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JUMPING IN – Affecting Change in the World Through Improvisation, Breath, and Bravery at P.S. 279

Katie Rainey

Katie Rainey, STAFF

I am an Advanced Level trainee with Community-Word Project's Teaching Artist Training & Internship Program (TATIP) and I’ve been lucky enough to have Teaching Artists T. Scott Lily and Mary Cinadr as my mentors during my residency at Captain Manuel P.S. 279, where I work with 4th graders.

In a recent debrief, Scott talked a lot about the importance of improvisation while teaching. When asked how to keep students engaged, Scott responded, “If you are really listening, and responding to what the students are giving you, then you will be fine." It’s easy to see this approach when observing Scott and Mary in the classroom. It’s clear that Scott and Mary craft their lessons as a team beforehand, but when they hit the classroom, they play off  of each other and the students. When Scott is leading, Mary supports him with full engagement, and then, seamlessly, they switch roles. It’s like a dance, and flexibility is key. I am a theater artist and it is really exciting to see how I can apply the skills I’ve learned as an actor to my teaching.

I’ve also noticed that Scott and Mary approach their teaching path with this same flexibility. Because there is so much going on in the world, they have felt the need to address current events and related themes with their students, and have adjusted some of their lessons accordingly. For example, the students have been learning about pioneers. Scott and Mary first introduced this new word in the historical context of the Erie Canal. The people who built the Erie Canal, and the people who traveled the Erie Canal, were pioneers. The students explored embodying these people through Tableau. Scott and Mary asked the students to begin thinking of themselves as pioneers. Through creative writing and movement, the students explore who they want to become and how they can affect change in the world. Scott and Mary have opened the door for the students to find their individual voices, and it’s incredible to see them rise to the challenge.

Last week, Mary and Scott encouraged me to jump in and lead the warm up. One of Mary and Scott’s guiding questions for each class is, “How can we harness our breath in a way that makes us brave?”. I decided to start from that idea, and lead the children in a guided meditation. I had them breath deeper and deeper into their bellies while imagining that their feet are roots in the ground extending all the way to the core of the earth. And then they imagined that there was a string attached to the top of their head pulling them up as tall as they could be. We continued to breathe together and then I had them repeat the mantra, “I am a creative genius. The world needs what I have to give.” It was so amazing to see the kids really diving into this exercise. Their faces showed how they were really experiencing these images, and working to deepen their breath. Afterwards, I asked the students to share how they felt after the exercise. One student bravely raised his hand and said, “I feel proud to be who I am.” I was so struck by how something as simple as breathing could have such an impact on a child. Moments like this are the reason why I choose to be a teaching artist. I believe that if every child had arts in their lives, the world would be a much kinder place. I am so grateful to Scott, Mary, and all of CWP for giving me the tools to make a difference in children’s lives. 

- Jessica Mortellaro, Theater Artist, TATIP Trainee 2016-17

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