New York City is not an easy place to live, no matter your age. The over populated and expensive concrete jungle matures children much faster than any suburb. Early exposure to the uneasiness of life can have a hard affect on a child. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many students in the ARC program.
My Spring ARC site was in Brooklyn. In my first session I was instantly taken off guard at how culturally aware my third and fourth graders were. They acted more like middle schoolers, I could even say early high school. One student in my ARC class (who we will call James for the purposes of this post) never spoke in class. He never participated. He just always sat on the floor observing from the corner. One day I brought in the book Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed. In the book Mae, a black student tells her white teacher that she wants to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, Mae’s teacher tells her that her chosen career path is not possible for her.
From his corner James yells out “That teacher is a racist. She only said that because Mae is black”. I asked him how did he think Mae felt after hearing that. James said he understood why Mae felt bad and shared with the class his personal story of being told he was not good enough because of the color of his skin. Then another student shared her experience. Eventually, James left his corner and joined our circle as students began telling their own personal experiences. I could not believe these third and fourth graders were telling me their experiences with racism, sexism and prejudices. They are in elementary school. How do they clearly know, and why have they experienced these things so early in life? After our conversation, I had us improv tableaux based on the stories the students shared. When we finally finished the story the students were so glad to know that Mae became an astronaut despite the judgment from her teacher. We then created tableaux showing the alternate reality of the stories the students shared.
[My students] now stand a little taller, speak a bit clearer and have a better understanding of the power of creative play.
I realized three things that day. The first, representation matters. Having a book with a character of color allowed the students to instantly relate on the surface. However, they quickly realized they had a deeper connection with Mae than just skin color. The students related to Mae’s problem; which resulted in a beautiful realization within the solution. They realized if Mae could achieve her dreams despite the naysayers, so could they. The second thing I realized is that even the most disconnected and introverted students have something to offer. That was the first day James participated after weeks of me being at the site, but it was certainly not his last. The third thing I learned is that theatre has the power to transform. My ARC students in East New York, Brooklyn will probably never do another tableaux or vocal warmup again. However, they now stand a little taller, speak a bit clearer and have a better understanding of the power of creative play.
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