Beginnings

A blog from Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning on the first day of class.

Trish Tilllman teaches at Northern Lights by Jay Yamada

Trish Tillman with students from Oakland's Northern Lights Academy; photo by Jay Yamada.

I love the first day of class. I relish it. Kids are fresh to the work, unencumbered with expectations, hopeful, fearful, usually eager for something new. At the very least, their antennae are raised for something different.

I am lucky enough to teach Shakespeare to children in the Bay Area. Today I have two classes back-to-back, a mix of fifth and sixth grade for the first hour, followed by an hour with seventh and eighth grades.

The classroom teacher is usually excited on the first day, too—glad for both a chance to learn new material and to experience what we mean by “arts-integration,” and also grateful for a bit of a break from the incredibly hard work of leading, disciplining, helping—all the giving that he or she must do every day.

So everyone files into the “multipurpose room” or, as many teachers I know call it, “the cafegymatorium.” The kids are looking around, looking at me, looking at their shoes. They are out of a routine. And that is exactly what art wants—it wants us slightly off-center, slightly unfamiliar, more aware, more in a state of wondering. We’ve already taken a step into possibility.

As we start, I try to hold the energy like a seal balancing on a ball—delicately, purposefully, playfully. Here are the rules of our space, I say, easily, simply. Here’s the way we work together. They listen. They tacitly agree. OK for now; their antennae still waving. I start to play warm-up games, like the “Keep the Ball in the Air” game. These games are innocuous and tons of fun, but they are also subversive. They strengthen trust and build specific skills of social interaction, all the while allowing me to size up the group’s personality, its ability to listen and respond, and any potential behavioral red flags.

My lesson plan might change instantly in these moments—from substituting entire sections to little tweaks of timing, or just changing how I will present an upcoming exercise. This is really the fun part. I ask myself: What’s the best and most interesting way for us to meet, teacher and student, student and student, student and self. I ask myself this over and over again in the space of one 45-minute class.

It doesn’t matter that it’s a theater class on Shakespeare. It’s what any class should bring to us. I took a cooking class that put me up against myself in a million little ways (hello, therapist, my childhood is calling) and I gained an understanding of myself and that world that I would never have had if my teacher hadn’t had patience, ease, charm, and an understanding that it’s not necessarily the subject—it’s the You that you might find there.

We end with a small ritual. A clap together. An unplanned group jump. Perhaps everyone says one sentence about something they learned today. We acknowledge the time that we have been in this space was well used together.

So go out and take a class. Or teach one, with heart and fire and fun. Allow the antennae to wave around. Keep having beginnings.

 Click here to learn about Cal Shakes teaching artists in Bay Area classrooms.

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