By Caleb Winebrenner
It’s now been 12 months since I was officially conferred my degree in Educational Theatre. Every time I think about that, I realize that one year seems like a short amount of time. But 12 months is 12 miniature chapters of growth and discovery working as a teaching artist out in the real world.
No, this isn’t a post outlining what I’ve done month-by-month. But it is about how my views of working as a teaching artist have shifted, every time I’ve flipped a page on the calendar. I’m very fond of NYU Steinhardt, and I always look forward to my next trip to the city. There is so much more that I could have gained from my time there. There’s also a lot that no amount of study will get you.
I’ve come to see that as a teaching artist, I must set my sights more broadly than being an artist and educator. In a recent chat with my wife she said, “The world pleads for better people.” Every day she asks me how my day was when I get home from work. Like any teacher or teaching artist, I answer with stories about my students and what I am doing in my classroom. Recently, I’ve been trying something new.
In my work at the local Boys and Girls Club, I noticed something. Students rarely looked me in the eye. They didn’t greet each other. Instead, they moved about in the room like dust particles, none of them really aware of any of the others. When they were aware, it was more for gossip or teasing. When I shared this with my wife, we had the conversation I mentioned above. I lamented that my students didn’t have those social skills. She responded that it’s not something our world really teaches any more, but it should. Frankly, I think she’s right.
So now I have a rule that every student must greet me as they enter my room. One-by-one, each of them has to look me in the eye, and shake my hand. Some of my students resist it and try to shove past me, but I don’t let them. Why? Because as I see it, my work as a teaching artist isn’t really about arts education. It’s about genuine human connection. That’s the real magic of theatre, as I see it. It’s a way for people to play together, and it’s a way to practice things not done much outside of that space.
But more than that, it’s a way to regain a sense of being a part of something. Many of my students want to resist what we’re doing, because it’s after school and they think that I should be as apathetic as they are. Or at best they think its silly.
But it isn’t silly to expect something from your students, even after school. It isn’t silly to ask for a world where our young people are raised with integrity, kindness, awareness, and perseverance. Our world needs gifted artists and educators, but it pleads for better people. As a teaching artist, that means I have a role to play.
Outside my room at the Boys and Girls Club there’s a mural. It’s a little speech bubble with the words — Imagine, Hope, Dream, Create. That’s the sequence with my students, and to grow as a teaching artist. Right now, let’s imagine a world where our young people become better people. Then move into hope: asking what small actions can be done to make visible the world we imagine. My students and I can dream of that world together, dream it with theatre, and ultimately create it out in daily life.
Caleb Winebrenner is a teaching artist based in Tempe, AZ. His work focuses on empowering youth through creative play, storytelling, and devised theatre — and the more he does it, the more he loves it. He is currently working on a book of games and stories for community and youth development and launched a crowdfunding campaign to support it. He writes the blog Discovering Teaching Artistry and tweets, @caleb_teaches.