Week 5: Successes Large + Small


By: Marcus Guy Crawford, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow

Success at RYSA comes in all forms: students standing quietly in a circle; hearing a student’s voice for the first time; or bringing a student back to neutral after an experience that has triggered something traumatic, and often yet to be articulated or grasped. Our students are brave in ways I will never be — their early childhood experiences have shaped them sturdily and as much as I hope I have impacted their young lives in America, I know that they have affected mine immeasurable. Today one of our assistant teachers (tactlessly, I might add), told the students that the end was nigh… and while I think the language barrier protected many of them from this truth, it got me thinking about their triumphs and there are a few I want to document because they were moments where I too was learning.
 
A student in our youngest group (we’ll call him Austin) has been engaged since day 1. Sometimes Austin wanders, sometimes he is a little despondent and at times he has acted out, but his intention has always been clear — he wants to learn, even when that process is challenging. Today Austin was full of beans – unable to stand still, incredibly verbal and just a little hyper. In spite of this, he was engaged more than he has ever been in the classroom. The excess energy and noise was not problematic because, though untamed, it was allowing him to engage in the work and demonstrate knowledge in a new way. Kelsey and I worked with it, acknowledging that though the behavior will eventually need corrected, it was better to celebrate the positive improvement in his work. The skills can’t coalesce all at once and that’s OK! It strikes me just writing this that this is a lesson I need to teach myself in my own professional and creative endeavors – thanks Austin!
 
Next up: Corey. Corey is incredibly sensitive. The slightest sense of negativity or disappointment from a teacher will send him spiraling – he huffs, he needs to leave the room, he cries and he shuts down. But I think it is born of a pressure that I have noticed in many of our students — a need to impress, to embrace this new opportunity and to succeed, with positive reinforcement, in every moment. I can relate to this. An over-achiever from a very young age, the most potent moments of my young life, even now, are the ones where it feels like I am on the brink of letting someone down that I respect. For me, it is important to just keep Corey involved, to take his answers even when they are incorrect, and to listen to him offering correction, redirection and opportunity where possible. Corey is an active learner, and so when he is left to sideline, or his behavior is treated as “bad” or “disruptive”, he recedes and regresses. The arts classes at RYSA allow us the time and space to celebrate these differently able learners and engage them in ways the traditional classroom may not.
 
Finally, there’s Bethany. Bethany started class today with a statement not dissimilar to, “This class is rubbish!” If an adult spoke to me with this apathy, I’d likely walk the other way, but in the classroom with young students, its an invitation to engage more carefully with that student’s experience. What is this a reaction to? And how can I, the teacher, or leader in this environment, guide this student towards success, achievement and growth that will alter that negative response? I let her know how that made me feel, and asked the entire class to engage in one particular value of the RYSA program — respect. As soon as Bethany sat down today, I verbally narrated all of her positive behaviors, making clear that her successes were not going unnoticed. I respected her adherence to the classroom code of conduct, and in turn, she respected the work we were doing. She participated thoughtfully, and though she might not admit it herself, she even cracked a smile and enjoyed herself! This small interaction reminded me that it is much easier to engage with students with positive attitudes, but that good behavior + work can be culled from any student and it is the teacher’s duty to find a way to activate this kind of positive teacher-student relationship, even when resistance is offered.
 
The RYSA experience is so much larger than the classroom spaces we occupy for 6-8 hours a week. For me, it has sparked a continual assessment of the way I engage in all of my professional and creative interactions. Am I present? Am I positive? Am I willing? And can I do more? The answer to all of these questions always has to be yes, especially when I am in the drivers seat and a young person’s education, development and growth is in my hands.

Volunteer Reflection: Courtney Liu

Name: Courtney Liu

Age: 26

Where are you from, originally? Cincinnati, OH

How did you find out about ASTEP? 

I found them online and reached out before having a wonderful first conversation with Lizzy on the phone. We immediately connected in a magical “this was meant to be” way.

Which programs have you been a part of? 

RYSA 2016

Do you have a background in teaching, when you started? 

Yes!  I actually started teaching dance in the 5th grade during one summer that I held a toddler dance camp in my parent’s basement… I’m pretty sure my Mom helped a LOT with that one.  Prior to joining ASTEP, the teaching experiences dear to my heart included assisting the Dance in Schools Program at the San Francisco Ballet School, teaching for an arts integration program in China, and founding a dance program for children seeking services at the domestic violence shelter in Durham, NC.

What is your arts background?

I trained and performed with the Cincinnati Ballet and San Francisco Ballet before leaving the professional dance track to pursue a degree in Psychology at Duke. During college I fell in love with jazz and salsa and one year post-graduation decided I was tired of sitting at a desk all day and it was time to dance!  I started auditioning and have been dancing professionally and teaching since then!

What challenges did you overcome while on site?

The work itself is honestly so exhausting… much harder than performing.  Some days when you start class the energy starts rolling and the hours fly by.  Some days drag and the students are tired or have decided they are too cool for dance class.  By the end of the day I was either completely exhilarated from a breakthrough of expression the students had made… or completely exhausted from trying to motivate thirty students.  On the worst days it helps to write down small victories… one student who tried something new or another student who smiled in dance class for the first time.  They are ALWAYS something there but hard to see as a teacher who is putting out one fire after the next on rough days.  If we shine a light on the small victories they energize us to get up, day after day, and try again.

What victories did you achieve, while on site?

One day I spotted a new kid in the middle school class who clearly wanted to do the Rihanna dance but was hanging in the back to figure out if it was cool and if he would be good at it.  He had missed the day we taught the combination so I can imagine it was scary.  When we did African dance day the following week he was doing an awesome job so we had him demonstrate for the class.  It built up his confidence and gave him the motivation to practice the Rihanna dance outside of class.  He soon caught up to the rest of the class and performed confidently in the final showcase.  What a special moment to see talent bloom out of insecurity and into a beautiful performance for all to see!

Speaking of… the final performance was such a special day. Each class chose their favorite dance style and created a piece using the material we gave them over the course of the program.  Class 1 performed a African dance and Ballet mashup, Class 2 performed Bachata with a class chant they created, and Class 3 performed a Jazz routine that ended in a breakdance circle.  Then they performed their individual spoken word and movement pieces about their dreams for their future in America and all three classes performed a hip-hop dance as the finale.  What a feat!  They performed ALL of this without their teachers!!!  We were so proud :):):)

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself?

I found the role of Assistant Teacher to be quite challenging!  As an Assistant I had trouble deciding the best way to provide support in the classroom.  Was it best to help teach? Was I supposed to lead the next combination… oh yes!  Was it most useful to demonstrate in the back?  Or to walk around and give individual corrections?  I realized that I was very comfortable making lesson plans and teaching in the front of the room… but other important pieces of teaching had been lost from constantly managing classrooms from the front.  I am thankful for the experience and to work with such a talented co-teacher (shoutout to Marissa) that summer!

What program is next for you?

Hopefully another year at RYSA and Choices!  One summer soon I hope to teach for the Teach for India program.

 

Week 4: “I-We-You” Learning Process


By: Kelsey Lake, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow

This week at RYSA included a few challenging moments but culminated in some exciting and encouraging progress. Marcus and I were very excited about the prospect of our classes working as teams to create stories on their own. We wanted to see at what degree of independence they could accomplish this is at the RYSA graduation performance. So, we gave them a Mad Libs type story structure, set a five -minute time limit, and for the older students told them they had to complete the group story without communicating verbally.

We had practiced filling out Mid Libs-style sentence stems and stories together as a class, but we didn’t realize that the task we actually set for the students was one they didn’t have much practice with – working as a team, without teacher supports, in the specific context of Storytelling class. The class quickly got a little chaotic: there was conflict between students, confusion about how to complete the task, and frustration as some students took leadership roles while others felt excluded and shut down.

Yikes! We let the timer run out and decided to spend time reflecting on “what went well” and “what could go better next time.” Most of the answers received – “listening to the teacher,” “doing better next time,” “not talking” – were rote responses about classroom behavior, instead of the reflection on teamwork that Marcus and I were driving towards.

Once Marcus and I had a chance to reflect, we realized we had set a task that many adults find difficult to achieve. Though we still believe firmly in the students’ ability to work as a team in Storytelling class, we realized also that we’d skipped an essential step of the “I-We-You” learning process. In fact, we had jumped all the way to the “You” phase, asking them to independently model a task and demonstrate comprehension of a concept that we hadn’t explicittly modeled ourselves or practiced with them in class activities.

So, for Thursday’s class, we decided to take a conscious step back and focus on reinforcing the storytelling and language concepts we’d been working on, but also including conversations, observations, and examples of how being part of a class was similar to working on a team – it includes compromise, respect, and listening as essential ingredients.

We temporarily lost sight of a main RYSA objective – to help students develop interpersonal skills. To get back on track, we made such skills part of our process, instead of expecting them to magically appear in class without practice or exploration. Students started embodying these teamwork principles in different ways; one very prominent example was the students putting their hands down after another classmate was called on, showing respect and giving space for other ideas. These small moments at RYSA are actually the big victories, helping students understand “school rules” from a perspective of teamwork and leadership skills, instead of just learning rules by rote.

As we helped the students learn, we had breakthroughs as educators. Sometimes, for one step forward, you take two steps back. But, if you refocus on the learning process rather than any products you’re driving towards, students and teachers together can grow in their understanding of teamwork and leadership skills in the classroom.

 

 

 

THE MIDPOINT: Where are we now?

By: Marcus Crawford Guy, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow

Ok. I’ll be honest — when I saw that there were 5 full training days at the start of July for this program, I thought “What do they need to teach us that requires 40 hours of my time?” That’s more time than we’d spend actually instructing our students in the individual classrooms. It seemed so extensive and I couldn’t fathom how we’d be able to integrate all of this new information into our classrooms in the way our well-versed New York City, Dept. of Education colleagues would. The jargon, and the rigor with which it was being taught, seemed to separate me from the work I was desperate to do and had felt prepared to do.
 
But, here I am, halfway through the journey of RYSA R.I.S.E with this incredible body of students, and it’s all proving useful — some of it in small ways, others in more profound, and substantive ways, but I’m using it, it feels accessible and while it’s likely an imperfect product I’m delivering at times, it feels good to be wearing the teacher hat in a formal setting. And to be doing so with only 5 days of training vs. 4+ years (and college debt).
 
Training in hand, this week Kelsey and I dove in to tackle this large heading — Summative Assessment. Basically, we wanted to set a task that would gauge just how much our students have taken in in these past 3 weeks of class. What concepts have they held on to from our class and what skills are they able to exhibit that the program, at large, is trying to equip them with? This will help guide our second half of the course. So true to form, we put on our super academic hats, our serious faces, and played mad-libs with the kids! 
 
They loved it! Our youngest group, the Smiling Sunbeams, needed lots of scaffolds (another fancy education word, meaning support!) to help them through but they really latched on to certain ideas. Most importantly for us in the storytelling classroom imagination is a concept that the kids definitely know and love. This feels like a huge victory over iPad and game console culture. Our oldest group, the Rising Stars, knew all of the vocabulary that we had taught them, but struggled more with transferrable skills — cooperation, compromise and delegation of roles. This was a great opportunity to defer to our assistant teacher in the class, who spends the entire day with the students and could relate our learning, to those of other teachers in other classrooms. On a second attempt, they soared through the exercise.
 
 Finally — we led the Flying Arrows who had the most interesting response to the exercise. Many of the students in this class, have a very difficult time grasping the English language, while a core group of others are vocal, participatory and typically help Kelsey and I move the class along. Surprisingly, there were no spectators and everyone got involved. Our more able students took on leadership roles and made sure the large task was accomplished, while our true English Language beginners spent time searching through the words, sounding them out, using this exercise as an opportunity to be curious, to discover and to do so without feeling pressure to achieve. It was extraordinary to watch.
 
RYSA is teaching me so many things, but most importantly for this week, it was great to be equipped with the skills to actually gauge where our students are in their own process of skill-acquisition. It didn’t feel academic. It felt like I was prepared to serve the students, to witness their progress, and to talk about it with a degree of sophistication. We were told in training that we should be seeing the student, and not their trauma. I would take that one step further and acknowledge that this week we saw their growth – bright, budding and wonderful!
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