David Speaks on the Role of the Arts in Students’ Lives – Why We Do What We Do

This year I and YPT were honored to receive the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award for visionary leadership. On Monday, June 7th, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, we received the award during a fun and compelling ceremony that highlighted the importance of the work of nonprofits in our community. I am so grateful to the Meyer Foundation, for the award, but also for the simple opportunity to share a few thoughts about why we do what we do. I’ve had several requests since that evening to post or share my remarks in some way, so here they are. I hope you’ll in some way connect with how we at YPT feel about the arts in students’ lives.

Monday, June 7, 2010
“Thank you so much. I’m so grateful to Julie, Rick, Carmen, Amy, the board of directors and everyone at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, to have their amazing support in my life and the life of Young Playwrights’ Theater. As those of us running organizations know all too well, the proof is in the people. And the Meyer Foundation is filled with true partners, true advocates and true friends to us in the nonprofit sector. I’ve dedicated my life to helping students express themselves and engage the world around them. Because I believe as much as we need to eat, sleep and clothe ourselves to be human, we need to express ourselves. We need to be able to share with our neighbors and the rest of the world what’s bothering us, how others can help us and what we fear or dream of for our future. And that beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, students need to be able to think for themselves. They need to be able to imagine, envision, and explain. They need to understand – not just know, but to understand what they’re learning and why. They need to be able to stand up, put their ideas forward and defend them. And they need to be able to inspire and be inspired.

I know that as I reflect on important moments in my life when I truly learned something, most of them didn’t happen sitting silently at a desk. Most of them were experiences, conversations, dialogues with other people that taught me something I didn’t know and stirred something inside me I didn’t know I had. And in this age of Facebook, Twitter and texting there’s an even greater understanding that comes from being in a room face to face, explaining with our whole selves what we mean, and learning about the world from direct experience and dialogue with our fellow human beings.

So as we’re ensuring that critical needs are met in these challenging times, and that students can do well on the latest standardized tests, I think we need to consider not only what will get us through the night, through the next month or next couple of years, but also what we want to be, what we want to look like and what we want to represent when we get through it.  What kind of society do we want to have? How will students compete in the global arena of ideas if they have none to share? And how can we envision our future if we’re not able to dream?

At Young Playwrights’ Theater we give students the tools they need to engage the world.  And in turn they share their dreams, their fears, their hopes and their visions for the future.  Every student writes a play. Every student hears their play performed by professional actors in the classroom. We share the students’ work with their community through readings, festivals and tours and we pay the students for the opportunity to produce their plays. The students introduce their work and speak about why they wrote what they wrote; they drive rehearsals and recognize their own power in the process. Truancy rates drop when we’re in the classroom. Homework completion soars with our assignments.  We see with our assessments that students’ critical and creative thinking improve dramatically during the program. And teachers, students and parents tell us how much the program has meant to them. Because for many of our students, it’s the first time someone has asked them what they think. It’s their first time to really engage in class.  It’s their first time to tell their stories.  And it’s their first time to realize their own true potential – a revelation of who they are, and who they could be.

Tonight, this honor helps me and all of us at YPT know that what we do matters – that having a vision, and thinking outside the box, makes a difference; that we have partners who believe in our mission; and that service toward a greater good is possible, even today. And that’s a huge gift. I want to thank my fellow recipients, who bring hope, love and strength to so many; thank you to my amazing staff at Young Playwrights’ Theater, Patrick Torres, Brigitte Moore, Elizabeth Andrews, who inspire me every day with their dedication, their passion and their generosity; to our wonderful board of directors and our amazing chair Brian Kennedy; thank you to the greatest Founder a successor could wish for, Karen Zacarias, and of course to our students, for their dedication, their inspiration and their awe-inspiring work; and to my family –  my parents, my sister, my beautiful wife Alex, my son Henry and my two-week old daughter Della for their love and grace in my life. I am grateful to do this work and I am so very grateful to be here tonight.  Thank you very, very much.”

Click here to see more info on the award and the video compilation of the evening, produced by the Meyer Foundation.

Hope to see you soon!

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

YPT Collaborates with Life Pieces to Masterpieces to Tell the Story of Historic Woodlawn Cemetery

Over the past three weeks, I’ve had the immense pleasure to work with the young men of Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM) on one of our current special projects, a new play we’re creating with the Ward 7 community about historic Woodlawn Cemetery.  As soon as I knew we’d be working in Ward 7, my home neighborhood, I knew LPTM would be a great partner for it.  LPTM is an extraordinary mentorship program for young men in Ward 7.  They give young men life and art skills that allow them to embrace their past and present and prepare for their future.  The young men explore leadership, responsibility, community and create paintings based on their own life stories.  Our group, the Legacy class, mostly consisting of 11 year old young men, began working with me about two and a half weeks ago on workshops exploring Woodlawn Cemetery, its history and the history of those interred at Woodlawn.  We explored how the site relates to our neighborhood and how learning about some of the extraordinary people buried at Woodlawn can help all of us better understand our history and prepare for our future.  For example, Senator Blanche Bruce, born a slave who ultimately became the first African American to serve a full term in the US Senate, is buried there.  Congressman Langston, first African American Congressman from Virginia and first civilian dean of Howard University Law School, is buried there.  As well as thousands of extraordinary women who were scholars, artists, educators and homemakers — a total of almost 36,000 people, many in unmarked graves, having been moved from previous sites throughout the city.

After we explored the history and the young men took a tour of the cemetery, we began sketching.  They sketched about 15 pictures and then chose 7 of those to paint.  First their teachers set up huge blank canvasses on the wall.  Each young man was given three primary colors and tasked with creating their own rich textures and colors and painting the canvasses freely, resulting in about 12 different colors of canvas.  Once these were dry the next day, the students figured out what figures or shapes they needed to create to convey their sketch onto canvas.  They then picked from the larges canvases they’d painted and drew the shapes on the back, then cutting these shapes out of the canvases.  Then they painted other canvases as backdrops for their paintings and, once they were dry, laid out the figures, symbols and landmarks from Woodlawn they’d created onto the backdrop.  They then sewed these patterns and shapes onto the canvas and stretched the canvases onto wooden frames.

The seven resulting paintings, all inspired by Woodlawn, will serve as the backdrop and setting for our readings of the play we’re creating with the community.  Plus, these young men have created poems and monologues about their insights and inspirations from Woodlawn, all of which will be added into the stew of the play, mixing their voices into a tapestry of voices about Woodlawn that will not only share our history but also our community.   The resulting paintings are extraordinary and inspired — I can’t wait for you to see them and meet these young men at the readings we’ll hold on September 11th at Harman Hall downtown, and at Woodlawn Cemetery, as part of a huge volunteer and service celebration at the site.  I hope you’ll come see us and join in our community!

 

You can learn more about YPT’s Woodlawn Cemetery project on YPT’s website.

You can learn more about Life Pieces to Masterpieces here.

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

Tips For Elementary School Teaching Artists

by Nicole Jost

In my experience working with elementary school students, classroom management is a big challenge. I find myself entering the space with lots of enthusiasm and a desire to engage these young students, only to be derailed when I can’t get them to listen to instructions. Unlike classroom teachers, who see their students every weekday, I typically only work with students once a week. So how can teaching artists build effective classroom management strategies with such limited time? And how can we do that without becoming evil (read: not fun) teacher dictators?

I got one great idea from a teaching artist who works with YPT, Meg Greene. In her classrooms she uses a tool called “Star Audience Member.” To get students to buy in to this tool, I first asked them what makes a good audience member. (My students offered suggestions like “listening quietly,” “staying in your seat,” “looking at the person who’s talking,” etc.) These traits became my criteria for picking one Star Audience Member per class. The Star gets their name written up on the board, and I also gave him/her a YPT pen as a small prize.

What I love about this tool is that a) you can use it to encourage students to focus (i.e. “I’m still looking for today’s Star Audience Member!”) and b) because the students themselves identify what makes a good audience, they understand the teaching artist’s choice for the Star. A few times, my students guessed who I was going to pick based on their observations during class. There aren’t many complaints of unfairness because basically, they made the rules.

What other strategies do people suggest?