unesco logoQUICK!!!

Turn to the nearest Arts Educator and thank them! Buy them a tea or coffee! Congratulate them on helping make the world a more empathetic place!

This week is both UNESCOs International Arts Education Week AND National Teaching Artist Appreciation Week in the United States. In honor of International Arts Education week, Routledge Education has made several Arts for Peace articles available online to peruse for free up till July 31st, 2014. See below for info and links!

National Teaching Artist Appreciation Week was established by the Association of Teaching Artists in 2012. Says founder Dale Davis, “ATA’s belief that Teaching Artists are important and integral parts of quality education and vibrant communities led to declaring the third week in May as an official celebration of the many contributions of Teaching Artists to making life better for so many children and adults. Time to pause and think and to appreciate and support the work of Teaching Artists in our schools and community.” If there is a Teaching Artist you would like to honor this year, please contact Dale Davis at ATA at ddavis@teachingartists.com.



Want to bring more arts to your own classroom practice ? The Kennedy Center’s ARTSEDGE has class plans complete with all the attachments you need, step by step instructions…it is amazing. A great place to start and then get excited about involving a local performing or visual artist or perhaps linking more closely with the school arts teachers!

Finally…if you need a reason to believe in Arts Education, here’s an awesome study showing connections between an arts-rich school environment and success for youth at risk on many many levels  AND here’s a link to a giant pile of studies showing benefits from arts education for children, teachers and community! 

Aaaaaand as promised, Routledge Education’s Arts for Peace Article CollectionIt includes (but is not limited to):

The cast of A Class Act!My wonderful and amazing students from “A Class Act” with The Magic Paintbrush Project performed on April 27th (a play they wrote!) and hit the ball out of the park. They were amazing, they were incredible, they brought the house down. And every single one of them has a disability. I wrote about them last fall, when we were just beginning our process (see “Life is Washable”), but as a result of the show, folks have been asking about children, challenges, and performance, especially children who are on the Asperger-Autism spectrum.

I last posted some specific observations and activities about working with children living with such challenges in January of 2013, but it seems relevant to repost, so here it is. Please let me know if I can be of help to you or your group! I have also posted some additional links to resources at the end of the article.

I am a performer and Teaching Artist with a long history and much training in working with people whose perceptual/interactive experience of the world is on the fringe of typical association. In 2012, I was hired by 3 Tier Consulting to do theater workshops with children on the Asperger-Autism spectrum in Watertown and Fort Drum. Most of these children come from families with a spouse in the active armed forces, oftentimes also facing a possible move to another base; although we ran 2 sets of 2 weekly sessions about six months apart, only one boy was in both sets.

Were they scared at first? HECK yes. Another opportunity to not understand what is going on and feel out of place. Great. Kids in the show But once they realize that it’s the OPPOSITE of an informal social setting, they take to it like a duck to water. Of course the do! Even in an improv exercise, the facilitator sets out clear, strict relationship, narrative, agenda, and ‘milemarker’ guidelines, often providing ‘line kernels’ when not providing the lines themselves. And scripts? Especially short funny ones full of foibles by “regular” people that involve saying cool things to your peers and impressing dudes/chicks? DOUBLE HECK yeah. Over time, the safety and comfort of the class structure brings a freedom and joy not available elsewhere. One of the joys of performance for anyone is the opportunity to relinquish yourself to the script, to say things and do things that are completely new because you are pretending to be someone else. A perfect place to test drive a response to a social moment for anyone, or to work through, via a character, a problem or fear.

Fabulously enough, targeted performance skills are targeted performance skills, regardless of whether the workshop participants are professional adult actors or children with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Working on a stage-sharing Ensemble, creating and understanding dialogue, unpacking meaning, developing a gesture repertoire or honing gestural language are things ALL actors must constantly revisit, which means that ‘Going to Acting Class’ is something an eleven-year-old boy can talk about at school with pride. It is also a context that can comfortably absorb people with a wide range of social skills, including typically-developing children.

We had two groups, one for children from four to seven years old, and one for children (who turned out to be all boys) from nine to thirteen years old. The younger group had children all over the Asperger-Autism map (I have found that ‘spectrum’ implies a linearality that is not really helpful or accurate in a performance context), and the older group was made up of boys with various manifestations of Asperger’s Syndrome.

With the younger group, I chose the theme of Weather, specifically wind and snow, because it was late fall/early winter, imageand kids ‘on the spectrum’ in particular respond well to themed structure. I knew that they would need the space and a variety of concrete visual, sound and text clues to guide implicitly, so I created a circle with one “opening” made up of soft blankets with differing colors and designs, folded to create a large ‘mat’, knowing the children would gravitate toward them a places to be, lie down, watch, etc, and that they would choose the design and color best for them.

In the middle of the circle were picture books (fiction and non-fiction) and some magazine photographs about winter, as well as crayons, markers, and paper. As children drifted in, they were given the opportunity to draw, listen, read, look, or talk about the weather and the coming winter. Once we were all there, we shifted from drawing, etc to recounting to imagining we were going to go outside and play in the snow.

Each child in turn (the idea of waiting to take your turn and knowing what the appropriate social cue is for that is HUGE) imagesuggested something we had to wear or bring in order to go outside and play (reinforcing life skills). Once we all agreed we were ready, we got off our mats and pretended to do snow things—skate around the circle to music, sit on our mats and go ‘sledding’, make snow angels, and even rip up paper and throw it into the air for it to fall.

The last snow activity we did was make imaginary snow beings and snow creatures in the air, as though the air was the snow that we rolled, stacked and shaped. The children took turns explaining what their snow creature was (“Bunny”) or what their snow man was doing (“throw snow!” or gesturing a pose, sometimes with help). We then took a BIG step. After taking off our pretend outdoor clothes, everyone got a partner.

I demonstrated how I was going to gently turn my partner into a sculpture, we brainstormed some movement ideas and then each child had a turn to turn their partner into something. They could touch, gesture, use words, whatever, but it had to be gentle and it had to be more than one action (we encouraged both arms and legs with optional silly face). The receiver had to wait and then only take the pose suggested. All sculptures were applauded, and then we had quiet music movement time, where children had the option to enjoy the music on their blankets or move around the room to the music as they wished or as the elements of winter I offered (“What if you were a snowflake?”).

imageI try to think of a class plan as being full of the patterns of breathing, inhale and exhale, collect/focus in and expand/focus out, with the pattern of such changing tempo depending on whether I want the ‘heartbeat’ of the group to quicken, steady, or slow. This kind of planning is especially important in working with these children, and one must be constantly on the lookout for when it is time to slow down in stretching ebbs, like mathematical ellipses. The movement-to-music time was necessary to break free the intensity of having to focus on and touch (!) another child, but it had to be gently controlled up to a release and brought ebblingly back to a sweet quiet, each on our blankets after only about 5-7 minutes (which is less than other populations might need).

I then skim-read them Jan Brett’s The Mitten, mostly focusing on the next animal, the actions, and asking things like, “Wow! Look at the bunny’s face! How do you think he feels?” or “Oh no! The prickly hedgehog will be squished inside too! What would it be like to be in the mitten with a hedgehog?” or “What do you think will happen next?” targeting reading expressions and gestures, putting oneself in other’s place, and predicting outcome.

Then we started over from the beginning and everyone’s blanket was a mitten! We could be whichever animals we wanted in our mitten, yelling out “Ouch” or “Move Over!” or “Please let me in!” if we chose. The most fun, of course, was exploding out everywhere at the end when the bear (also in the mitten) sneezes. We finished up with me reading/gesture-performing William Steig’s Brave Irene, with all of us chiming in with movements and sounds and phrases as we went along through the story (sort of participatory street-theatre style), and stopping to imagine how the characters felt or what they wanted or what they would do.

With the older boys, we targeted many of the same skills, but in different ways. We began with shadow puppets, and after imageencouraging them to experiment with design and create whatever characters they chose, they had to tell a short story (it could be silent) using the shadow puppets and the other boys as puppeteers. Each child had an opportunity to be the boss, but was not required to be in any one else’s . If they chose to be, however, they had to take direction and not take over the narrative. It was an interesting challenge for them, as the idea of hiding behind a screen and seeing the shadows appear in the dark room is pretty compelling, although the idea of doing what you were asked and not your own idea until it was your turn was daunting indeed. The ‘cool’ factor won out!

From there we progressed to me reading/showing a book with paper-cut illustrations of the Japanese legend The Warrior and the Wiseman. We unpacked the story as we went as well as afterwards, and then created masks of the characters to wear to act out the story. Mask-making was such a hit, we didn’t have a chance to perform the narrative, although the boys would put the masks on and act out as they developed their masks. Boys with Asperger’s are usually well aware by the time they are 10 or 11 that the language of facial gestures, expression, and subtextual meaning is pretty easily interpreted and used by their peers, but still a murky, seemingly disconnected gobbledygook to themselves. They are therefore, very sensibly, generally resistant to taking risks with face/gesture/subtext/meaning; that they spontaneously took risks and played with this crazy alien language is remarkable, and I believe the masks/mask-making made that possible.

Having explored shape a bit with the shadow puppets, they had to think about color and expression and feeling as it was established in the strong characterizations of the Elemental ‘Demons’ and two main (and diametrically opposed) characters. It’s a great book for pre-teens in general, as it is about what the longer term consequences are of taking what you want versus being generous, and what it means to be a man. It’s even more appropriate for pre-teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, as the Demons respond immediately and impetuously to their circumstances and the Wiseman has to deduce from their actions, dialogue, and expressions how they feel, what his brother the Warrior has done, and what he himself can do to set things back on the right path.

Theatre is always an effective and exciting medium in which to explore, discover, and practice emotion, relationships, and social meaning, but it is especially beneficial for children for whom this kind of stuff is like an alien landscape. The main difference is that the ‘steps’ between one idea/practice and the other need to be closer together and more carefully illuminated.

Helpful links!





Shearwater Productions at a glanceAs 2013 comes to a close, many folks will reflect on work-related successes and challenges of this past year and set business goals for 2014. For many of us, looking at product quality and net earnings (or losses) is primary, whether we are theatre teachers having to make do with a smaller budget but wanting to increase performance and production values or we are independent contractors looking to streamline process without compromising quality.

For a change of pace, why not do a ‘year in review’ as a performance assessment on yourself as your own boss and employee? Most of my readers are in charge of their own work, whether as educators, project leaders, or writers/artists, and don’t have the opportunity to have structured feedback. Here’s a few quick questions to take a different look at how your work year went. May 2014 bring you and your business some peace and prosperity!

Are You a Good Boss to Yourself?

1) Set Reasonable Goals

We know when someone else is being unrealistic about what can be accomplished in a work day. We are also able to skulls of overwhelmingnesstell when we will have to give up personal/family time to accomplish the extra tasks and (hopefully) are politely vocal about negotiating through that experience. BUT how many of us use the same standards of ‘reasonableness’ for ourselves? Too often, you awesome people who fit this blog’s demographic keep adding to the list of “What MUST Be Done Today” at the expense of what would typically be personal and family time (or even sleep and eat time). Sure, everyone puts in overtime sometimes, and many people work 60 hours in a week because they need to have two jobs. Having too many days that are 18-20 hours of work or too many 80+ hour work-weeks means not enough time-investment into all of the other things that make a life. I am NOTORIOUS for doing this, and have had to actually clock myself in and out, schedule friend and family time (as in “put it on the work calendar”) and have my computer be the one projecting a movie (so I can’t go on it and work) to help myself be a better boss. PLUS, a new study shows increased downtime actually INCREASES productivity!

2) Outline Clear Expectations

Vagueness about what the task/goal is and the steps involved prompts us to grumble about laziness and lack of preparation/foresight when someone else is the boss. But when we are our own boss, we too often skimp on that step, hoping to save time by smushing it into the manifestation stage. After all, it’s all in our own brain, right? We know what we mean. Why waste the time? Yee-ah, except it doesn’t work that way. We actually save overall time when we “front load” the project by taking the time to think it out clearly, even when we are the only person involved. The Mayo Clinic suggests planning also helps reduce stress (click here to see their suggestions).

3) Be Nice

Treat yourself the way the Best Boss Ever would treat you!

Are You a Good Employee for Yourself?

1) Put in a Real Work Week

Zoe on Computer   Many of you work way too hard. BUT some of you perhaps only feel like you are putting in a real 40 hours of work time. I know freelancers who spend hours on a computer…but much of it is playing games or going on facebook. I am by no means saying thinking/brainstorming activities are not work—I am saying games, facebook, and the like are not thinking/brainstorming activities. Create job categories that are right for you (marketing, drafting, practicing, prep, etc), do an actual clock-in/clock-out for two weeks, and see how you spend your time. No matter what turns up, it will give you a clearer idea of how your time is spent and if you’re a freelancer, perhaps that will help you better price your product (I know artists that forget to count time spent buying supplies and re-imaging failed versions of product). You might also find that checking in this way increases productivity. It’s not something to do all the time, because yes, it is annoying. But when used every once in a while, it’s a useful tool!

2) Create a Road Map for Achieving Specific Goals

So ‘your boss’ has laid out some long term, short term, and immediate goals for you, written down some suggestions, and left it to you. How do you take the right steps to achieving those goals? Personally, I find it helpful to work backwards from the desired outcome (and be as specific as possible about exactly what success looks like) as though someone else were doing it. There are certain things I hate doing or avoid and other things I enjoy, and if I subconsciously imagine myself as the person doing all the steps, I tend to leave the horrible ones out, OR put them in and feel increasingly depressed to the point where it seems impossible. By imagining someone else doing the steps, I don’t miss any. I tend to write these down on a big sheet of paper, leaving spaces between. If you are a computer-note-taker, here’s an article on the top 5 idea-mapping software apps.

Then, I try to figure out details of accomplishing each bit (in a different color), including how to ACTUALLY have someone else do the heinous bits or ways to make them less heinous for myself. Sometimes a task-swap is the way to go, or sharing the cost of, say, an outreach campaign with another project leader by finding a way to link the businesses.

3) Be Nice!

As odd as it sounds, saying things like, “That is actually really well thought out” when you pick up the plan you made for yourself last week or yesterday really makes a difference. When ‘your boss’ has done a good job, say so, out loud, even if it’s under your breath. Believe it or not, the ‘out loud’ part makes a huge impact.

Wishing you all the best for 2014!!

P.S. All the photos but the mindmap are my own (thanks to Thomas Hoebbel Video-Photo), and the mind map image is a free download.


IMG_1094(Music plays) “The Earth is a magnet. It’s the (beat) third planet from the sun. Flowing electrons and protons/come together to make things run!” The Kid Scientists and Benjamin Franklin sing valiantly through an explanation of their thinking while the storm rages and the flying kite conducts electricity down to their home-made motor. The adults watching in the seats of the professional theatre are grinning, completely enchanted as the first group of fourth-graders performs the play they wrote—complete with important plot-driving song, thank you very much.

I am once again at the Hangar Theatre for the Project 4 performances, crouched down-stage-right near the ‘vom’, next to musician John Simon, battered script in hand for the occasional whispered prompt. This is my 17th year with the Hangar Theatre’s project in the fourth grades, and I have loved it throughout its many incarnations, performance locations, and structures. I have IMG_1075loved it when I am up at 2am and growling at my computer as I try to piece together the scene bits and improv moments the students have created; I have loved it when I am scraping my car at 7am to get to school and sleepy nine-year olds who aren’t terribly keen on an 8am acting warm-up and a theatre/science lesson; I have even loved it in moments of miscommunication and distress that compel me to call my supervisor for help and advice.

What keeps me coming back is the dynamic, intriguing, social justice-laden, mutual listening and learning process that makes the project happen. That and I fall madly in love with a couple dozen brilliant minds and wonderful souls every time.

IMG_1166Logistically, what we Teaching Artists do is first meet with the teachers, who target a specific piece of their academic content that they feel the students need to understand more deeply, and often talk about how they want the students to grow socially. We as Teaching Artists plan the arc of our lessons accordingly, each day with academic, social, and theatrical goals; each day forwarding the delicious and terrifying progression of moving from having absolutely nothing to conceiving, then writing, then rehearsing, then performing an original piece of theatre. Did I mention the kids are nine and ten years old?

I return again and again to this project because it is like magic. I am well versed in the science and social science behind the success of performance modalities as ideal teaching tools, so I am not surprised at the deep learning of the curriculum content and of language arts skills that happens. It is nonetheless a delight, anticipated and appreciated like a favorite dessert. But for me, that which strikes me with wonder anew in the way that sunsets, stars, and storms do, is their deepened compassion for each other, their growing awareness of social structures and how they can be changed, and their discovery of their own bravery. It’s pretty IMG_1134hard to perform in front of people, especially something you yourself wrote. What better circumstances to practice going forward anyway, even though you are scared, than in this gentle, fun, supportive environment? Life presents us with bullies and plenty of situations where we are pressured to keep silent in the face of something that is wrong. This project is about having an idea and finding a way to voice it—in collaboration, on paper, and out loud in front of lots of people you might not know.

My second group of fourth graders comes to the close of their show, the Kid Scientists having learned about wind, water, and solar energy with the help of various mythological gods. They sigh with relief and triumph as Zeus delivers his final lines, and musician John Simon plays part of the song they wrote. They take their places and bow all together, radiant and magical.

At this point in my life, I have worked in many environments, including being a teaching artist in Kabul without much Dari, working with folks with pretty much any atypical situation you can think of, and had crazy weather do its very best to wreak havoc. Generally, we find a way to manifest a successful outcome, and I am able to be in the smooth problem-solving zone (especially as I gain experience with age).

That being said, my latest project has me laughing as I realize that the boy ‘on the spectrum’, the girl with Muscular Dystrophy, and all the other kids with their wide-ranging challenges are teaching me to what it really means to be patient, roll with the punches, and remember that life is washable.

Here’s the backstory. “Life is Washable” is the tagline for the wonderful, ability-inclusive organization called The Magic Paintbrush (www.magicpaintbrushproject.org) that is sponsoring this latest project. I quote their website:

The Magic Paintbrush Project provides family and community engagement programs that serve individuals of all ages with special needs. Our programs include innovative workshops, activities and materials designed to creatively engage ability and invite involvement with families and caregivers.  The Magic Paintbrush Project creatively connects those we serve, including individual families, agencies, integrative programs and classrooms. We have successfully served thousands of individuals leaving a lasting impression for all.”

The Magic Paintbrush Project is run by the delightful Jen O’Brien, who originated it years ago as a response to a lack of creative opportunities for her own children with special needs. Jen and I had worked together at a few symposiums and helped each other with resources over the past half-dozen years, and when she contacted me last spring, I figured it would be another one of those types of calls.

But no.

She wanted to create a theatre company with kids with special needs. They would meet once a week (not counting holiday weeks), would learn about performing and playwriting, write their own piece, and finally perform it in a professional theatre… within about three months. She was hoping I would be willing to be the person to lead the workshops, facilitate the script development, and direct the show. Exciting and a lot to accomplish under any circumstances, never mind that although theatres have wheelchair-accessible seating, they do not often have wheel-chair accessible greenrooms and so on. But, what the heck, life is washable, right? I said, “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!!!!!!!”

Then we had what I think many of us have experienced: ‘floating stakeholder syndrome’,  followed by outreach challenges, and everyone’s perennial favorite, scheduling obstacles. I had nearly given up of having the project happen at all, when Jen phoned the day before our first day to say we had four kids for sure. Not what I was hoping for, and four kids is the bare minimum needed for a fun and full theatrical endeavor. Add to that a cold day, an outdoor delay, and a broken thermostat in our working space…


Magic Paintbrush Project logo

I brought that stress into the arena. I shouldn’t have and I know that, but the best I could do was keep it on the inside, and wonder how I could meet everyone’s needs and forward the project so we could somehow meet stakeholder expectations and various deadlines. I began to do what I know how to do, begin the process of becoming a writing/performing ensemble. The kids began to do what they know how to do: listen for the important things, find their own way to connect, and not mind the mess/chaos…because life is messy, life is crazy. Nothing is designed for this particular group of differently-abled kids whose physical needs are so varied, and they are ready to roll with that because we have decided as a team that this is our trajectory. We will create our and perform our show, because I will teach them what I know about theatre, and they will teach me what they know about living vibrantly in a messy world.