Confessions of an Over Educated High School Dropout

“We’re focusing so much on academics that we’ve taken out things like art, sewing, cooking, woodworking, music, and other things that introduce kids to careers.” – Dr. Temple Grandin

I am a high school drop out. It’s a fact that I normally do not share with many of my colleagues and peers in graduate school. It is an aspect about my history that I usually keep hidden. I was a little less than half way through my junior year before dropping out and enrolling in the GED program. Less than six months later, I moved to New York to go to acting school and honestly, I never looked back.

The idea of being a traditional student was something that never appealed to me. In fact, it was something I rebelled very strongly against. I resented being force fed curriculum designed by an educational system that more closely resembled industrial mass production than an earnest learning environment. So my answer was to walk away and explore the world through my own curiosity, my own passions, and by identifying my own needs.

My educational path would be one of my own devising. A combination of professional experience, conservatory training, certificate programs, community college courses, a bachelor degree, and a terminal masters of fine arts with not one, but two graduate certificates. I charted this path on my own time, identifying my own learning objectives almost every step of the way. I went to acting conservatory because I wanted to be a better actor. I got my bar-tending license and my life-guarding certificate because I needed to diversify my sources of income, I took English and literature courses at a Los Angeles Community College because I wanted to be a better writer and communicator, I studied music business and management at Berklee I wanted to be a better musician, and I entered the MFA arts leadership program because I recognized an opportunity to further my career and strengthen my understanding about the role of the arts in higher education. The point is, it was always my decision. What to learn and why to learn it.

As we have explored several times over the course of the semester in Contemporary Pedagogy, the current form of primary and secondary education exists as a result of the industrial revolution which required a specialized skill set necessary to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic. By 1833, the British government would pass the Factory Act requiring children working in factories to receive two hours of education per day. Education was necessary to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving workforce. However, as society has continued to advance, the methods of knowledge creation and knowledge transfer have remained strikingly similar to the early 1800’s.

What is the purpose of education? What is the reasoning behind it? Some would argue it is to prepare students to get a job, some would argue it’s about creating engaged citizens, some would argue it isn’t about what we learn, it’s about how we learn. Still others would focus on the importance of a well rounded education while some would highlight the importance and necessity of trade schools and specialized workers. As we learned throughout the semester, there is no right answer. There shouldn’t be a right answer because these arguments are not mutually exclusive. Education exists as both a public and private good meant to advance the individual and the common good simultaneously. Why then do we allow education to define our success by assigning value to specific disciplines?

Somewhere along the way disciplines became fractured, separated into individualized class periods devoted to one type of specificity. This fracturing created an environment where specific disciplines are valued differently. Science, engineering, and math carry more significance than liberal arts and humanities. This system perpetuates an educational environment where disciplines operate out of the scarcity mindset, hoarding and guarding physical and financial resources as precious commodities. This fractured system leads to increased levels of departmental competition and often marginalizes the fine arts, liberal arts, and social sciences. But who assigns these values? Who determines the significance and importance of one discipline over another? And what about students, like me, who don’t fit well into this specific definition of education?

At their core, all disciplines are intrinsic to one another. Music and math are the same language just as engineering cannot exist without design and the arts and sciences share the same iterative process. Science exists for us to explore and discover the world around us just as engineering exists to invent ways in which we engage with the world around us. The liberal arts and humanities create meaning and provide historical context and ways of communicating our shared and individual experiences. One cannot exist without the others. One SHOULD NOT exist without the others. Yet these disciplines are fractured. Separated and expected to operate independently.

The current paradigm of education is one that will perpetuate fractional disciplines. As longs as disciplines remain fractured, differential values will be used to identify what is important and what is superfluous. This paradigm treats all students as if they are identical carbon copies. It is this paradigm that is in desperate need of revolution and reform.

I say this because I am a living example of both the failures and the successes of our current educational system. A high school drop out who went on to pursue bachelors and masters level education on my own terms, in my own time, and in my own way. Instead of adhering to a prescriptive model, I decided what was important, when it was important, and why it was important to my educational growth. Imagine if everyone was allowed the same opportunity.


The Technology Conundrum

For the 30th anniversary of the TED conference, held in Vancouver in 2014, artists Janet Echelman and Aaron Koblin created an immersive sculpture titled Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. The sculpture consisted of five, high-definition projectors beaming digital animations of biomorphic forms onto a 745-foot net stretched over the plaza of the Vancouver Convention Center. The morphic animations and visuals were able to be manipulated by pedestrians touching screens on their smartphones. Audio capabilities of smartphones were also utilized as part of the interactive exhibition with high-pitched sounds being broadcast across the mobile phones while deep bassy sounds were played through nearby loudspeakers. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks created a work of art where participants became much more than observers through the use of innovative technologies and the integration of smartphone technology. The result was astonishing.

Technology integration in the arts can sometimes face a slippery slope. Traditional performance experiences such as theatre, symphony, opera, and ballet come with a long established rules for audience etiquette where observers play a passive role in the arts experience. In orchestra settings for instance, audience members are not even supposed to clap between movements of the same orchestral piece of work. Applause is reserved once the final movement of a piece is played. Technology often clashes with the performing arts as was the case during the famous Patti LuPone incident of last year when the actress took the phone of an audience member during a performance. Another well known incident occurred around the same time when an audience member jumped on stage during a performance of the Broadway show Hand of God and proceeded to plug his cell phone into a fake electrical outlet that was part of the set

Technology can often be observed as something that is happening to us. This idea seems to be the central focus of an article written by Nicholas Carr where he questions Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr suggests that the advances of the internet and the technologies we use to interface with it is changing the way we think. In his article, Carr describes the all too familiar scenario of becoming easily distracted when reading large bodies of text such as a novel, textbook, or long article. I find it somewhat amusing considering Carr’s article is quite lengthy. Carr suggests that the over-saturation of media and the instant gratification of internet searches is changing the way we read. Rather than delving deeply into a source text, we are being conditioned to skim for information, hopping quickly from one source to another. While skimming through large amounts of information may becoming commonplace, is it such a bad thing?

Another article, written by Jason Farman discusses The Myth of the Disconnected Life. Farman takes a different approach towards the use of technology describing it as a way of enhancing our real world experiences. Farman describes apps such as Murmur which is a Toronto based mobile story telling project that allows users to connect and contribute to the multiple histories of a specific place through their smartphone. Arts and technology integration is exponentially growing by leaps and bounds as artists continuously explore the intersection of immersive environments, site specific theatre, and various ways to embrace technology rather than distance themselves from it. In fact, Appcrawler recently published a list of the top 100+ apps for interactive art.

Echelman and Koblin saw an opportunity where technology could be utilized to change the passive role of the arts observer into an active one. By embracing the possibilities and inviting their audience to move beyond the role of observer into the role of practitioner, they created something that gave audiences the ability to pause and interact with the world around them. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks realizes technology is a tool and uses it to create meaningful experiences between artists and audiences. Does technology change the way we think? Of course it does. The real question becomes do we utilize it in ways that enhances meaning within our lives? There is no easy answer but the important thing is to explore the endless possibilities and not be afraid of the outcomes.


Theatre and Education of the Oppressed

Theatre of the Oppressed is a set of theatrical forms derived by Augusto Boal in the 1960s. According to Boal, the human “was a self-contained theatre, actor, and spectator in one.” This means that humans have the remarkable ability to simultaneously take action and observe themselves in action. This idea removes the transnational nature of the performative arts and dissolves the barrier between artist and audience or in this case, performer and observer.

The roots of Theatre of the Oppressed include economics, philosophy, ethics, history, and politics. Theatre of the Oppressed exists as a form of social activism and public dialogue that fosters discussion between the audience and performer. In many cases, this framework recognizes the role of audience AS performer and the role of the performer AS audience. In this context, the act of theatre is a form of social and political commentary that engages people in discovery, critical reflection, and dialogue through the process of liberation.

Boal’s techniques include using images, sounds, and words through a series of games meant to draw attention to various forms of oppression through dialogue and interaction. The major branches of Theatre of the Oppressed include: Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, Invisible Theatre, Newspaper Theatre, Rainbow of Desire, and Legislative Theatre. While I could spend time digging into the each of the branches, that is not entirely the point of this blog. If you’re interested, there is a wealth of easily accessible online resources. Instead, the point is to draw connections between Theatre of the Oppressed and the work of Paulo Freire with the understanding that the relationship between teaching and performing is so incredibly close.

Boal’s work was heavily influenced by educator and theorist Paulo Freire. It’s easy to see the correlation between Freiere’s work in critical pedagogy and Boal’s work in Theatre of the Oppressed. In the Foundations of Critical Pedagogy, Freiere describes teaching as a political act arguing that teachers, “should embrace this dimension of their work and position on social cultural, economic, political, and philosophical critiques of dominant power at the heart of the curriculum” (p. 70). Both Ferire and Boal operate by recognizing that oppression is a system of control that forces individuals to adjust to, and accept the world around them and inhibits creative power. Critical pedagogy forces practitioners to recognize the role of teacher and student is not a subversive relationship but a fluid one. The same can be applied to audience and performer as previously mentioned in the work of Boal. This type of work examines the importance of education and the importance of artistic expression as a form of survival. At the heart of this discussion is the idea that oppression is a result of the imbalance of power. Both education and artistic expression are tools that when properly employed have the ability to shift power by providing commentary and critical understanding to the world as we perceive it to be, not as we are told it exists.

The relationship between Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Theatre of the Oppressed is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there are several organizations and academic journals that specialize on the topic. It just goes to show the intrinsic nature the arts have with the human condition. Where there are learners there are teachers and where there are teachers there are artists.

“Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain” – Aristotle

“Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” –Alexis Carrel

TO Tree English 400

The Authentic Actor/Teacher: Lessons from Broadway on how to create dynamic learning environments

“The audience is always part of the performance, if they think something is funny then you’ll play to them. If they think something is serious you’ll stay on it longer before leaving so you don’t rob them of that experience. That’s what makes it unique.”  -K.K Barrett (Director)

Performance and teaching go hand in hand. Effective teachers are always performing and good performers are constantly teaching. In both cases, the example of presenting your “authentic self” is what ultimately connects the stage to the classroom. And why shouldn’t it?

Good actors have the ability to make you forget they are acting. There is a term in theatre called the suspension of disbelief where as an observer, you temporarily pause reality and allow yourself to believe in the imaginary circumstances being presented to you on stage. This is a silent agreement between the actor and the audience. Truly talented actors have the ability to make you forget about this agreement. They have the ability to make you forget that they are acting. This is a skill that takes an enormous amount of training, time, skill, technique, and talent. Nothing destroys the suspension of disbelief more quickly than an actor who is trying to act or trying to force a performance. Performances that lack this sense of authenticity only serve to widen the gulf between the actor and the audience. Suddenly, the audience is fully aware they are sitting in a theatre watching a performer fake their way through an imaginary set of circumstances that no one believes in.

To me, teaching is the same thing. It uses the same set of skills that take an enormous amount of training, time, technique, and talent. In essence, good teachers have the ability to make you forget they are teaching. The suspension of disbelief creates an environment where observers become students, reality is temporarily paused, and we allow ourselves to believe in the set of circumstances being presented to us. Similar to a theatrical context, nothing destroys the suspension of disbelief more quickly than a teacher who is forcing a performance from a place that is unauthentic. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in the lecture hall and witnessed the complete destruction of the relationship between teacher and students because suddenly the teacher is trying to teach. Trying to force a learning objective through some type of prescriptive method that robs the students of a genuine learning experience.

Authenticity is a difficult thing. Too much and you come off over exuberant, too little and you come off fake. Authenticity essentially means presenting your true self, in the moment, in the context of what you are presenting. On stage, you are creating an imaginary world and reacting to that world as truthfully as possible. In the class room, you are creating a learning environment and responding to that environment as honestly as you can. The audience will always recognize a fake. Be it a fake performance or a fake lecture.

To help discover ways of being authentic in the classroom, I present to you 33 Tips from Established Actors from the acting and casting publication

  1. Find the joy
  2. Study, study, study
  3. Don’t worry about what the casting director (students) is thinking
  4. Risk failure to make truthful discoveries
  5. Believe in your goals
  6. Loosen up in the audition room (classroom)
  7. Put faith in your Director
  8. Treat auditions like rehearsals
  9. Follow what you love
  10. Pay attention to what you know
  11. Auditioning is an opportunity to practice
  12. Draw from personal experiences to make characters (learning objectives) resonate
  13. Go ahead and produce your own word
  14. Make the role yours
  15. Lighten up and have fun
  16. Share your inner uniqueness
  17. Accept and utilize your bullshit
  18. Avoid desperation
  19. Get a thick skin
  20. Enjoy the collaboration
  21. Push yourself beyond what you think you know
  22. Don’t just dream
  23. Cultivate self-awareness in the audition room and in life
  24. Don’t try to be someone else
  25. Tackle every role with a different technique
  26. Realize auditions (teaching) are terrifying and deal with it
  27. Explore the world outside acting (teaching)
  28. It’s OK to get a little lost
  29. Create characters from the outside in
  30. Invent a thorough backstory to reach catharsis
  31. Find other creative outlets
  32. Don’t forget promotion is as important as acting (teaching) itself
  33. Write your own parts

Grade Expectations

My world is largely subjective. The performing arts thrives in ambiguity. It feeds off of intrinsic value in a way that many of the hard sciences does not. We often measure success in the performing arts through emotional connection, talent and ability of actors and musicians, visually compelling sets and design. Administratively we measure success in the number of tickets sold for a performance, the volume of community engagement, the amount of dollars contributed because of an artist or opportunity.

The point is success means different things for different people. The definition varies depending on individual viewpoints of the individuals involved. Success may be something different if you’re an artist, if you’re an administrator, of if you’re an audience member. The important thing is deciding what is your personal definition of success and how it influences your day-to-day decisions in achieving your goals.

The reason I bring this up centers around our current model of assessment within higher education. Now given that I am an artist, I tend to be biased towards the ideas that the arts have this ability to solve everything, including the way we approach assessment. Assessment is really nothing more than a system of rewards and punishments. Incentive is given to students who perform specific tasks in a specific way that ultimately results in a binary judgment of the results. You’re either right or wrong, this is good or bad, it’s positive or negative. The intrinsic nature of the arts has the ability to remove the reward system from the equation which changes the binary system of judgment so suddenly work isn’t good or bad, it just is.

This aligns with what Dan Pink explains in his Ted Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, which highlights the opposition of using rewards as a form of motivation for cognitive workers. The research in this area indicates that using rewards as a form of motivation causes an inverse reaction to employees who work in the knowledge economy. Essentially, the greater the reward, the poorer the performance. Pink explains when creativity is incentivized it actually narrows focus rather than broadening the range of possibilities. As a result, growth in the knowledge sector is often stifled by a system of rewards rather than expanded as a result of freedom, autonomy, and self direction. If the system of incentive is counter intuitive towards creativity within the knowledge economy, it means that assessment is also counter intuitive since assessment is really another form of incentive.

Bringing it back to the arts world, how do you appropriately assess work that is largely subjective? How do you grade a monologue or a cello solo in a non-subjective way? How do you determine appropriate assessment of a ballet solo or a documentary student film? Is it counter intuitive to do so considering learning in the arts is a series of applied technical skills mixed with the development of raw talent and determination? This is an interesting topic and one that forces me to wonder, what if we allowed students to award themselves with the grade they think they deserve and then require them to live up to their own expectations? As always feel free to leave your comments below. Feel free to discuss how you define success in your field.

Mindfulness and Meisner: Connecting Mindful Learning to Acting Technique

The Meisner Technique is an approach towards acting that focuses on external impulse. It requires an actor to be fully aware of their environment and their surroundings so that every external condition has the potential to influence the characters in the scene. The Meisner Technique embodies the “why” behind things. Why does a character move? Why does a character speak? Why does a character think the way they think? It’s important to understand that the why is based in external circumstances instead of internal circumstances (which is a different “method” all-together).

Mindful learning is an educational approach that utilizes many of the same principals as the Meisner Technique. According to Ellen Langer, “Mindfullness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” Similarly, Meisner is quoted as saying, “Act before you think – your instincts are more honest than your thoughts.” The connection here is actors can become trapped in the realm of thinking rather than responding to emotional instinct or impulse. In order to recognize those impulses, the actor must be wholly present, aware of the moment, and highly focused. Langer’s definition of Mindful Learning states the same principles.

Digging into the “why” as an actor or as a student is essentially the same process. The internal questions result in a disconnect from the source material both in an educational context and a theatrical context. “What are my character’s motivations” is essentially the same question as “what material will be on the test.” Instead the questions should be more focused on contextual evidence that include acute awareness of the self within the environment. The “why” suddenly becomes about impulse and instinct rather than a baseline outcome.

I’ve long believed that teaching is a form of performance art. Good teachers instinctually know how to engage their audience through a variety of theatrical techniques that all have definitions within the cannon of acting training. Through Mindful Learning, the role of a teacher is to impart this type of training onto students. Connecting mindfulness to acting technique is potentially a way to bridge the gap between mindful learning and disconnected learning. Now I’m not suggesting that every student and faculty member ever needs to undergo rigorous acting training. I spent my time studying the Meisner Technique when I was at acting conservatory and I fully recognize that acting training may not be for everyone. Creating an awareness of the connections that exist between Mindful Learning and Acting Technique could offer insight on how to engage students and redirect their purpose of asking “why.”


Connected Learning through the Arts

For those of you who know me, I am a huge advocate for the arts in education. I believe the arts offer an intrinsic exploration into the human experience that is necessary for creating well rounded, knowledge hungry students. I believe the arts and design are related to every discipline and can be used to deepen connections, expand breadth and depth of knowledge, and create generations of lifelong learners who are civically engaged and eager to explore endless possibilities.

Connected Learning is an educational approach that placed focus on the student rather than the outcome. Connected Learning is built upon personal interests, peer to peer relationships, digital technologies, social platforms, and strives for achievement in academic, civic, and career-relevant areas. What strikes me are the similarities between Connected Learning and Arts Integration particularly in the areas of creativity and interest-driven learning.

Arts Integration encourages students to explore topics through creative approaches that create deeper connections to identified learning outcomes. An example of Arts Integration would be having students draw or sculpt the various phases of cancer on a cellular level to demonstrate how cancer cells spread through the human body. Another example would be for a group of students to write a short play or a series of monologues that discuss cancers effect on group dynamics or a family system. These performances could also include explorations of the arts and healthcare by providing deeper connections to the impact cancer has on our current society. Other students could write and compose a short musical piece that highlights music therapy as one of the many holistic treatment options for patients. Another student could develop a photo series showing developing cancer cells on a micro level through the use of microscopes and other digital technologies. While another student could write and publish a children’s book that explains what it means if a parent or loved one is diagnosed with cancer. These are just quick examples that draw interdisciplinary connections between numerous fields including science, engineering, healthcare, humanities, arts, and design.

It seems to me one of the biggest similarity between arts integration and Connected Learning is the ability to approach a problem through multiple disciplines that use creativity as a core driver of knowledge growth. Connected Learning and Arts Integration urge students to think creatively and draw connections between multiple topics simultaneously. Both Connected Learning and Arts Integration suggest that disciplines are not silos, but interconnected avenues of possibilities in contemporary problem solving. Then why do these two pedagogical approaches seem to be operating independently of each other rather than inclusive of one another?

At the core of Connected Learning is the idea of openly networked, production centered, and shared purpose learning that focuses on academia, peer culture, and individual/shared interests. This ideology is what the arts are all about. Open network and collaboration, production centered outcomes, and shared purpose. What amazes me is contemporary pedagogy often overlooks the contributions of the arts and design and attempts to establish new paradigms that in reality are achieved through arts and design integration and interdisciplinary approaches towards contemporary problem solving.

How do we work together? How do my skills as an artist contribute to your problem as a scientist? How does your knowledge of physics and engineering influence my ideas on human centered design and infrastructure? And how do we create a curriculum that encourages life long learners to work together by combining and transforming disciplines rather than isolating them? These questions are at the heart of Connected Learning and Arts Integration. So what are some of your thoughts? Comments welcome in the section below.