Tuesday, February 18, 2014

General Assembly

In the last month I have acquired a United Nations of adult learners.  I have students from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, as well as students from Vietnam, Japan and India. I have two Chinese students and, in the last week, I have gained a Tibetan couple. From Africa, I have students representing Somalia, Ethiopia, Algeria and Morocco.  And from Europe, there is a single delegate from Turkey, a young teacher who came to America only five months ago. 

More than a quarter of Cambridge residents were born overseas, hailing from more than eighty countries.  In kitchens, studies, and living rooms across the city, families converse in sixty tongues.  But, while at home a family might chat in Creole, Cantonese or Khmer, on the streets of Cambridge they must get by in English.

Since January I have been piloting an online English class for students, sponsored by the city and a local non-profit.  Whereas the majority of immigrants seeking to improve their English can choose from a buffet of in-person classes, family-care obligations or jobs with long hours prevent many from enrolling. They have had to make do on their own – often sweeping up only a dusting of phrases.

We are designing our online program for such students – a mother with a third son still in a stroller and a young man who works long shifts as a dishwasher in a home for the elderly.  They are determined women and men who scrape together hours from around the edges of long workdays, meal preparation and diaper changes to sit in front of a computer and study the future tense.

America has long run on the determination of such immigrants.  Already I have acquired over twenty such students. 

I meet my students only once.  After they enroll, classes exist only in a virtual universe.  I watch their progress from afar, edit their writing as they submit it online and send along emails of encouragement.

My students are of all ages and their stories are as diverse.  A woman younger than me, newly married in her home country, arrived only last month; an older woman has lived in Boston for over a decade, working in cancer research and sending her daughter to Boston University.

I have many mothers in my class.  The youngest bring their children to our initial meeting – a young boy with a Thomas the Tank Engine hat, an infant with big black eyes swaddled in puffy down.  Some speak of jobs they had back in their home countries – they were kindergarten teachers and religion teachers and computer engineers. 

I am vividly reminded of when I first landed in Thailand over three years ago.  I knew only the number of words and phrases that could be crammed into an hour crash-course.  Life in that first month was distilled to the basics: how to successfully order soup with pork balls, how to tell a bus driver an address, how to haggle for a mango in the market. 

Foreigners do not often make an effort to learn Thai, which became an unanticipated boon for my own stumbling progress in the language.  Everywhere drivers and vendors encouraged my limited Thai with smiles, listening as I mangled their tones and distorted their words.  They were patient and coaxing and on more than one occasion put down a spatula to provide an impromptu Thai lesson right there on the side of the road.

I would suspect that my students have not had a similar experience on the streets of America.   We are perhaps, as a nation, not always so patient with new immigrants, not as forgiving, not as disposed to set aside time to listen to and encourage a stranger’s halting English. Rather than be excited that an immigrant can speak some English, many people take those skills for granted.

 A woman arrived at our meeting last week pushing a stroller. A round-faced boy with ruddy checks and a firm grip peered out at us.   I begin these meetings with simple questions: “Where do you live?” “When did you come to the US?” “What country did you come from?”  A student’s English level is quickly apparent and I correspondingly steer the conversation into different streams of nuance or simplicity.   Even the most basic questions were beyond this woman’s ability.  After five false starts, she handed me a cell phone and I dialed her husband, whose English was impeccable. And yet, despite lacking even rudimentary English, she had found her way to the center: she had navigated the streets and the buses. She wanted to learn.  A week later I was following her slow but steady progress online as she practiced each successive lesson.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Thane and I

Recently Published on the Folger Shakespeare Library Blog Making A Scene

The large dented cauldrons of spicy green curry, red curry and duck soup were cloaked in hovering fog and steamy air of the monsoon season.  It was evening at the Gate Market in the heart of the old city of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. As I slurped a bowl of noodles so spicy it induced tears, all I could think about was Macbeth.

Three days fresh from college graduation, I had boarded a plane bound for a one-year teaching fellowship at the prestigious Chiang Mai University.  Growing up, my favorite musical was Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s The King and I, the story of Anna, hired by the King of Thailand to tutor the royal children. I was forever singing the lyrics to Getting to Know You, beginning with Anna’s declaration that “When you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.” Now, heading to classes as a young teacher, I could not help but think of Anna.

By day I guided a hundred and fifty university students in my elementary-level English classes through the intricacies of usage between “say” and “tell”.  But, I wanted something more: I wanted to teach theater.  So, I approached my colleagues in the English Department with an ambitious plan. The students in the university’s English Club staged an annual play in English – Cinderella last year.  Hesitantly, I proposed to direct Macbeth – my favorite Shakespeare ever since I played the First Witch and Macduff’s doomed son in a 7th grade production.  The department was dubious – the language would be too difficult.  I persisted.  Auditions were set.

But our real challenge was not the play’s language, but its content. In one of the last countries with a revered king, I was preparing to stage a regicide.

While monarchies worldwide have become nearly obsolete, the Kingdom of Thailand’s ruling line remains robust.  King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, has sat on the throne longer than any other current ruler.  He is the great-great-great grandson of the famed monarch who had hired Anna.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, I discovered that The King and I was banned. The king is endowed with near-divine status, and is protected from slander by strict lese majeste laws: Anna’s irreverence to the king crossed the line.  Adapting Macbeth would not be as simple as robing Shakespeare’s characters in traditional Lanna-style sarongs.

I found that Thai students were reluctant to engage in open political discourse. In college classes in the U.S., I had been inspired by the boundary-defying nature of theater. I wanted to draw my students into political discussion, to have them think critically about the parallels and differences between East and West.  Yet it was crucial we remain respectful of the monarchy and of Thai cultural traditions.

We began adapting Shakespeare.  Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor, and the other thanes would be Thai politicians. The ghostly apparitions would be conjured through Thai shadow puppetry.  The witches became street children, who sell jasmine garlands at night across Chiang Mai. 

We erred on the side of caution.  We nixed the colors red and yellow, being too closely associated to the two rival political parties, and opted for a neutral orange. We modified the traditional Thai sword on our poster, because it resembled the weapons favored by the monarchy.  When I suggested that the play end with Macduff placing a foot on the severed head of the Scottish tyrant, the actor, an otherwise modern and outspoken junior, refused.  In Thailand the head is the most sacred part of the body.  The feet are the lowliest. I dropped the idea quickly.

In the jungle gardens of the university, we discussed modern politics – twenty college students debating thanes and politicians.  One girl brought up corruption, relating how she had been offered bribes for her vote in a local election.  Another girl drew an analogy between the recently ousted Thai prime minister and Macbeth. After one rehearsal, a student caught me on the way out: “I hardly ever have these discussions with anyone but a few close friends.”

The night of the first performance arrived. The lights dimmed on Thai rock music, and three street children ran giggling onto the stage, asking: “When shall we three meet again?” 

The following Monday, I met with my freshman English class who I had assigned to see the show.  I asked them to identify the Thai elements in the production – expecting such responses as: the attire, the puppetry, the traditional Thai greetings.  

One girl raised her hand: “Macbeth’s final speech.”  She was referring to Macbeth’s final soliloquy: “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day… Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Confused, I pressed her to explain. “He’s describing the teachings of the Buddha.” Macbeth had finally realized the insignificance of his vaulting ambition – a first step toward enlightenment in Buddhism. I was dumbfounded.  I had read Macbeth, studied Macbeth and acted in Macbeth – never once had I drawn the parallel.

Miss Anna had gotten it right. I had set out to teach my students Shakespeare.  But, in the end, by my students I was taught. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Just Say Yes


On the grass behind the theater – once a fire station – two teenagers embraced each other and slow-danced.  They wore sheepish grins as they took each other’s hands, swaying and revolving to the music.  Iron & Wine and Graffiti6 and Elliot Smith floated from my portable speakers.  Curious dog walkers with waddling pugs and sweaty joggers threw sidelong glances.

It was week four, opening day, only hours before curtain.  Our Romeo and our Juliet were nervous.  Would their performance be believable?

The three of us met behind the theater to explore the act of falling in love.   The two teenagers began by locking eyes, standing quiet for twenty minutes without once letting their glances dart sideways.  Most students would feel too awkward to dance along the streets of Charlestown.  But these two seventeen-year-old actors were willing to try.

In theater such willingness is called “saying yes.”

Saying yes is the number one rule of improv.  If your improv partner says: “That soup you’re eating looks delicious!” and you respond, “I’m not eating soup,” the skit falls flat.   In our converted black box theater saying yes became the first rule and promise of our ensemble. 

Last summer, as a teaching artist for Actors Shakespeare Project, my July crackled with witches and Scottish thanes.  This year we – ten students and four teachers – took up residence in the bloody streets of Verona.   Our students were a demographic chart of the Boston area. Our ensemble came from the suburbs and from the heart of the city; from public schools, from exams schools and from private schools.  Some had previously lived in youth detention centers.  Some had years of acting experience in camps and school plays and some came with no formal theatrical training.  What set them apart from their peers was that these ten teenagers were willing, even eager, to say yes.

Saying yes can be challenging in any setting, particularly in the confines of a traditional school classroom.  Raising your hand, offering up the answer to a math problem, sharing a poem, proposing a hypothesis – they all open you to vulnerability.  I have had 6th graders and college students of mine say no.  I have had students as far as Thailand and Cambodia and as close as Charlestown say no.  School textbooks and tests are lined with “right” and “wrong” answers and school halls are varnished in peer pressure and the shine of social status.

The black box exists outside this norm.  

Over the course of four weeks I watched as ten teenagers chose instead to just say yes.

They said yes to playing improv games that required them to squirm like jello and row furiously like Viking warriors.

They said yes to walking and running and crawling through our theater to explore the space.

Two young men said yes to locking hands and attempting to push each other across a room while yelling their lines and furrowing their brows.

One young woman said yes to chortling like an old man with a beer belly and then cooing like a baby girl.

Everyone said yes to playing games of Mafia every day (four weeks straight) during lunch, holding heated debates and flinging accusations, in each subsequent game, about who might be suspect.

One young man said yes to swinging his arms in the air for an entire monologue.  Another young woman said yes to trying not to smile (a real feat for her).

In four weeks our students said yes to dancing in the rain, to singing, to arguing about character backstories, to fake punching each other in the nose, to sharing painful stories, to laughing out loud and crying out load.

It is not easy saying yes.  You need three things.  You need peers that won’t snicker, you need teachers who won’t seek “correct” answers, and you need a space wide open to allow students to spin and floors strong enough to encourage students to leap.

And if you are lucky enough for such a convergence, then Romeo and Juliet waltz in a park, while dog walkers stare and at least one teacher smiles.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In Memoriam


Reposted from The Boston Globe Opinion's page: 

Two weeks ago my 2nd grade teacher quietly passed away.  From what I’ve since learned he had taken a personal health leave from my elementary school where he has inspired and nurtured first and second graders for the last thirty years.

He had long battled depression, and last week chose to end that battle.  But as a student of his long ago, I would never have guessed he was unhappy.   He always smiled in the classroom.

As students, specifically seven-year-olds, our teachers exist for us within the confines of the classroom.  They spring into being with cheery smiles and a bounce in their step as we stow lunch boxes and head to morning meeting.  They retreat again at 3 o’clock with the lines of carpooling parents and yellow school buses.

For me, my teacher Jim was always summed up simply – a sketch by a seven-year-old mind.  He was tall but not imposing and grew a bushy beard.  He always smiled.   He favored flannel and wore Birkenstocks no matter the weather.

I have recently discovered these contradictions of the classroom as I have returned to school, this time as a teacher myself.   While students might fail to conceive of teachers outside the classroom, I now know for us teachers – our students are never far from our thoughts.  My students do not cease to exist with the school bell, rather they continue to run wild in my thoughts late into the night as I agonize over the girl who struggles with a math concept or the boy who can’t sit still for five minutes straight.

In the classroom we as teachers are the sounding boards and documentarians for our students’ lives – we hear about the birthday party plans, the antics of a younger sibling and last night’s fried chicken.  We hang up our lives, our worries and our concerns and cloak ourselves with those of our students.

At seven, I was just the same.  On a recent foray to the basement I unearthed a cardboard box filled with relics of 2nd grade.  Jim had us write every day.  I have uncovered fifteen manila journals filled with elaborate and atrociously spelled stories detailing trips to relatives, to friends’ houses, describing home cooked meals and depicting colorful baseball caps we once bought on vacation.

We all were eager to share our everydays – just as my students are now. 

And Jim always listened – listened with such intensity that each of us came away feeling that our stories and our lives were remarkable. When my youngest brother was born in November, I brought him in at three weeks old for show and tell.  When Passover came in April, Jim was invited to our Seder. 

Teaching made me appreciate the duality of a teacher’s life.  My own teacher’s death last week made me realize how I saw my own teachers the same way.

Looking back I am ashamed to realize that I knew very little about Jim. 

The only thing I do know definitively was that Jim loved nearby Punkatasset Pond.  Year after year, every first and second grade class spent an afternoon at the pond, poking at the water’s edge and exploring the surrounding trails. I remember building tree forts out of sticks and catching tadpoles in mesh nets.

Even years later when I returned to the school to visit my favorite teachers, my conversations with Jim continued to center around me – what classes I was taking, what art or what writing I was engaged in.  For me Jim, as well as all of my teachers, continued to exist within the confines of school.

My second grade teacher was not a famous person; his obituary when it runs will be modest.  But I think it is worth pausing to consider the devotion of great teachers.  Almost everyone has had at least one – men and women who listened to you, supported you and made you feel special.   Like great parents, great teachers have a herculean ability to maintain two completely separate lives – successfully hiding personal struggles in order to show only warmth and support for the students they teach.  Theirs is a selfless commitment to the lives of others.

Jim was one such teacher – always there to listen, with complete and absolute focus, to the adventures of a seven-year old, always there with a smile, and always wearing Birkenstocks – no matter the weather.