JOURNAL OF A YOUNG CREATIVE ARTS TEACHER
A. Year One
1. The New City School, St. Louis
I began my work at the New City School as a volunteer. At the end of two months I received my first modest salary and thus became a professional teacher.
I started teaching that year by repeating as many exercises that I could remember from university Drama days. Later, I took a training course entitled “Improvisational Acting Techniques.” The material, which was covered in the class, was similar to what I had studied in college and was taken from the book, Improvisational Acting, by Viola Spolin.
The book is basically an acting text containing many theatre games. The games are explained from a teacher who indicates the point-of-concentration. This acting guide uses the techniques of problem-solving to develop greater sensitivity, concentration and skills in pantomime.
The children played these games and responded to them favorably. During the year, I don’t remember considering movement as a possible means towards self-expression. Movement experiences came packaged under acting techniques.
On one occasion, we got in a circle and I explained that we were going to play the Sound and Motion game. One person was to stand in the center of the circle and make up a sound and a corresponding movement. He was then to go around the circle and do his sound and motion for everyone in the circle. At some point he would choose one person and stand in front of him, repeating his sound and motion. Then the two would exchange places in the circle and the new person developed his own sound and movement and would begin the circle again.
The children loved this game and before long the entire class had joined the circle. They liked to make strange sounds and funny movements.
We played this often at the children’s request. Eventually I would ask the center person to change his random movements into storm-type movements.The child then gave each player in the circle a different part of the storm to be. There was lightning, rain, thunder, drizzle, dark clouds, etc. Each part of the storm had its own sound and its own movement. It appeared that the more tired the children were, the more they enjoyed the game. They liked to move.
I used the recording, “Hair,” as an accompaniment for a very general movement experience. Everyone found a place to stand in the large hall. I turned on the record and asked the class to begin to move. They could move as much as they wanted and in every way they wished. They only rule was that they could not stop.
The music continued for over twenty-five minutes. The children were breathless and excited. They had loved it.
The class worked on walking and fighting in slow motion. They responded with particular enthusiasm to fighting one another in slow motion and insisted upon performing their “fights” for their parents. We held a special performance in the spring. Their show included music, (Beatles album), action (slow-motion walking and fighting), and scenery (projected chemical slides).
Once the children worked in partners. They molded each other’s bodies into statues. The statues were more like sculptures. They were non-human and non-representative. They were shapes. Then I asked the class to make their sculptures move. They worked on each other with great care and concentration.
Emotional tableaux were great favorites of the children. In these, one’s body assumes a shape that best expresses an emotional quality. It was very simple and we played it as a guessing game.
The children enjoyed moving. They seemed to respond more fully and with less resistance when movement was part of drama.
I doubt if the children reached many of the goals set by the well-known creative dramatics teachers. Few of them had reached down into themselves very far. There was little real self-expression. The kids had some fun experiences but those times were isolated and lacking in any continuity. I believe I was as uncomprehending as they as to the nature of a truly creative experience. I taught from a bag of tricks called theatre games. More often the children were only partially responsive.
2. Special School District
I was hired by the Special School District to teach “Creatives” in a six-week summer school program. As students I had sixty deaf children between the ages of six and twelve. They were divided into five different classes according to age. Each class met with me twice weekly.
I began keeping a journal that summer. The following sections are direct descriptions from that journal.
Begun after the first day of class:
“What I would like to happen during this six-week program at the Special School District.
These kids have their movements jumbled. It seems that more attention has been given to oral communicative needs than to anything else. They desperately need to know how to make more use of their bodies. They are stiff and rigid and clumsy….the first part of my program should be spent on their learning that they have a body that does work and not just a giant set of ears that don’t work.”
My journal notes were influenced by my most recent readings concerning dance. Someone had given me a copy of a book by Barbara Mettler entitled, Materials of Dance as a Creative Art Activity.
This book sets forth the basic principles of dance in a simple sequence of problem-solving lessons.
I pushed the kids towards movement experiences. I insisted they take off their hearing aids in addition to their shoes and socks. “Creativity comes from within, “ I reasoned, and hearing aids were a nuisance to creative movement experiences. I also believed that hearing aids were a constant reminder that they were handicapped. I wanted them to feel complete and satisfied with themselves as they were.
“As they came into the room they just about exploded…running around and jostling each other. This was a room with no desks…a place with a teacher who lets you run around…who wants you to run around…they took their hearing aids off…everyone had been reticent about this the first day – school was a place where you HAD to wear your hearing aid…and their shoes and socks…Margo (head of the program) said she would have them wear shorts and shirts. I was against leotards because then everyone would think of pointy shoes and doing ballet and being graceful.
The children were placed around the room. They weren’t able to find their own places in the space yet. Everyone had to look at me directly and when the group was together, I began doing simple movements. They followed me in movement – simultaneously. We worked in that way as a group for ten minutes. Afterwards I turned off the lights and asked everyone to lie down on the floor on their backs – not moving at all –then lots and lots of movement (Barbara Mettler’s second exercise – quantity of movement). They weren’t allowed to stop. We continued for ten minutes. Afterwards I turned on the lights and the kids started laughing and clapping. They had worked through many physical tensions. These children spent hours sitting at desks hooked up and plugged into machines. They are attached, wired, controlled by batteries and electric currents.”
Directions couldn’t be complicated. The children were not good at reading lips yet.
“In the beginning exercises they do everything I do because they can’t read my lips; only my gestures…when I motion with my arms to move back to form a larger circle, they copy my gesture of “move back”.
These children have a difficult time in space. They seem to need constant contact with something solid. They are always touching one another (and me). Many of them shuffle their feet along the floor. When hearing is impaired, it often follows that equilibrium is also affected.
“Today the movie came from the Museum of Modern Art. It is all about Alexander Calder and his shapes in space. The children sat through it twice. It is a beautiful movie. Afterwards the kids jumped up and began to be dangling mobiles. I then placed each child with a partner. One of them made the other into a mobile and then blew hard until his breath made the mobile move. Later everyone made shapes in the white light of the projector.”
Later on in the summer the children began to feel more comfortable with their bodies and would experiment more freely.
“Their free movement was lovely. Tina and Sheri didn’t look at me one time. (Teacher approval is very important; they want to be right.) Sheri used a wheelchair. For these exercises, her teacher and I would take her out and put her down on the floor where she is free to move in her own time whatever way she can.
What happened next was fascinating. They began to take their movements and relate them to someone else’s. They were moving with someone else and they weren’t just copying. They were adjusting. After a while these twos grew into groups of three and four…concentration remained intense. Finally they were all together, moving and dancing with each other, but as a unified whole.
What happened is that the children were organically and without any prior instruction, following the steps Barbara Mettler outlined in her book. They didn’t know what problem they were suppose to solve next: they just created their own problems.
Later we experimented with isolated parts of the body. We did it as another problem: “How many different ways can you move your head?” The children worked on two time qualifications: SLOW and FAST.
I showed them movies of Marcel Marceau doing David and Goliath, The Lion Tamer and The Butterfly. They saw how precise and expressive the human body could be. They acted out those movies endlessly, trying to recall every moment that had been made.
When the summer program ended, I realized that I had not taught any drama.
B. Year Two
Before starting work again, I knew I needed to have personal experience in dance. I began to study Modern and Improvisational dance at Washington University.
These classes acquainted me with my own body and introduced me to a variety of improvisational dance techniques, which have been invaluable to me as a teacher.
1. Central Institute for the Deaf, St Louis
The first six weeks at Central Institute were spent on lessons concerned primarily with individualizing. The children were deeply imbedded in the concept of uniformity and sameness. The goal was to become as muck alike as possible. They learned to make their speech the same as others. They worked in classes to learn the right responses to questions and problems. The more alike they were to the hearing world, the better the chances of survival in the hearing world.
I saw my role as one of opposition to the standard.
“In our first class I asked about Halloween and who they would like to be in a Halloween story. Everyone wanted to be a monster. Everyone wanted to be a skeleton monster. Everyone flopped and wiggled around the room. Each child copied someone and kept watching me and them.”
It took practically the entire year before many of the children were able to stand up with two feet within a square of linoleum. They were simply not able to function independently. They kept changing their places and getting closer to each other. They were afraid of losing contact with a physical being.
We spent weeks where the children would simply move around in our small space without touching anyone or anything else. I called our classes, “Studies in Stop and Go.” Everyone would go (run without touching) when the lights went on and stop when the lights went out. I found visual symbols very important to the children.
Freezing and melting was fun.
“They loved freezing…then I asked them to melt…they did it a few times until one child realized that melting was slow.”
I wanted them to behave in terms of different. To point out that differences were good, we played the game of Pass the Stick. Everyone sat in a circle and a stick was passed around. Everyone had to use the stick as something different than what it was.
This exercise used a physical object to stimulate a creative and imaginative response. That was what I wanted most: a creative response.
The children loved large motor activities. They liked to run and jump and skip. I found that by adding the word “silly” to movement activities, the children were pushed into experimenting more freely. The reasoning is that silliness implies freedom from being wrong. If you are silly you are neither right nor wrong; you are simply silly. Silly also meant large and unusual movements to the children. I combined lessons of:
A. Large motor (locomotive) activities
Walk, run, skip
B. On different levels
Roll, crawl, jump
C. In time
Faster, super-fast, slow
D. With specific qualities
Tight, loose, silly, serious
The children responded well to a technique of “split second commands” which I had learned in my own dance class. This approach to movement activities is challenging and exciting for the children.
I began using this technique as a starting point for other lessons.
“We began classes by talking about what could be seen outdoors during the fall. Responses were slow in coming at first. Eventually the children released more and more and some lovely fall images came out…gold leaves…flaming…
piles…corn…yellow and red. Then I asked for half of them to stand up and get ready for the Command Game. (I have them stand where they can see me in order for them to read my lips). I began…run…skip…run fast…slow…silly…fall down (motor activities) and gradually began to add image and quality words…floating…leaf…fall…burning…hot…light
…flame…gold…They had responded physically and imaginatively. They had expressed through movement feelings from within their own selves. I asked the children how they felt after being all those things…cool…beautiful
Whenever I used a drum, the children would always ask if they, too, could play on it. They loved to bang it. They loved to bang and hit. They loved percussive sound. Perhaps this is because they were able to hear or feel the vibrations.
One group of lessons was devoted to sound. We began by experimenting with body sounds that were both vocal (but non-verbal) and non-vocal.
The children used these body sounds to physicalize words. We began with everyone’s name – divided into syllables (beats). Each child decided if he wanted to clap his name, or stamp it, or snap it, etc. Once it was decided, I used visual symbols for the sounds. Thus
Clap Snap Stomp
In this way we orchestrated words into sounds with the children following the written score.
The children experimented with rhythmic patterns using an instrument. One child played the pattern while another moved to it.
We continued working towards creative movement responses until the end of January of that year. I then began telling simple stories and having the children respond, both physically and vocally to the story.
They were excited about acting out stories. I was excited too. The children began to desire to communicate. They wanted to talk. They wanted to be able to show and tell their story.
Many children responded more enthusiastically when they were called upon by a group to help out. At first I gave parts to the kids. Later they were able to decide among themselves who was to play each role.
That year I had taught movement and play-acting. Each was separate and distinct with one exception however. That was when the children responded to movement commands, which turned into image commands. They had become leaves, which were falling and then got burned. It was beginning simple drama…
B. Year Two
2. New City School
The children were free to choose drama. They came only when they wanted to come. As a result, the ones who did come really liked it and were regular about coming to class. Classes were twice weekly.
They began to work well together and in the beginning I worked towards developing a positive group dynamic.
By the beginning of January we started to experiment together. I wanted to make movement activities less of a separate experience.
One day the kids had gotten in place ready to work. I hadn’t prepared any lesson that day. Not knowing what else to do at the moment, I said, “Close your eyes.” It seemed to follow to “close your mouths…your tongues…your shoulders, etc.” They had closed everything and were tight little packages. They reminded me of jack-in-the-boxes. I told them to POP open when they heard the drum.
We worked on popping that day.
“…after they had popped open…we did closing everything and popping again…this time I added, “Say your name as you pop.” Next we experimented making different kinds of popping noises vocally…then everyone got back to his place and I asked them to make one popping movement (one major release of energy).
…they continued making single popping movements with different parts of their bodies…they added their noises to accompany the movements…Later we talked about things in the world that pop…toaster…bubble of air in a fish tank…popcorn. The kids became the things that popped… We added a time dimension to the popping and discussed the graduality of the pop…The getting to the pop…They worked in partners and made popping pieces which they later showed to each other.”
Ideas began to flow much more freely after our popping experience. In that lesson of POP, we had begun with a simple movement activity, and then had carried the idea through into drama. Popping had become a play with a beginning (tension building), middle (climax of the pop), and end (release of physical tensions, subsiding).
“They were all lying down on the floor on their backs. I told them they were bacon in a frying pan. As the heat grew, their bodies moved and became curled, tight, and definitely crisp.”
They loved that kind of manipulative movement imagery. We did more.
“Today the children were noodles in a pot of boiling water. They curved and moved and grew limp. They slid over each other and went in and out and between each other with faster and faster movements.”
We worked on marionettes. The kids loved twisting their bodies into shapes and numbers and letters. The number later took on human type characteristics. Scenes were played with the numbers as characters. The oldest class began to work on abstract movements. We discussed some simple qualities of war and peace.
The children improvised a dance-drama around the theme.
“At first the war people went on the stage and worked through each of the four qualities in a movement improvisation. Then they froze. The peace people began moving between the war people. They alternated more quickly and eventually began to work at the same time, relating their movements in terms of opposition. At the end, everyone just came together and collapsed.”
A class of younger children worked very specifically and directly from Barbara Mettler’s book.
“Everyone gave a performance of a body part. I never expected such lovely work. They included time plus dynamics, all on their own. David Glynn did a marvelous foot solo on his back.”
The children began to do movement improvisations to emotions and later to colors. They were physically responsive to the slightest suggestion I made. We often began class with activity commands, which yielded to image comments with specific dramatic possibilities.
I connected images to give the children specific problems and they would create their own imaginary scenes.
For example: Search could develop from sure abstract movement that perhaps was directional with quick changes to searching for. Searching for is a much more specific literal suggestion. It could have emotional implications. “I lost something and I’m anxious to find it.” Searching is definitely dramatic. There is an implied dramatic problem.
From searching, the children became specific in terms of:
1. What are you searching for?
2. Where are you searching?
3. Why are you searching? Which points to –
4. Who are you?
The possibilities are limitless
1. Dog searching for bone.
2. Mother searching for lost child.
3. Bumble bee searching for honey.
4. A leaf in search of the ground.
The children were interested in Evolution. We began class wit everyone suggesting word images of evolution.
Everyone had a chance to respond physically and vocally to all these words. I asked the class to create a short evolutionary sequence in movement. They did this individually. Next, the class did a group evolution with no prior planning.
Our next step was to write a group poem. I used a basic technique called “And then.” It was very simple. We rolled out a long piece of white bond paper. We rolled it down a long hall. The children sat on either side while I sat on the paper, writing down their phrases with a big crayon. We started with a beginning of the world, as they understood it. Everyone contributed a phrase and words and thoughts. I wrote whatever they told me, every so often adding – And Then.
We finished writing and then began to edit our group poem. Phrases were linked or omitted. New combinations of words were tried, and an epic poem emerged called “Evolution.”
AND THEN there was an explosion.
Dust particles collected in space compacting themselves into planets and stars.
The earth was a ball of fire.
Waters rolled over and over the earth – and after a while it cooled.
It was a big mud-ball with puddles.
It’s crust hardened and wrinkled – forming land and sea.
The earth grew green.
More cells began to gather to make tiny animals.
Insects began to fly around.
Bang-Boom-Crackle – there he stood – the dinosaur –
terror of his world.
The earth was no longer silent.
White puffy clouds hung in the blue sky.
From space – stars glittered wishfully.
The moon shone on the earth like a lantern in the night.
The ice age struck.
The little creatures buried themselves from the cold –
until it was over.
The big creatures died.
The world was still and quiet.
The sun broke through.
Animals cautiously peeked out – climbed out – and started to grow.
Time went by.
The animals changed and gave out new forms.
Paws grew into hands.
Huge apes began to fight with each other over their land and caves.
There was man.
He continued to fight any persons or animals, which came into his territory.
Soon he invented fire –
He invented time –
He invented a machine that could think –
He invented everything.
He ruled the earth.
Cities grew up.
In 1957 the space age started with the Russian Sputniks –
And man reached out to the solar system.
We began to translate the poem, verse by verse, into movement. The ideas that emerged were developed largely by the children.
The children presented their evolution play May 28th to parents and friends.
C. Year Three
I began to realize that subject distinctions meant little. It initially mattered little whether I was teaching dance, drama, music, poetry or writing. What I wanted from the children was the same. I wanted them to respond creatively to whatever stimulus I used.
These early teaching eperiences taught me that learning must involve the whole child. It should involve his brain, his body, his emotions and his imagination.
I do not teach a series of facts to children. I do not try to teach skills in the beginning of classes. I believe wholeheartedly in the child as an individual who is separate and distinct from anyone else. My responsibility as a teacher is to encourage the growth of the total child. To do this I try to develop in the child sensitivity to the world around him. One cannot respond to the world without being sensitive to it.
It is my opinion that from sensitivity and responsiveness to the world comes knowledge of the world that is personal and understandable and meaningful. Thus, learning becomes an internal and total response to outside stimuli.
MARY INSTITUTE, St Louis
The next year in Mary Institute the children worked on “responding” to a variety of artistic prompts.
“Then we did wiggling. I had them wiggle all over while standing up. Next they wiggled eyes and fingers together and made up individual wiggle sounds to go with their movements. Then I read a poem, Behind the Waterfall, by Winifred Welles. They loved it. We talked about the possible sounds (responses) that could be made to accompany each line. They did it. I conducted the volume and read the poem while they orchestrated it. It worked well.
Next we tried making finger and hand movements to the poem. Again, beautiful response. Then both fingers, eyes, hands and sounds to the poem. Finally we responded in terms of actions to the poem, acting out all the parts silently in pantomime. The children became old women, waterfalls, shawls, crystal cities, etc.”
The children had responded to a stimulus (poetry). They responded with their vocal sound (basic music), with their bodies (basic dance) and with meaningful actions (basic drama).
We worked quite often in terms of movement to develop dramatic imaginative responses.
“Everyone found a place (after three practices) and walked in time to the drum. Slow…fast…very fast…medium – stop. They curled up in balls. I slowly scratched around on the drum and asked them to grow into silly warts. The silly warts then began tromping over the earth in their silliest way (free and controlled movements). They were to make whatever they could find silly. At first, people found animals and tickled them. Later, when we did it again, they experimented more and were able to make buildings laugh by blowing softly into their chimneys. Trees laughed when they were tickled in their holes. When they laughed, their leaves turned red and fell off. Lovely ideas.
We played the laughing chorus. The children decided that if a big roaring laugh was a number ten, that then a number one laugh was a small smile. Number two was a grin, etc.
Everyone was very excited about laughing on cue and about trying to control their laughter. I was their conductor. We did it and they loved it.”
Many lessons were devoted to dramatic movement activities evolved from clear mental imagery. We worked on creating environments.
“We began work today with the children slowly knotting and unknotting their bodies. I asked them to move slowly through the space as though there was water all around. Stop. We talked about the things that were under the sea. Then they took another swim under the sea (sustained slow movements) and the children were able to report of many more undersea things. They became the things. Next I gave them each a purpose by asking them to try to find something under the sea. As they were intently searching for something, I asked them to freeze. “What could happen to this environment that could affect everyone?” One child said tidal wave. The sound of the drum was the growing tidal wave. As it grew, the children let their bodies be moved by the water. Everyone was washed up on shore.”
Environments could be created with sound and movements. An environment could be any place or any thing. To the younger children, an environment might mean a zoo or a circus or summer in the park. Older classes might create cities or distant planets or jungles of South America.
Once an environment was created, it could be used other ways.
1. It could become a story in itself. That is, something would happen that would change or affect the entire environment (as in the underwater tidal wave).
2. It could be used as a background for another story, thus creating the scene and setting the mood.
Specific movement activities lend themselves well to creating plays from characters.
“The children began walking around the room. I asked them to walk around very fast …where were they going…we used other words to qualify walking. Anxious…scared…proud…undecided, etc. From those words, the children worked individually, but in a group, deciding why they were scared, etc. I asked them to fill in the other details of their scared walks. Where were they going? What had happened or was going to happen? Then each creating individual scenes from their walks.”
Other times I was more specific in my directions:
“Walk around the room like
A. A hunter stalking prey (what happens – act it out)
B. Wounded soldier
D. Candidate for Miss America
The children responded enthusiastically to this approach. Movement activities were valid not only as independent creative experiences but also as initiators of responsive dramatic activities.
D. Year Four
1. Mary Institute
I listed my goals in the beginning of the year.
“Goals – Trimester 1, September – November
For the children
1. To develop clear and positive concept of self and to deal with that self as imaginatively as possible.
2. To develop a concept of self as related to other selves and the environment.
We will work specifically on
Awareness of physical self as first step in developing total self-concept.
Your physical self is your body,
Classes required much effort on my part. During this semester I began to discover,
“But children (or anyone) have a knack for knowing instinctively what’s good for them…they know what teacher is putting them on or what teacher isn’t…respect a teacher wants from a class will come only from his own merits as a person who definitely has something of value to offer.”
I began questioning my role as a teacher. I also was teaching drama once a week to a class of twenty-five gorls in inappropriate space.
I looked to the children and observed them more closely. I noted the things they like to do in drama.
“Things which have been fun for my classes this trimester:
A. Telling stories
B. Acting out stories.
1. In pantomime
2. With dialogue (improvised)
C. Puppets acting out stories
D. Writing dialogue (funny but mostly trite) for magazine pictures
E. Re-enacting a political news program
F. Making up funny commercials
G. Talking into a microphone about silly subjects
H. Putting on costumes
I. Opening and closing the curtains
J. Putting on a “real” play (Alice in Wonderland) for an audience
K. Following each other simultaneously (mirror games) to rock music.
L. Doing actions I pantomime to speeded-up record with another person being the mirror.
M. Listening to stories.
N. Making up stories by connecting three words
O. Responding physically and vocally to Halloween images.”