La Teatrista

guerillera de la cultura

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Art of Education: Memoirs of a Teaching Artist





The Graduate


I was back from an unsuccessful attempt to make it for a second year at Texas Tech University when I got my first contract as a teaching artist. I moved to Lubbock, when I got a small playwright’s scholarship from Texas Tech for “Girlie Stories”. The county college production won festival honors and got a run in a great local theater. Glad to tell that part of the story first, since my once promising high school track derailed sophomore year turning four years into five. I finished at an alternative school where I moved through classes with work packets and assignments at my own pace checking in with teachers along the way.

My graduation ceremony was initiated when I turned in my final test for Math of Money (the last math class I could possibly pass to graduate). Once graded, numbers where crunched and submitted. My name was called on the intercom. Walking by the wall of graduates on my way to the office, I only felt relief knowing it was all done. The secretary had a blue cap and gown waiting for me. I put it on to begin the small school’s tradition. My parents and a family friend were in the office. The office staff came around blowing bubbles and tossing confetti in the air very warmly. The Principle hit play on a small boom box offering “Pomp and Circumstance” to mark my graduation march for some semblance of tradition in this informal version of a rite of passage. I smiled, camera’s snapped, bubbles popped on my nose and I went home brushing confetti and the end of an age off.

I chose not to walk the stage. I had walked my own way without school spirit, prep rallies or proms. My attempts at high school involvement only helped me stay away from it.

The advancement from high school to community college to receive a university scholarship felt like a victory. I still bombed my academic classes left and right for three years, while I seemed to do well in my newly discovered pursuits. Thankfully my first professors believed in my abilities and recognized a drive that I could harness. With their help, acting and writing had brought me recognition in an unexpected way. I won a Best Actress Award my first year at Tech, but none the less I couldn’t hack it in a university either. To make sense of it all, I had to step away and be realistic about my education.

I moved on from completing a degree in theater to find opportunities on stage, taking in every ounce that resonated in me from local writers, directors, actors in the community of theater in Fort Worth, Texas. I figured I could also make my own way to master a craft that I found ultimately drives my strongest instincts.

A friend mentioned a listing for a bilingual position with an after school program as a theater instructor. I learned to swim as a small kid, when I was thrown in the pool. This method still proves most effective for me. Acting, writing, directing, producing, cooking or living: I learn best in sink or swim situations. I was hired.

With a rocky start, many triumphs and failures, I found what it really means to learn by doing. I have been a teaching artist for eight years and found the art of teaching has single-handedly taught me how to learn. The effects on my artistry are reflected in my diversified career path and progress as a professional in my field.

I am convinced the arts and imaginative learning can create bridges for many students to tap into a well that will give them tools to access what was previously inaccessible. In a time of devastating results of American academic practices and standards, the current crisis from public to private institutions are making headway to shift traditional learning paradigms.

Economically -challenged communities are facing record numbers of school closings in a country where prison construction is on the rise and wardens receive ample funds to build state of the art facilities. The generation informed by technology, raised in an era of convenience and speed are in the hands of underpaid educators. Advocates are desperately reaching for new answers to empower students and prepare them with more options and resources.

Teaching artists are taking creativity to the next level by engaging learners to develop practices that instill decision-making, reflection, empathy, and creative problem solving skills. They are raising informed audiences supportive of arts and culture one classroom at a time. Through theater, music, visual arts, dance, writing and film professional artists can transform the landscape of American education.

I cannot say if my career would have benefitted from a degree or not. I have also seen the flip side of higher education that only accrues debt with no promise of a return in the form of career or stability particularly in the arts field. It is also uncertain if returning for my degree will help or slow me down now. Would I have the opportunity to work with some of the top arts organizations in the country? Does my one thousand hours of creating and implementing curriculums as a theater artist over eight years make me a master in my field without a piece of paper? What kind of education is respected in America?

I made my own way the best I could navigating through an education system to offer an alternative voice for learning while strengthening my own as an artist. Inspired by the community of artists armed with vision and pedagogues that brave the nation’s best and most dire classrooms to foster innovation and expression, these memoirs share a lifestyle guided by the learning and culture crisis in America. There is an education in art and it is an art to educate.


Mayan Calendar created by the students of White Bird Creative Theatrics lead by Erin Orr

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