Artistic Learning: our teachers are students, too

We nurture a culture of learning where we are both teacher and student.

All of our teaching artists are theater professionals with a passion for education. Our two-year professional development initiative funded by the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust—the first we are aware of in the Bay Area—offered paid trainings in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Childhood Development; Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum; Lesson Planning; and several classes on ways to teach Shakespeare to age groups ranging from elementary school through high school.

The reason we make this investment is partly to do with our unique approach to bringing theater into schools: our Teaching Artists partner with teachers to integrate theater-making and learning about a Shakespeare play right in the classroom. This way every student—even those who would never consider signing up for a Theater class—have the opportunity to develop their own creative voice. Every year we get comments from students remarking on their initial reluctance at the beginning of the process and their immense enjoyment by the end. So, we ask a lot more of our teaching artists, and we provide them with more support in navigating the sometimes challenging environments they encounter in classrooms.

Last month we hosted our final training of the two-year initiative. After attending previous rounds of training over the past few years, teaching artists requested one with a hands-on focus, so we partnered with Circle Up Education, an organization whose primary focus is Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training for Classroom Teachers. The five-hour training was extremely well received by our Teaching Artists:

“I learned a tremendous amount from the training that I will be able to apply immediately in the classroom!”

“Training with Cal Shakes is always a reminder of the fierce and compassionate family of teaching artists in our network. It almost doesn’t matter what we’ve gathered to learn; we resonate and wriggle; we inspire one another. But the diversity and inclusion sessions this year have felt especially visceral and relevant to our work with youth. I think that each of us is always hoping that maybe it’s now; maybe this will be the generation that grows up where Shakespeare belongs to every body in every community. Maybe we get to be on the foundation floor—dug into the dirt of that rebuilding work.”   

“More trainings like this please!”

Developing Self-Awareness & Relationship Building Practices–Enhancing Teaching & Learning in Diverse Classroom Communities was developed with the support of the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust as the final session of a two-year initiative funded by the Trust that has training our entire cadre of Teaching Artists.


Artistic Learning: Inside and Out


20161121_105541Cal Shakes’ teaching artists not only teach to students around the Bay Area—they learn how to be better teachers themselves. We strive to create a team of teaching artists that are culturally competent and well equipped to encounter the populations of students we serve, we hold trainings around the following issues/topics:

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum
Child Development and Psychology
Teaching Shakespeare to Elementary and early Middle School students
Teaching Shakespeare to upper Middle and High School students


20161121_123850According to our teaching artists, the training:

“…really put into perspective a lot of tactics I had already been using in my teaching and helped show me the mechanics of the methods.”

“…[provided] learning techniques to create equitable classroom environments. Thank you for this training.”

“…[gave me] SO MUCH insight into the Autism Spectrum. The trainer made the content very accessible and hands on.”

“…provided a safe space in which to re-assess my teaching approaches. I really appreciate the excellent trainings.”


We are so proud of our teaching artists’ continual dedication to expanding their knowledge and skills with kids in classrooms and in our Summer Conservatories! Artistic Learning professional development and mentorship programs are part of a two-year initiative funded by the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation.


Getting Back to Basics

Part Two in a new series by Marketing Intern Katie McGee as she participates in a Cal Shakes classroom residency.

I went to bed Monday night eagerly awaiting my return to Northern Light for another dose of middle school Hamlet adventuring. I woke up Tuesday morning to a gloomy sky and the wrong side of the bed.  Never fear, however; I threw on my most brightly-colored shirt in a pathetic attempt to lighten my spirits and dashed to my car with lukewarm coffee spilling in hand.

My mood began brightening as I pulled into the parking lot and scurried to meet up with the Director of Artistic Learning, Trish Tillman, for the day’s rundown: Start identifying action and clarifying textual meaning within each group’s assigned scene.

As class began, we warmed up our actor’s toolkit and made sure the group was functioning as a solid team.  Hallway, lunchroom, recess conflicts checked at the door, then ready, set, go, Hamlet.

We began digging through the textual trenches Shakespeare dug for his performers long ago.  As students tried on their lines for the first time, young voices began to grow louder and braver around the room.  The entirety of Hamlet was being voiced in a matter of minutes.  Questions were raised: What is my character doing in this moment? What motivated my character to do this? What the heck is a fishmonger?

By the end of the period students were feeling a smidge overwhelmed, but a dash relieved as they realized they were beginning to grasp each line’s meaning.

* * * *

Now let’s step back and get real here.  Artists and scholars have taken Hamlet and forced it under that lens, interpreted it this direction, argued it from the east to the west and reread it a kabillion times.  Now all of these efforts may have uncovered some revealing truths or spicy fresh takes, but are some of the story’s fundamentals lost in the process?  Watching the students at Northern Light find meaning in their lines for the very first time reminded me that Hamlet is often overcomplicated and the story’s bare bones alone dish up some titillating entertainment—keep it simple stupid.

Sometimes in life we just need to step back and stop ourselves from getting caught up in the dreary skies of Denmark (or the Bay), the coffee spilling over our hand as we hustle off for the day, and look at the greatness of our overall stories.


S is for Shakespeare … and for Sharing

A Northern Lights student stepping into character before the show.

The final installment by Marketing Intern Katie McGee, documenting her participation in a Cal Shakes classroom residency.

“Ummm…where’s my costume?” “What if I forget my lines?” Ahhh. The sounds of final performance day have arrived. Eager jitters spreading around the performance space. Despite the exclamations of nervous dismay, these students are ready.

Why do I like the idea of youth performing Shakespeare? All the subliminal lessons that come with the experience, like a parent disguising servings of vegetables in delicious fruit juices. Some of these hidden lessons include: teamwork, stage presence, public speaking, and storytelling as a form of expression.

OK, but why Shakespeare? All of these lessons could be learned in a musical production of The Hobbit. Shakespeare, however, presents a seemingly greater challenge, thanks to the text’s richness and density. Shakespeare is often misperceived as literature for stuffy academics. This ridiculous notion, however, intensifies the empowerment a young student experiences once they have mastered the language and discovered the script’s meaning. Shakespeare is for everyone, not just your local, literary members-only club.  Shakespeare wrote for the masses—jokes and tragedies for all to relate to.  Shakespeare is for sharing.

Of all the lessons these students gained, sharing seemed the most evident. They shared costumes, props, space, stage, responsibility, characters, and, perhaps most importantly, they fearlessly shared what they had learned throughout the program. It was deeply apparent that the knowledge Cal Shakes’ Trish Tillman had shared had lit a fire under their desire for Shakespeare and storytelling. I enjoyed watching this flame grow steadily throughout my observation. One young performer, Avi’tal Wilson-Perteete, was especially frank about her new found hunger for the Bard, “I am 100 percent sure I will do Shakespeare again in the near future!”

A Northern Lights student portraying Ophelia shares flowers with the audience.

I am so tickled to have been given even a fragment of this experience with these young and passionate actors and academics.  I am hopeful and my fingers are quadruple-crossed that these students remember Shakespeare is for sharing, and continue to share and develop their love for his work. Maybe at the Bruns this summer? Heck yes to that.