Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy.

Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.

Blog Post #1:

March 31, 2018

March was quite the month. I have had to say goodbye without the opportunity to actually say it, to a few of my students who had been with us the longest, nearly 6 months. It is important to note that each week the size of the group alters. Some children come and stay for a couple of weeks, some several months, though it is rare, and some only once. As all of the children are protected as Refugees under U.S. law, once they move on, and for their own privacy and protection, they are not permitted to maintain contact with anyone who works at the Social Services agency, nor with each other. So imagine our heart beak upon discovering young love had blossomed between two of the teenagers. One in particular, whom I will refer to as Jose, had been with us for about six months. He was generally reserved, and more brooding once he fell in love with the “new girl” who arrived a few weeks after him. The children are not permitted to date one another and for many months I have dreaded the day that took place just two weeks ago. I walked in, asked where Jose was, and discovered he had left that morning. I could not disguise my disappointment, and the girl who told me expressed her observation that I looked as if I would miss him. Of course I will, I told her that each week is difficult, and I will miss him. A younger boy popped his head up and asked if I would miss him when he left, and I said of course. The girl who told me, she has also moved on since that week.

When asking each child to go around the room and say their name (for review and also to meet the newcomers), the girl he loves was still there, and bravely and honestly said that she was feeling sad. I thanked her for her honesty, and told her I respected her. I did not push for her to participate in all the activities. Just two weeks prior there had been a grey cloud over the heads of the older group, as two other students who had been there for a long time had also moved on. It is hard to explain the feeling, the impermanence, the hope, and yes even joy that is also found in this classroom. I have seen children arrive and be despondent, head hung low, tears streaming down their faces because they are far too recent arrivals in a new place, a new land, with a new language, and new cold weather that seems to be adding insult to injury. I have witnessed these same children, miraculously, come running into the classroom to meet me, jovial, playful, delightfully rambunctious, at times content, verbal, expressive, smiling. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes a few days. To see them again just being children.

These children have traversed and overcome great odds just to be here. Alone, for that is truly what Unaccompanied means..these children have experienced much more in their 5-17 years than many of us will in a lifetime. Many are escaping violence, poverty, gangs, hoping for a better life, hoping to succeed and thrive, sent ahead by families desperately hoping they will do better without them, or by joining others who are already here in The States. And this is where we come in.

ASTEP. An art class. A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy. I am always amazed at how respectful, and eventually willing to play the children are. I admire them when they advocate for themselves, when they tell me they feel uncomfortable dancing or acting, and ask to observe, ask not to be pushed, not yet. And when they do it anyway, awkwardly, laughing, getting out of their heads if only for an hour.

At times we explore deeper themes, such as the day I led an activity with poetry and music from our cultural backgrounds, where the children were encouraged to write poems of their own, many expressing their pride for their native lands, for their culture, how they carry their flag in their heart wherever they are. Other days I just want them to laugh; we play theatre games, we make weird sounds, we dance.

A couple of weeks ago, our Volunteer Teaching Artist taught a dance class, and one little girl, whom I will call Liana, who had recently turned 9, and is often a very vocal and helpful and expressive participant, sat in the corner with tears streaming down her face. She had danced the week before and this had not happened, but at times we can be triggered unexpectedly. As the Volunteer Teaching Artist continued her lesson, I went to Liana in the corner and asked her why she was crying. She told me her father had taught her to dance, and it made her sad to think of him. I said I understood, that I had also learned how to dance from a parent. I let her know that to dance we don’t always have to be happy, that I even dance when I am sad, that it helps me, to literally move through it, that it can help her feel better. I said if she wants to come back and join us, I will be waiting, but if not that’s ok too. She nodded while more tears splashed on her cheeks, and I went back to the group. 5 minutes later she walked back to the circle, I motioned to her to stand beside me. We danced together. We laughed, we smiled. She taught me some words in her native indigenous language, Mam. Promised me a vocabulary list, one I am constantly worried I will never receive, for she keeps forgetting, or perhaps won’t be here the next week to give it to me.

Another boy who taught me how to say “thank you”, in Mam, also from Guatemala, lit up as I attempted the pronunciation. Quiet, shy, hesitant, this was the same boy who the week before during our poetry and music exercise I mentioned above, showed me his work, a paragraph written in both Mam and then translated to Spanish. Telling me a little about his life. Because I had asked him to write, or draw, express something. This is the power of storytelling. And this is what we do, this is why I use the arts as a tool for empowerment, for social justice, to foster empathy, to build community. To give them a voice. To facilitate the space in which they may discover it for themselves.


Marcus Crawford Guy’s blog: from the classroom

Marcus Crawford Guy, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about his experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.

Blog Post #1:

It has taken me two years of participating in ASTEP on STAGE! workshops around New York City to realize why the project has its name. Much more than being related to the many performing artists who help teach and facilitate these workshops, the name stems from the fact that these workshops happen live. Just as we do in the theatre – we have to respond in the moment and we have to keep the show moving. This serves as a guiding principal in all of our workshops around the city with students in shelters, in Alternative To Detention programs and non-traditional housing.

The fact that ASTEP on STAGE! happens live, and in the various contexts it does, means that the students often arrive in the classroom with no time to debunk or hit refresh and reset. This brings with it the challenge of hyperactivity (yay – kids!), anxiety and sometimes aggression (my teenage self can’t imagine going through that transition here in the chaos of New York) and all of the politics that come with these communities. With this in mind, the teaching artist entering these classrooms needs to be flexible, ready to improvise and needs to lesson plan with less linear thoughts and more a web of activities and plans of action should the class not come primed to work. This level of readiness means that the teaching artist can support the students through these challenging moments rather than being thrown and potentially presenting them with judgement.

The other important element of these workshops is that they have to find a conclusion. Just as in the theatre, we need to bring our students to a place where the lesson ends and a measurable achievement can be acknowledged. For so many of the students, this kind of affirmation just doesn’t exist in their day to day lives and we get to offer a sense of completion and a celebration of that – regardless of how tumultuous the journey was, or how the lesson veered from the google doc we all share and collaborate on before we arrive. The importance of offering the students something labeled with success cannot be valued highly enough. As small as the gesture may seem, it lifts the students up and we begin to break, what may be, patterns of negativity in their lives.

The ASTEP on STAGE! experience is a challenging, but rewarding, one to step into. No two classes are the same and the lesson often bears little resemblance to the plan, but I’ve never left the room without new knowledge. It’s a great venue for volunteers to get their feet wet before committing to longer term opportunities. So what are you waiting for? Come play, share and learn!

Email sami@asteponline.org to get involved in our ASTEP on STAGE! programming in New York City.


Announcement: 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship Recipients for ASTEP on STAGE!

ASTEP is thrilled to announce that Rachel Kara Perez and Marcus Crawford Guy have been selected as recipients of the 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship for their work with ASTEP on STAGE!

ASTEP on STAGE! introduces underserved youth in NYC to the power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. Because ASTEP believes that all young people should have access to the arts, regardless of their backgrounds, ASTEP on STAGE! partners with NYC organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS.

The Fellowship is a unique opportunity for individuals who closely model Jennifer’s values to introduce our students to new art forms and new artists. These Fellows will provide students with the chance to not only try new things, but to discover role models from all walks of life and to dream about a future full of opportunities.

I am incredibly moved and humbled. This fellowship is such a beautiful way to honor the memory of Jennifer and the causes she cared so much about, and I am so grateful to be afforded the opportunity to play my small part in continuing her legacy. The work we do is so important, and yes of course while fulfilling on a personal level, it is beautiful, hard, and NECESSARY: in building community, in fostering empathy, in working every day to create more justice and equity in our world, and through my greatest love and passion: the power of the ARTS. Muchísimas Gracias!
I’m thrilled to be the recipient of this fellowship! ASTEP on STAGE! programming contextualizes my life in New York City in a wonderful way and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have that work recognized and to do it with the spirit of Jennifer’s life and work in mind. It is a huge privilege to be in New York City pursuing a career as an actor, which is a lofty pursuit that I can often feel distant from. My interactions in the classroom offer much more immediate experiences and remind me of the important of work that asks others to communicate, engage and express themselves.

Rachel Kara and Marcus are inspiring examples of how the arts give our students the skills to learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty. We’re excited to share their journey through monthly blog posts so stay tuned!



APRIL 23, 2018

54 Below

8:00PM Show, 7:15PM Doors Open

Artists Striving to End Poverty, founded by Mary-Mitchell Campbell 11 years ago, hosts its inaugural benefit concert and dinner with a one night only event! Intimate, engaging and sure to tug at your heart strings, come celebrate ASTEP and the art that it brings to deeply underserved communities around the world and right here in NYC. All proceeds benefit ASTEP, which trains volunteer artists to deliver arts programs for children, regardless of their backgrounds.

Join Mary-Mitchell as she invites her friends onstage to talk about their work with ASTEP, sing a little ditty or two, and honor all the people who make ASTEP possible.


Mary Mitchell-Campbell
Kate Baldwin
Sean Green Jr.
Erika Henningsen
Grey Henson
Andrea Martin
Laura Osnes
Georgia Stitt
Jessica Vosk
and MORE*

Purchase tickets: 54BELOW.COM

*Subject to change

$10,000 Lead Sponsor (limited availability) ($2,000 fmv):

  • A table for eight with premiere seating locations
  • 2 tickets to a Broadway performance of Mean Girls, with backstage tour led by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
  • Invitations to the pre-dinner VIP Toast and Cocktail hour with ASTEP staff and performers
  • Listing on the printed and emailed invitations and the event webpage
  • Recognition by the host from stage
  • Recognition on ASTEP website, in the event program, on signage displayed during the event

$7,500 Platinum Sponsor (extremely limited availability) ($1,500 fmv):

  • A table for six with premium seating locations
  • Invitations to the pre-dinner VIP Toast and Cocktail hour with ASTEP staff and performers
  • Listing on the printed and emailed invitations and the event webpage
  • Recognition by the host from stage
  • Recognition on ASTEP website, in the event program, and on signage displayed during the event

$6,000 Gold Sponsor ($1,000 fmv):

  • A table for four with preferred seating locations
  • Invitations to the pre-dinner VIP Toast and Cocktail hour with ASTEP staff and performers
  • Recognition on ASTEP website and in the event program

$5,500 Super Fan-cy Sponsor ($800 fmv):

  • A table for four located as close to the stage as law will allow – for the greatest fans among us. There are very few tables with this access – first come, first served!
  • Invitations to the pre-dinner VIP Toast and Cocktail hour with ASTEP staff and performers
  • Recognition on ASTEP website

$750 Patron ($200 fmv):

  • 1 VIP event ticket
  • An invitation to the pre-show VIP cocktail hour with ASTEP staff and performers

$500 Friend ($175 fmv):

  • 1 event ticket to the ASTEP & Friends show, dinner and open bar

To inquire about sponsorship options or to pay with a check please email katherine@asteponline.org

Davinia Troughton named Co-Executive Director

We’re thrilled to announce that Davinia Troughton is now sharing the Executive Director role with Mary-Mitchell Campbell, ASTEP’s Founder, effective February 1, 2018. Davinia will oversee ASTEP’s administration, programs and financial management while Mary-Mitchell will oversee all fundraising efforts for the organization.

Since joining ASTEP’s team in 2010, Davinia has served many roles, including the Director of Development and most recently the Director of Operations. Over the years, Davinia’s leadership has taken ASTEP to a new level of operational and financial planning so it’s a natural progression for her to assume this exciting role. We thought it would be fun to share a bit about Davinia in the same way we highlight our volunteers — through an interview!



Name: Davinia Troughton

Where did you grow up? My family and I moved to the U.S. from Malaysia when I was very young so I spent most of my childhood living just outside New Orleans.

Where did you work before joining the ASTEP team? I helped formalize the NoVo Foundation, a private foundation that focuses on women and girls’ initiatives, and prior to that, worked at RSF Social Finance, a nonprofit that encourages socially responsible investments.

Have you been onsite with any ASTEP programs? Which ones? I’ve been fortunate to spend time at several of our programs! Here in NYC, I’ve participated in ASTEP on STAGE!, Arts at Incarnation Children’s Center, and the Refugee Youth Summer Academy; in South Florida with Art-in-Action; and in India at Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project.

Did you have a background in the arts or teaching, when you started? I like to joke that I’m the non-artist in the organization in the formal sense, however my craft is organizational development 🙂

What is the most challenging part of your work? Some of the challenges also make this work urgent and fulfilling: knowing that so many young people who could benefit from the transforming power of the arts currently do not have access to it. This reality reminds me daily to do my best to reach as many of these deserving young people as possible.

What is the most rewarding part of your work? The people! From the students we serve, to the volunteers who so generously dedicate their time and hearts, to my brilliant colleagues and board members — ASTEP is a unique place staffed by creative, caring people, and to be surrounded by so much collective joy makes me feel incredibly fortunate.

What do you look forward to, each day, working at ASTEP? I actually love the feeling at the end of the day when I can reflect on all that took place and feel good about what we accomplished together as a team.

What song best encapsulates your working personality? Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles. Celebrate what a new day will bring!




Volunteer Reflection: Emmett Phillips, Jr.

Name: Emmett Phillips Jr.
Age: 24

Where are you from, originally? I was born in Wichita, KS and raised in Des Moines, IA by two beautiful Liberian immigrants named Emmett and Marie.

How did you find out about ASTEP? After landing a lead role in the first play I’d ever done in my life during my sophomore year of college, I was invited to attend The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I remember going into a workshop at KCACTF that sounded like something I would like and meeting Ali Dachis who told the group about ASTEP. I was so intrigued that I followed up with her afterwards to get more info about ASTEP and we exchanged contact information. About a year later, I got an invite to apply for the Artist as Citizen Conference in 2015 and I’ve been involved with ASTEP ever since.

Which programs have you been a part of? I have been apart of the Artist As Citizen Conference, I have lead an ASTEP Chapter, I am an active member of the ASTEP Leaders Network, and I have completed the ASTEP volunteer training.

Do you have a background in teaching, when you started? I started teaching the arts to youth when I was 19 and working at the Boys and Girls Club. I was really limited with what I could do with the kids there so I longed for opportunities to teach more freely. Once I became a Program Coordinator at Children and Family Urban Movement in 2015, I gained much more creative freedom to the weave arts into after school curriculum. I have gone on to facilitate Hip Hop Summer Camps, lead a poetry workshop within a local middle school, and guide the drama club.

What is your arts background? I am a Hip Hop Artist first and foremost. I started pursuing Hip Hop seriously in 2014. I am a poet and actor as well. I started acting during my sophomore year of college and have done a total of 5 plays (1 collegiate and 4 community).

What challenges did you overcome while on site? My first official ASTEP Volunteer site will be in Elaine Arkansas in July. I foresee that the challenges will be working in such close quarters with 3 other artists and adapting to the culture of a segregated southern town, being raised in the North. I look forward to the adversity though!

What victories did you achieve, while on site? I hope to achieve a deeper understanding of what it means to be a young African American growing up in Elaine. As a Black man myself, I’m excited to be able to be a real life example of artistic excellence that those youth might be able to relate to. If I can help empower, uplift, and inspire them to explore their own creative sides, I will consider my experience an overwhelming victory.

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself? Working with ASTEP has taught me the value of being a teaching artist. I grew up in a world that didn’t place much value on artists at all, let alone teaching artists, but ASTEP has opened me up to an entire culture that is committed to the development and proper placement of those who create art and also love to teach it to others. Thanks to ASTEP, I will always search for opportunities to live my truth through my art and teach as many young people everything I have to offer along the way.

What program is next for you? My assignment in Elaine is what’s immediately next for me, but afterwards I would love teach some poetry and Hip Hop in Brooklyn or travel abroad with ASTEP. Either way, the joy of teaching my crafts is a pleasure no matter what space I’m in. The real question is what does ASTEP have next for me?




Spend your spring at a Haven of Peace

Help us make a difference! This Spring, we are sending a team of Volunteer Artists to Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project in Southern India to deliver a multi-week arts camp that focuses on visual and performing arts including music, filmmaking, dance, and musical theatre.

Shanti Bhavan translates from Hindi to English to mean “Haven of Peace”, and we believe the work of our teaching artists will help to create just that. Join us in bringing arts education and application to these students from India’s lowest castes, where we are able to provide them with the space and time to practice communication, collaboration, empathy, and creativity. With ASTEP and Shanti Bhavan, your work will foster a symbol of hope, providing the students with the skills necessary to create and thrive in a brighter, better tomorrow.

Dates: May 23 – June 10, 2018
Application deadline: February 15, 2018
Location: Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project just outside of Bangalore
Who: You! All artists with a passion for making a difference!

** Room and board is provided by ASTEP and Shanti Bhavan for all Volunteer Artists
** Email Sami Manfredi at sami@asteponline.org or give us a ring at 212.921.1227 to learn more!

Volunteer Reflection: Rosco Spears

Name: Rosco Spears

Age: 30

Where are you from, originally? Detroit, MI

How did you find out about ASTEP? A good friend of mine referred me to the program. She is a performing artist and she told me about the amazing things she heard about ASTEP.  After a bit of research, it didn’t take much to sell me on the organization.

Which programs have you been a part of? ASTEP on STAGE! at WIN and CHOICES Alternative to Detention as well as ASTEP Arts at Shanti Bhavan.

Did you have a background in teaching when you started? I did have a background in teaching when I started volunteering with ASTEP. I taught business technology for 2 years at a high school in Grand Rapids, MI and I also led an after school, art enrichment program in Newark, NJ for a year.

What is your arts background? I do not have any formal training in art. I began sketching as a kid, and I created a signature design at the age of 13. During college, I brought some of those drawings that I created during middle and high school to a local art gallery.  The owner, Reb Roberts, practically forced my hand into painting after I told him that I was not interested. He was able to convince me to create a piece with him and the rest is history. I fell in love with painting.

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself? Working with ASTEP taught me that there is so much that you can learn while working as a teaching artist. I’m pretty certain that I’ve learned more from the children than they’ve learned from me.  I’ve learned how to move through adversity. How to excel through rough circumstances. How to creatively work in a group with others. How to take risks and try new things. I’ve learned how to communicate without words. Working with ASTEP showed me what I should be doing for my life’s work. Nothing on this earth makes me happier than working with children as a teaching artist. Especially working with kids who are impoverished in any way.

What victories did you achieve, while on site? On occasion, I’ve worked with kids who were in a program as a form of punishment, and they did not want to do any of the activities that were placed in front of them. These are the kids that are most interesting and challenging to me (also my favorite to work with). At the end of both experiences, even if it was just getting a kid to take their hood off during class or to pick their head up off of the table, I felt accomplished. If they actually participated in an activity, I felt like I won a million dollars.

What program is next for you? As I have recently relocated to Los Angeles, I am unsure! I would love to get back to Shanti Bhavan in the near future. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Week 5: Successes Large + Small

By: Marcus Crawford Guy, 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.

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.




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