This has been an unusual year for me. Last summer, I started teaching at a local elementary school here in Nashville, TN. It’s been a rocky transition. Teaching elementary school has, by far, been the toughest job I have ever had. This particular school was opened in a high-need area. I’ve been teaching at-risk youth, many who have been caught up in the achievement gap.
There are certain neighborhoods and areas around the country where schools have not been at their best. It’s shown that in those areas, children are falling behind grade level, which often starts in elementary school. For instance, we have seen fourth graders who are still reading at a first grade level. Unfortunately, many public schools are overwhelmed and these children are passed forward. As they get older, the problem becomes more serious. Eventually, you have eighth and ninth graders, or even adults who still cannot read or complete math at a functional level.
It’s been difficult to see the struggle these children face. There is often underlying trauma within their families. Many of these children have directly witnessed violence and crime. Their trauma backgrounds create ADHD-like symptoms, problems with concentration and severe behavioral issues.
My job was to teach theatre to children in kindergarten to fourth grade. Many of these children had never seen a play, or watched anything other than television indicated for all ages. Many had no concept of what theatre looked like, what it entailed, or how to engage in the art of storytelling. I spent a great deal of time helping them understand storytelling, understanding how to be calm and still within their own bodies and how to communicate effectively. Often, this began with the most basic skills: learning how to breathe correctly, and learning the literacy skills necessary to read child-friendly scripts or dialogue.
The kids were not the only ones who learned something this year. Through this process, I had to truly break down the art of acting into the most basic skills, and then even find ways to break those basic skills down into even smaller concepts. I had rarely considered, in my entire acting career, how many very basic skills it takes to amass knowledge of theatre and stage presence.
Suzuki method truly came into play here. Many of these children operate in a world of violence, sudden changes, poverty and discrimination. Some of these children also suffered from neglect, a history of family or community violence and/or poor nutrition.
Most students struggled very much with the concept of standing still even for one entire minute, which can be quite normal and age appropriate for young students. However, many of these young people have nervous systems that are hard-wired to survive difficult situations, and as such, many are always aware of dangers, threats, and any distracting stimuli that could occur, even in a normal classroom.
Each class I taught included about 31 students at a time. Bringing this many young students together is a challenge for any instructor. Bringing 31 students together who have a history of struggle was especially challenging.
In the beginning of the school year, it was difficult not to feel overwhelmed. As I began to break down the concepts that theatre involves, I finally decided to begin with activities that could help these students embrace stillness and calm. This included exercises taken from the Suzuki method that I tailored to the young audience. I often found myself working late, discarding lesson plans as I found new and different issues to meet the needs of my students.
For example, I had a fourth grade class that, from the beginning, had severe discipline and behavioral issues (as a whole, among the class of 30 students). I found that the majority of students in this class were actually naturals at improv. Improv gave them a way to express themselves in a safe and productive way. They were actually so good at these improv sketches, that improv work became a “currency” for reward. Students were so eager to play with props and act out various ideas that improv became a reward for hard work in other areas. Some students would even cry if they were not allowed to participate in weekly improv!
I found that many of these students (like all of us as humans) simply seek encouragement and positive feedback. Many were able to thrive, over time, with consistency and, hopefully, some found reward in the art of expressing themselves in healthy ways.
I walked away from the experience of my first year teaching with a deeper knowledge of the roots of Suzuki method, and a greater knowledge of myself as well.
I began to ponder how Suzuki method could also be a method for those who wish to live a life with greater focus, greater calm and the physical stamina and mental tenacity to move forward and always seek deeper meaning in life.
That is why I have been working to develop a program to bring Suzuki method into the therapeutic world. I am partnering with other teachers, mental health professionals and community members to develop a program that makes Suzuki method accessible to all people—not just theatre artists—in an effort to help create wellness through art.