Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin
Published 12:01 pm, Thursday, May 12, 2011
As a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, Inc., I go into the Darien, Stamford, Greenwich, Norwalk, Wilton and Bridgeport public schools to work with their students.
I run peer-to-peer support groups; bring young people in recovery to share their stories with the students; give wellness and substance abuse prevention presentations and use the creative arts -- improvisational theater and writing -- to teach life skills like communication, critical thinking, problem solving and creative thinking to build resiliency.
I'm passionate about what I do and consider myself privileged to be able to work with so many bright, talented and creative young people, as well as outstanding and dedicated teachers, who share their excitement for learning and life with their students on a daily basis and believe in the importance of the arts in young people's lives.
For the past eight years, I have been going into Tom Mouilketis' eighth-grade history classes at Cloonan Middle School, in Stamford, to teach improvisation.
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"Both improvisation and acting helps kids get out of their shell and plays on their strengths," Mouilketis said. "They can bring something to the table that they might not have had the opportunity to normally do. The more opportunities we can give our students, the more students we'll be able to reach. The ultimate thing we do is help them activate their greatest potential. If we can act as a conduit to reach out and help them, we are truly doing our job."
It is well documented that participation in an arts program helps increase scores on standardized tests and helps with problem solving and the ability to find creative solutions to difficult problems. I believe that the arts will give them a window into the world around them and ways to connect with it.
I wholeheartedly agree with Elizabeth Swados, playwright, director and teacher, that theater is a healing art. It's laughing and creating laughter; an opportunity to play without embarrassment, what we used to do as kids. Theater games and improvisations help to create a space where students can freely express themselves without the fear of being judged, where they will feel strong and secure in the ability to take any chance they want. Improvisation is about honest discovery, observation, reaction and being in the moment. It teaches you to be less rigid, free yourself up and be more spontaneous; it gives you the opportunity to let go, and helps strengthen the imagination.
Recently, at Middlesex Middle School, a sixth-grader used the words "holy matrimony" during a storytelling theater game. When the game ended, I asked him to tell me what "holy matrimony" means, off the top of his head. He immediately said, "Holy matrimony is when two people fall in love, then get married, eventually have kids, then they buy a house, buy food for their kids and then help them go to college." The laughter erupted and I couldn't wipe the smile from my face for the rest of the class.
One of the schools I visit on a regular basis is Cloonan Middle School, in Stamford. Every Thursday morning, for the past three years, I have worked with Melissa Mouilketis' seventh grade AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students.
AVID's mission is to prepare all students for college readiness and success in a global society. The AVID program focuses on the development and broadening of those skills and personal convictions that will most effectively ready the students for admittance into a four-year university at the conclusion of their high school career. Inquiry, collaboration, literary analysis and writing, communicating effectively and enhancing decision-making skills are essential components of the AVID course.
Mouilketis often uses the philosophical chair, an exercise where the students take a position on an issue and support their position. The philosophical chair is based on the Socratic method, a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. At any time during the exercise, the students can change their viewpoint on the issue. My favorite philosophical chair is: which takes more courage, an act of physical courage: trying to save someone from drowning, or an act of emotional courage: stopping someone from being bullied or speaking up in class, even if the rest of the class see things differently. Everyone offered up his or her point of view and even though it became heated at times, the students were respectful of opposing viewpoints. An upcoming philosophical chair is Technology: Friend or Foe. The students get to go on trips to local colleges and universities; they tour the campus and hear from students, teachers and administrators. They see what college life is like, up-close and personal and begin to understand the art of the possible. I visited Columbia University, Eastern Connecticut State University and UConn Stamford last year with the seventh grade AVID students.
My objective in what I do with Mouilketis' class is to give the students the opportunity to use poetry, spoken word, monologues, creative writing and journalism to tell stories about their experiences and the events that have had an impact on their lives. The students work on storytelling and public speaking skills; they tell stories about who they are: the special moments that they'll always remember; the dreams they carry with them and the difficulties, challenges and stresses they face. They also share stories about childhood memories, their family, family traditions and family vacations.
I use theater games and improvisations to tap into their creative potential and create an atmosphere that is conducive to humor, exploration and taking creative risks; to challenge the students instincts and intuition, to help them learn to "think on their feet" and defend their personal truth.
The creative arts that Mouilketis and I incorporate into the AVID program provide an opportunity for the students to: have their voice be heard; put their imagination into words; improve their writing and communication skills; find a personal and hopefully exciting way to express their perspective; understand how the world around us influences our reactions and opinions; work as a group to achieve a common goal.
There have been so many magical moments in AVID this year. Some of my favorites: Markeith Black singing an acapella version of "I Saw Her Standing There" by The Beatles, playing "ideas in a bag," where the students reach inside a bag and pull out a slip of paper with a topic on it -- family, friends, the future, happiness, college -- that they share their thoughts on, and their reworking of classic fairytales.
Recently, when discussing the royal wedding, Elton John said, "It was needed positivity, in a world that doesn't really have much." Mouilketis' class is one of the highlights of my week, and always gives me a major hit of positivity!
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse healthcare agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the countywide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.