Saturday, March 17, 2012

Teaching Cooperation DOES Change Our Lives

It's a concept that almost feels too obvious: we need to teach our children how to cooperate and collaborate.

Yet if you go into many public schools today, what is most obvious is that these skills so critical to our ability to learn are NOT being taught.

This past week, Opera House Arts and the Deer Isle-Stonington Schools, as part of our Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, brought Washington, D.C.-based actor and teaching artist Sean Layne into residence to work with our teacher and students on effective ways to use arts integrated learning techniques in their every day classrooms. Sean conducted a one hour professional development seminar for all teachers grades K-8 on the power of arts integrated learning and why it is where education is headed to advance the 21st century learning skills our students need to succeed.

Sean then lead self-selected teachers in an additional two hours of professional development on "Putting Drama to the Test: Increasing Test Taking Abilities Through Drama." Sounds like an odd marriage, yes, but the truth is that even if we can correct the imbalances created by No Child Left Behind, test taking will likely be a skill ALL of us need to succeed in life and work. Additionally, Sean worked for four days in classrooms, demonstrating techniques for building effective learning communities among students and teachers. The visible results of his techniques were amazing. With the repetition of a few simple terms and exercises each day, standardizing vocabulary and developing a practice in the students for concentration, cooperation, and collaboration, the climate of the classrooms greatly improved and we could all feel true "learning communities" in formation.

In fact, arts-integrated learning is not only being seen as a leading edge to improve and advance education nationally, but locally we are extremely well suited to it for a variety of reasons. The arts are a community strength on Deer Isle, which is home to four strong community and professional arts organizations as well as numerous individual artists. And our fisheries-based community is comprised primarily of kinesthetic learners, for whom the industrial model of classroom learning has never been a successful fit. As part of his workshop with the full staff, Sean presented a wonderful, short (6 min) video history of education as it has lead us to this moment, when arts-integrated learning is poised to take the lead.

Future posts will go into more detail on Sean's techniques: his Actor's Toolbox (and how we are using that monthly in our MAD (Music/Art/Drama) Morning Meetings, Concentration Circle, Cooperation Challenge, and One-Minute Tableau Challenges.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Could Paul Goodman Change Our Lives, Again?

Ever hear of Paul Goodman?

If you're under 60, probably not.

But look him up. Filmmaker Jonathan Lee and his new documentary film, "Paul Goodman Changed My Life," are trying to put Goodman back into the conversation. And with good reason.

Why invite a writer best remembered for the book he published in 1960, Growing Up Absurd, back into our public conversation?

Because Goodman is iconoclastic in some of the same ways Opera House Arts is. We showed the film this week, and were very lucky to have filmmaker Lee with us for a Talk Back and supper.

Goodman called himself a humanist and defined this widely to encompass a variety of disciplines and genres so that he never settled into one field or type of creation: fiction, poetry, and criticism; psychology, urban planning, community development. Goodman was passionate about life and appears to have wanted to "have it all:" he was an out bisexual as early as the 1940s, with a wife, three children, and numerous male lovers/affairs.

Despite being completely male-centric, Goodman's gorgeous writing and robust, iconoclastic ideas reached many, many people--including feminist heroes such as Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, Susan Sontag, and Deborah Meier--who Lee interviewed for the film.

Goodman was hungry. He believed ideas matter, he believed that we could create the change our country desperately needed in the 1960s--and now. He believed in "the Grand Community." At the same time, he saw himself as an outsider--someone whose ideas would never really be accepted in the mold of Hannah Arendt's concept of "the pariah"--and became a contrarian when Growing Up Absurd and his politics and beliefs made him a darling of the growing anti-war movement, and thus a best-seller.

Yet in the end, dead in 1972 at too early an age from a series of heart attacks, his books quickly went out of print, and Goodman and his ideas went out of our public conversations. We haven't really seen a thinker or writer like him again--and we'd all be richer if we had.

Thanks at least in part to Lee's film, Goodman's work is beginning to make a reappearance. The New York Review of Books is offering Growing Up Absurd as an e-book now, and making it available again in a print edition in June. And Oakland's PM Press now has three collections of Goodman's writing back in print, including The Paul Goodman Reader.

Perhaps "the philosopher of the New Left" who set the agenda for the youth movement of the 1960s can generate a little hunger for life back into our own turbulent times.

In the meantime, to test and stretch the boundaries of your own humanism, keep coming to the wide variety of events like this one as Opera House Arts moves into its year of celebrating the 100th anniversary of its home, the Stonington Opera House.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Telling the Story of the Ages

Opera House Arts' board members enjoyed a group outing to New York Theater Workshop this past weekend. We were off our island and in town for our midwinter board meeting, including a meeting of our new Artistic Advisory Board.

We attended NYTW's new production, "An Iliad,' co-written by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O'Hare and, the night we saw it, featuring a virtuosic performance by Tony Award-winning actor Stephen Spinella. Artistic Director Judith Jerome and I wanted our board members to experience one of the many ways a well-known story can be movingly retold on stage.

Greek poet Homer's epic narrative is not only one of the oldest works in Western literature: it was also one of the most memorable books I read growing up. Raptly listening to Spinella appeal to his muses and "sing" his tale, I wondered: why? Why be so enamored of a 15,000 line epic poem on the Wrath of Achilles?

Was the main reason that Achilles loved Patroclus and Patroclus, Achilles?

Was it the "Trojan women," so remarkably memorialized by Euripedes, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and finally Christa Wolf in her 1988 novel and essays, Cassandra.

No. I think, looking backward and forward, the reason to be enamored with "The Iliad" and all of its heirs, including "An Iliad" at New York Theater Workshop, is Homer's portrayal of the terrible destruction the rage roaring inside each of us wreaks. The cities sacked, the battles fought. The endless, endless, cycle of pointless rage ("because you took my girlfriend," etc.) that has become our story for all ages.

Our human need to be confronted over and over again with the realities of our rages is why the poets write, the troubadours travel and sing and teach, and the rest of us go to theater. With luck, we each gain insight into our own rage and destructiveness as we fall under the spell of this classic tale. With luck, we don't find ourselves storming the battlements for 10 years.

"An Iliad" is there to remind us: it doesn't take much.