Arriving at Full Circle

Books assembled by Natalie for Early Learning residencies

Books assembled by Natalie for Early Learning residencies

My year at CAT has been one of the most exiting rides of my life, where I gained knowledge, experience and fulfillment. Working at CAT has given me behind-the-scenes insight into After-School Programs and the administrative side of schools. While in the beginning of my year, when I was mostly involved with administrative duties, such as tracking students’ attendance, homework and progress, as well as other filing duties, I discovered that the behind-the-scenes work can be just as important as being in the classroom. Granted, it was a treat to see the work I did—creating templates for worksheets, book materials and puzzles—used in the classroom. I was able to see both sides of the same coin, but it was only near the end of my time at CAT that I was able to witness and experience first-hand what CAT sessions in the middle schools are really like.

Natalie, dressed for Halloween, with a puzzle she created for ALP students

Natalie, dressed for Halloween, with a puzzle she created for ALP students

When I first learned that I would return to my former middle school, I.S. 237, to observe CAT’s sessions via ALP (the Adolescent Literacy Program), I was ecstatic to say the least. Initially, I was only observing how the Actor-Teachers, Precious and Nicolette, facilitate their sessions—how, by utilizing games, activities and recreations, they integrate reading, listening, and critical thinking in the way a student encounters stories and social issues. Working alongside the Actor-Teachers revealed (to me) new and creative ways of teaching, by utilizing the arts to engage and motivate students to learn. The way that they facilitated their lessons made clear what they hope to achieve with the students. Not only was I able to participate in the sessions with them, I was able to put my own observations and understanding to the test by facilitating my own session with the students, with support from both Actor-Teachers.

I had grown used to the way that the students reacted to activities and, with the help of Precious and Nicolette, the session went off not only without a hitch, but became a very fun experience for the students… and me! Seeing the students’ faces come alive and watching how immersed they became in the discussions made my heart swell and I felt a sense of deep joy and fulfillment. I thought, this is what it means to be a facilitator, a teacher, an educator. NB-staffWhile I was only in the school for four short weeks, I feel like I have realized a passion for working with middle-school students. I am not only pleased to see CAT’s mission at work here in Queens, but I am grateful for the chance to have been a part of it.

Natalie BernabeNB
CUNY Service Corps Member
Assigned to CAT’s Early Learning
& Adolescent Literacy Programs

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Ready for Anything

When it comes to theatre, devising new work has always been the thing that has excited me most. Yet past attempts to create plays in professional theatre settings often ended with lackluster results. What was I doing wrong?!  It wasn’t until I became a Master’s student in the CUNY/SPS M.A. in Applied Theatre program, that I began to learn how to work from the ideas of participants – using their assets, skills, and interests to make original theatre. And now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, because I get to do what I love, full-time, with the young people of the CAT Youth Theatre and Junior Youth Theatre.

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Last fall, Kevin Ray (my collaborator in running the Junior Youth Theatre program) and I decided that we wanted to share some of the work we do with middle-school aged students in a conference setting.  Kevin and I had been working together for some time and had been striving to think about how to make theatre activities and devising prompts accessible to this age group. Through our work we had constantly been exploring the question: how can we, as practitioners, support middle school youth in sharing their ideas, navigating group dynamics, and using theatre to say something about the world? We thought that actively examining this question in a room of professionals would generate a rich dialogue in which Kevin and I could share some of our ideas, and hear from others about what approaches they use.

Face-to-Face-2

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Kevin and I designed a workshop during which attendees could wear two hats—one as a participant, engaging in some of the practical exercises that we do with the Junior Youth Theatre; the other as a reflective practitioner, considering how our approach may—or may not—speak to some of the challenges of working with this age group.  An emphasis was placed on collectively exploring different ways that facilitators can guide youth through the creative process so that all of us could learn and grow.

Face-to-Face-1

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Our session proposal was accepted by two different conferences. First stop was the 2014 NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable Face-to-Face Conference held on the beautiful City College campus last April. The 32 NYC-based participants in our session jumped into our activities – and had a lot to say about them.  One participant expressed how she found the flow of our questioning useful in the way it gradually encouraged youth to think about the world in which we live. There was a general excitement in the room about how we, as educators, can begin to create potential opportunities for youth to delve more deeply into content.

Face-to-Face-3

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Exploring content in a meaningful way with middle-school youth is an area that I continue to circle back to in my practice—how can I really take their ideas seriously and “get underneath” them to begin to understand what they want to say? And once I do—how can this content be developed both intellectually and theatrically? Participants in the Face-to-Face session had a lot to offer on this topic. Several spoke about how we might expand images we had created in our practical session together through different approaches. Others stressed the value of metaphor as a way to get inside issues. One participant described how she uses writing prompts as a way to expand work.

In July, Kevin and I traveled to Denver, Colorado to present at the 2014 American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) Conference, a much larger conference than Face-to-Face, featuring educators, professionals, and practitioners from all across the country. Our session for nearly 30 AATE participants was similar, but further developed using the discoveries made at Face-to-Face – and the post-session conversation was strikingly different. Rather than the sharp focus on developing content that occurred at the previous conference, this discussion moved quickly towards the political implications that may emerge as a result of exploring content.

AATE-session

AATE Denver 2014

Several participants in the room questioned whether the way we gave youth freedom to address real-world topics could actually create a political divide amongst them. One young woman brought up the issue of gay marriage, and how when her youth brought it up, a huge debate ensued. As a result she averted the issue and made the choice to not pursue it in the rehearsal room. She explained that she couldn’t have angry parents calling and chiding her for teaching “hot topics” to the youth. Her response was not what I had been expecting. My surprise continued when others in the room went on to express similar concerns. One young man offered that he would have opened up such a dialogue with youth, but would only include issues they face in school; another said that youth this age are only expressing what they hear at home from their parents—so we have to be really careful in dealing with what comes up.

The young people from the Junior Youth Theatre wanted to make a scene about gay marriage in a recent show. And while nearly all of our youth expressed being pro-gay marriage, when creating the scene they felt it important to include a perspective that wasn’t in favor of the issue. At CAT we encourage youth to explore different perspectives; we aim to create theatre that is not message-driven or preachy, but rather seeks to open up a dialogue about issues and the world we live in. When talking about this at AATE, a participant in the room mentioned how lucky I am to live in NYC where “everyone is so liberal”. The conversation that was taking place continued to catch me off-guard—how could one session yield such different responses?

In reflecting upon the session, I realized that while I may be able to lead similar sessions with different groups, what emerges in the room will inevitably be dissimilar. While I went in to the AATE session understanding this in theory, the reality of it emerging in practice reminds me that I always need to be “on my game” and continue to sharpen my listening skills. For not only will there be different responses from various groups, but within these responses there will almost always be difference of opinion. If I had thought more consciously about this in advance of AATE, I could have put my surprise aside, been more present and asked questions to interrogate what the participants were bringing up.

I understand it’s not a question of whether anyone is right or wrong when it comes to multiple perspectives. Rather, it’s about how I can facilitate a dialogue between participants where all of them can offer their opinion, listen to others, and think critically. In such a process, all—including myself as a facilitator—have the potential to learn and grow.

JYT

Winter 2014 Junior Youth Theatre dress Rehearsal

My experience during the conferences—and my work with the young people of the Junior Youth Theatre, who have radically different opinions—affirms that I can’t make assumptions about how this work will land or what will emerge. I have to be ready for anything. And while this thought can be kind of scary, it’s also what makes this work so exciting to me—that it is living and breathing, and thus always changing.

Joey-Schultz

Joey Schultz
Associate Program Director
CAT Youth Theatre

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Behind the Drama

Behind the Drama

It’s 3:30 pm on a Monday when I walk into a classroom of 12 middle school students.  They don’t see me at first. I just stand and wait in the front of the classroom observing them walk around excitedly telling each other about their day.  One of them notices me and happily yells,“Lexy!”  Soon after, I hear a rippling effect of “Hi, Lexy,” “Yay, Lexy is here!” “Lexy, did you notice my new shirt?”  This is what I live for.

These students don’t really know what I do for their after-school literacy program. They know that I help them get snacks and take field trips; that’s probably why they love me so much!  But what I do is much more complicated.  In order to have a successful after-school program, there are a lot of components and people involved.  We have our program director, actor-teachers, funders, students, and then there is me, the Program Manager.

My job is mostly behind the scenes.  I track a broad range of data, including student’s state exam scores, report card grades, the amount of work submitted, the number of hours per week are students attend the program, and how many students overall are participating – all to ensure CAT is meeting our contract requirements for attendance and academic outcomes for literacy and to understand how the students and our program are progressing throughout the school year.

I take all of this data and make sure to disseminate it to the right people at the right time.  Whether helping actor-teachers incorporate assessment results into developing curriculum objectives or calling a student’s parent to talk about the child’s level of attendance,  I use all of this data to make sure that CAT’s after-school literacy program is running as efficiently and effectively as possible.  It’s very time consuming and detailed work, but I truly love it.   

The greatest part of my job is seeing the impact.  Whenever I visit our students and see them in action, they move me.  Their brilliance, creativity, and excitement for the work that they do gives me hope for this next generation.  And for selfish reasons, it helps me feel fulfilled in knowing that I did my part in helping provide a fun, engaging, after-school program where students are truly learning and growing.

Lexy NisticoLexy-Nistico
Program Manager
Middle Schools Literacy Initiative
Alumni, MA in Applied Theatre