, ultimately, to consider the kinds of communities we will create with the games we play, with all of the risk and relationship inherent in playing. Let us not only play the games we play, but do so artfully, mindfully, and well. In striving for that kind of play community, then we can give voice to how we hope games and creative play can create lasting change.

Eric Zimmerman's Manifesto for a Ludic Century

This short Manifesto extolls the intrinsic value of games and playing them. Games are sublime, responsive to our needs, and participatory to the core. In this way, Zimmerman says, games are a crucial feature of the the future and how our society is growing and changing.

Do I agree with everything? I'm not sure yet.

Is it thought provoking? Quite. It certainly makes me want to keep playing.

What are your thoughts? How do you view games in what you do? What does the notion of “games” inspire for you?

Pleading for Better People

The NYU program in Educational Theatre (where I got my MA) has a blog called Revue. Periodically they ask for alumni to give their thoughts on working in the field, which I did.

As I continue to explore being a teaching artist, I find myself more interested in developing students as people, not just as artists.

Some questions since I wrote the piece:

  • What do other teaching artists seek to inspire in their students?
  • What skills are the arts most prepared to teach?
  • How can we better cultivate the best in our society through our work?

After my earlier article on Howlround sparked a bit of debate, I curated a series on political ideology and theatre-making. As a part of that, I wrote some further thoughts.

In previous writings I’ve hinted at something that I think is a pretty big deal for teaching artists, and it’s time that I come out and say it:

Teaching Artists have a HUGE role to play in revitalizing education.

I think for a while I’ve implicitly believed this, but the more I consider it the more I realize its edgy truth. Think about it. Schools are cutting arts and enrichment programs and focusing on testing. Parents and community members are less involved in schools. Struggling students give up and drop out, rather than being able to find their passions. Some of those same students end up in prisons and hospitals.

Now, enter teaching artists.

Schools are cutting full-time arts programs, and teaching artists seek grants to create something in their place. We form after-school programs, before-school programs, and community classes. Best of all, we aren’t “failed artists” who teach. We’re still active artists and performers, and we can show that life (with all of its own challenges) to our students.

Schools are focusing on testing, so teaching artists use arts integration. Who knew you could dance about the patterns of the golden ratio? Or create art out of graphed algebraic equations? Or use theatre and storytelling to immersively test literacy? Teaching artists know. And we’re sharing that with teachers and students.

Parents and community members are less involved in schools. Teaching artists are bringing people together to tell stories in a community space. It’s not just lamenting the issues anymore, it’s active engagement. It’s giving space for real struggles to be heard, given voice, acted out. (This is applied theatre at its most sublime, so far as I’m concerned). Archiving and using those stories means having a resource for ongoing dialogue, too.

Struggling students don’t find their passions, because their passion may not be offered. Research supports that a student who participates in arts programs of some kind is more likely to succeed in any subject, and feel motivated about school. That one area of real passion and interest may not turn into a career, but an avocation still inspires academic focus and success.

Youth end up in prisons and hospitals. Teaching artists are even needed here. My mentor from grad school (the incredible Nan Smithner), has made theatre with prisoners for something like 15 years. Programs like that have been shown to help prisoners cope with their challenges, and lower rates of reincarceration. In hospitals, creative play means more holistic healing and sustained health. Sickness is less scary when there is something to laugh about.

A lot of people give lip service to what the arts can do for our youth, or communities, and our world. Or, at least what they could do. Teaching artists are the ones actually getting out there and making it happen. If the arts are a revolution, then teaching artists are the grassroots organizers and mobilizers. That’s pretty cool. It makes me proud to be a teaching artist, and excited that I’m going to go on being one.

So the next time you hear, “The education system in this country isn’t working,” you can say, “Maybe, but I’m working to change that.”