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By: Sarah Stearns
Young Playwrights Teaching Artist Apprentice
My fellow Teaching Artist Apprentice Jasmine and I have spent much of this past fall and winter learning how to be better teaching artists. In nineteen classrooms at eight middle schools, we’ve honed our skills, leading middle school students through the ins and outs of monologue writing in preparation for the Middle School Monologue Festival. At the festival in March, twelve winning monologues written by middle school playwrights will be performed by professional actors at Interact Theatre Company.
We’ve worked with groups as small as four students at Mighty Writers in South Philly and as big as forty at Holy Child Academy in Drexel Hill. We’ve worked with fifth graders through eighth graders. We’ve worked with groups where every single playwright wanted to share every word she had written; and in classrooms where the sentence “Anyone want to read for the class?” was met with downcast eyes and panicked whispering.
Coming to teaching artistry from the perspective of an actor, I quickly discovered that as far as audiences go, middle school playwrights are a force to be reckoned with. As Jasmine and I continued to teach the activities we first developed back in October, our workshops became something of a performance. Each time we taught, we perfected our timing, our wording and, most importantly, our energy. Every class we visited -- from Center City to the ‘main line’ suburbs -- mirrored whatever level of enthusiasm that we gave them. They, in turn, responded with monologues as wild, as bold, and as imaginative as we gave them permission to be.
I’ll offer you the example of the brief introduction we perform every time we begin a class. Jasmine asks students to take a look around the classroom to find and put on their “imagination caps”. The first few times Jasmine asked students to do this, I nervously watched from the safety of the chalkboard as the disbelieving stares emerged. I would silently plead with the students to buy in, to not decide they were too mature to play along with us. Finally, in one class, Jasmine asked me to tell the students what my imagination cap looked like. I said something about it being blue and fluffy (possibly because of the blue fluffy winter hat I’d worn to work that morning). Immediately I realized that the more Jasmine and I bought in to the exercise, the more the students would, too. I started spending these early moments of each workshop earnestly searching for my cap and dramatically sweeping it on to my head. As dubious eighth graders looked my way, I buckled my imagination cap under my chin with a wry grin.
There’s almost always a moment of perfectly synchronized jazz hands in every lesson we teach, and the very satisfying opening of “I’m Jasmine!” “And I’m Sarah!” announced with the vigor of a vaudeville act. I fully believe, after my few short months of teaching in classrooms, that even the most cynical of eighth graders can be prodded and cajoled into carefree creativity. This belief has been affirmed not only by the appreciative classroom teachers we’ve worked with, but also by the piles of adventurous monologue submissions pouring in to our offices this past month. (Over 300 at last count!)
It is much the same with any performance. The more you give your audience, the more your audience will give and get back. With teaching artistry, this loop has become even more apparent. What I give my students is precisely what they will give back in the work we’re doing in their classroom.
If you’re curious about what students have been putting into workshops with Philadelphia Young Playwrights, look no further than the Middle School Monologue Festival on March 14th and 15th. If these daring adventures, fantastical worlds, and brave confrontations are any indication of what Philadelphia students are capable of giving, then, as a teaching artist, I absolutely owe them my all.