December 31, 2010
For the past five years, I have been working with an organization in New York City called Opening Act. Opening Act brings free, high quality theatre programs to some of the most underserved New York City high schools. While there are many organizations in New York that bring arts programming to schools, Opening Act, under the leadership of Suzy Myers Jackson, is exceptional for a number of reasons. In relation to Asmi’s work, I want to speak about one specifically: teacher-training.
Not only does Opening Act provide regular teacher-training workshops for their teaching artists, but they have also built a solid curriculum for teaching artists to work with and a meaningful support network for teachers within the organization. I believe this is a key reason why Opening Act’s programs are so successful. In my time with Opening Act, I have not only learned how to be a teacher, but I have also become an experienced teacher-trainer. The skills, while overlapping, are not necessarily the same. Knowing how to train teachers is a skill set I find vital to Asmi’s work in Liberia.
This week marked the start of Asmi’s teacher-training program with LYDIA. For three weeks, six adult leaders in the community will learn and practice the skills involved with creating and running a youth drama program. Since there is no “standard” model here for this work, they are creating it from scratch with Asmi’s assistance. The drama program is focused primarily on addressing social issues in their community, teaching conflict resolution, and building confidence. LYDIA’s drama program will meet weekly and create shows to share with the larger community. For the young participants, this program will provide a safe space to address the major stresses of day-to-day life in Monrovia. For the teachers, this program was designed to eventually bring in pay. However, this week I realized that I severely underestimated the impact this program would have on the teachers involved.
For most young adults here, finding a job is a near impossible task, one that is both frustrating and discouraging. Besides going to high school or college (something which few can afford), there is a severe lack of positive outlets for these 20-somethings. Unable to set goals for their futures, life can feel hopeless. By learning new skills and building confidence as drama teachers, LYDIA’s teacher trainees have already started to see themselves as leaders in their community. It allows them to put their energy into positive outlets for the younger participants, and as a result, they can find a sense of purpose for themselves.
On Tuesday, we started the program by creating goals for ourselves as a group. We also covered topics like: qualities of a successful drama teacher, the differences between playing games and leading them, and how to construct a class and 6-month program that flows and builds upon techniques. I introduced three new exercises, and after playing them, the group split up into groups to practice leading the exercises. Then, Wednesday’s large workshop was taught by three of the teacher trainees. It was a huge success! Thursday’s training involved feedback and dialogue about Wednesday’s class, more discussion, and learning four new exercises focusing on trust and teamwork for Monday’s large workshop. Next week will be all about the teacher trainees sharing techniques, games, and playmaking methods with each other and me.
The six teacher trainees have been a delight to get to know. They are a dynamic group of intelligent, passionate, and inspired Liberians. I have amazing stories about each of them, but I would like to leave you with an interesting conversation with one of the teacher trainees after Tuesday’s class.
This woman, in early 20s, had been unsure about joining the training program, but I wasn’t sure why. In our first week in Liberia, she stood out as one of the most talented and intuitive actors in the room. However, when I asked her if she would be interested in joining the teacher-training program, she looked worried. We made a deal that she wouldn’t have to commit to the program until after the first class. After Tuesday’s class, she asked to speak with me privately. She explained that because of the war she had never been able to go to school, and as a result she could not read or write. She was too ashamed to tell me initially, so even though she had given me a verbal commitment, she had planned on not coming to our first session. Thankfully the other members of the training program, knowing her situation, convinced her to give it a try. I thanked her for having the courage to speak with me and pointed out that as opposed to traditional teachers in Liberia, drama teachers need to have a different skill set. They need social sensitivity, a passion for performance, and the ability to transform and create a safe space for their students. The ability to read and write was a useful, but unnecessary skill, one that I was sure she could work around with the directors of LYDIA. Her face broke into a huge smile, and when I asked her if she’d be coming back, she replied with an exuberant “Oh yes. It’s fine, fine!”
I probably should mention that “fine” is a commonly used word in Liberia that in this context, I took to mean “an exciting process to be part of.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
Happy New Year all!