Theatre Workshop Promotes Team-Building among TNCS Elementary Students

On Thursday afternoons at The New Century School, elementary students attend Theatre Workshop with Alex Hewett. Immersed readers might already be acquainted with Ms. Hewett because she’s often doing something newsworthy and worthwhile around school! (See TNCS Drama Camp Brings Out Kids’ Inner Artists and Summertime Theatrics: Drama Camp at TNCS for previous posts.)

Drama Camp instructor, therapist, actress, and mom, the illustrious Alex Hewett!

TNCS theatre workshop instructor Alex Hewett.

Ms. Hewett is an accomplished actress in her own right and deeply believes that skills an actor/actress uses on stage translate to daily life. These skills can make us better communicators, boost our self-confidence and self-esteem, and help us trust one another—collaborate and cooperate. For all of these reasons, TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali asked Ms. Hewett to host theatre workshops for the elementary classes, as part of what she calls her “invisible curriculum” to foster community, empathy, and respect.

Warming-Up Exercises

“Kids this age can find it challenging to work together because they are so full of individual energy,” said Ms. Hewett. “It’s a matter of taking that energy and using it on stage. We’re told in society to be quiet all the time, but then how do we express ourselves? That can be especially confusing for kids because they have a lot of questions; they have a lot to say. On stage, you have the freedom to express yourself.” There’s also a therapeutic component to theatre, which, for Mr. McGonigal’s homeroom class, took the form of a big expenditure of energy followed by several minutes of calm. Students were asked to collectively make the loudest noise they could—the subsequent screams were deafening—and then laugh their biggest laughs. This is followed by holding hands with eyes closed in a circle to harness their collective energy. “See what happens when we work together?” she asks the group. “Working together” is a phrase she repeats frequently, because team-building is really the thrust of this special class. She also emphasizes how the actions of one impact the group as a whole, which sends the dual message that each student belongs to this community and must show respect to its members and likewise that each is an important contributor and deserves that same respect.

Finally, they lie on stage in utter stillness, completely abandoning movement, speech, and thought for several minutes. The latter is no easy task for 8-year-olds, but they have worked up to it, and their ability to focus has clearly benefitted. In fact, all of these preparatory techniques have multiple benefits: They transition the students from the classroom to the stage, help them block out distractions, and provide a form of release. As she guided the students gently into deep savasana (“corpse pose”), she explained in a whisper that this helps them relax and get attuned to their surroundings and themselves, gain self-control, and learn self-discipline. “If you are supposed to be dead on stage, for example, it’s not going to work if you are yawning or coughing.” Good point!

That’s not to say that the energetic kiddoes don’t lose focus from time to time, but Ms. Hewett knows how to bring them back and always keeps a sense of humor. “And a gentle hush fell over the crowd . . .” she intones when the students start to get overly boisterous, and quickly her “ladies and gentlemen” are back to the task at hand.

The task at hand was rehearsal for a poem recital, in which they will alternate individual speaking parts and also speak some lines all together. But first Ms. Hewett had a fun way to physically demonstrate the results of well done collaboration. Together, they became a “machine.” “One little tiny screw falls off a machine, and the whole thing no longer works,” she said. “So I’m going to tell you one very specific thing to do, but don’t start until I tell you to start.” She configured them on stage, and away they went!

The Show Must Go On!

Ms. Hewett knows how to coax optimal performance from these kids. “How many times a day are you told to be quiet,” she asked about midway through the machine exercise. “Well, this is your chance to be heard! Work the room!” She also fields directorial suggestions and praises the kids’ efforts to be so actively involved and creative.

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“Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” was written by Maya Angelou and illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The workshop culminated with poem rehearsal, and the class will recite the poem for the primary classes during a special performance at the end of October. Here again, Ms. Hewett has integrated a therapeutic component with performance in her choice of poems. “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” by Maya Angelou delivers the message that fear can be managed; it doesn’t have to disarm us completely. “We’re all afraid of things,” Ms. Hewett told the class, “But how can you change your way of thinking about the scary thing so it doesn’t take over?”

For their performance, the students will read chunks of the poem, accent with sound effects, and intersperse poem stanzas with excerpts from their own personal experience of what they might be afraid of. In preparation for this piece, each student stood and told “their story”—what frightens them. Ms. Hewett encouraged them to use strong voices and be proud. She praised one girl’s improvement in projecting and making herself heard over last week when she was considerably more timid on stage.

Inside the Actor’s Studio

“I’m coming at this from two perspectives: How do you handle your emotions, and how do you do that on stage while still having fun with it? I can’t separate team-building with kids from performing in a theater setting. The very first day we talk about safety, for instance, because we’re on a stage with an edge and with curtains and props. You have to work together to keep each safe. And you have to listen carefully. What happens if a classmate drops a line or forgets? You have to be able to keep the performance going. You all affect each other. Sometimes that’s positive, but when it’s negative you have to learn how to not let it wreck your energy.”

Alex Hewett

And that is a lesson we could all benefit from learning!

The class lines up to take a group bow after their hard work during rehearsal. Well done kids!

The class lines up to take a group bow after their hard work during rehearsal. Well done kids!

Back-to-School Night: Meet New TNCS Teachers and More!

Thursday, September 11th was The New Century School‘s Back-to-School Night for the 2014–2015 academic year. Back-to-School Night is TNCS parents’ chance to learn how their child’s classroom operates. Whereas Orientation is a more general introduction to school, at Back-to-School Night, families get details on everything from what the daily schedule looks like to when it’s their turn to provide class snack. Teachers introduce themselves and their teaching styles or philosophies and explain the curriculum (K:1st syllabus), demonstrate how their educational materials are used, and answer parent questions.

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TNCS’s new Kindergarten/1st-Grade teacher Teresa Jacoby.

This year, several new instructors have joined TNCS, and Back-to-School Night was a great way to get to know them. One of the new lead teachers is Mrs. Teresa Jacoby. She brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm to TNCS’s new mixed-age Kindergarten/1st-Grade classroom, which parents recognized immediately. (See biographical details below.)

A former 3rd- and 4th-grade science teacher and Reading Specialist in the Baltimore City school system, Mrs. Jacoby integrates reading and writing into all other disciplines and declared her expectation that all of her students will be strong readers by year’s end. Her personal philosophy meshes beautifully with TNCS’s educational values:

I believe that each student is an exceptional individual who requires a safe, caring, and encouraging learning environment in which to grow and mature emotionally, intellectually, physically, and socially. There are three elements that I believe are beneficial to establishing such an environment: 1) the teacher acting as a guide, 2)  the child’s natural curiosity directing his/her learning, and 3) encouraging respect for one’s self, others, and things found in our world.

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New for the 2014–2015 academic year, Kindergarten/1st-grade teacher Teresa Jacoby introduces her students to the classroom and its special routines.

She also believes strongly that education is optimized when a mixture of self-guided exploration, small-group learning, and one-on-one instruction is utilized, very much a TNCS-held value. Just as TNCS focuses school-wide on inquiry-based learning, in her class, such inquiry “gives students ownership of their learning and more lasting knowledge of the skills needed to achieve real understanding,” she says. Additionally, Mrs. Jacoby believes that critical thinking/solving problems is key to developing leadership skills, the ability to collaborate in teamwork, and self-sufficiency as individual learners.

As appropriate for a General Studies teacher, Mrs. Jacoby can pretty much do it all (art, math, special ed, etc., in addition to what has already been mentioned), but she says she has more and more discovered her special fondness for science. She incorporates scientific thinking into every nook and cranny of her curriculum in fun ways that ignite her students’ curiosity. “The kids are so naturally curious; it’s nice to discuss [science] with them, and they like to talk about it,” she said. She also has students keep journals, which gives her another way to guide them in further exploration of topics that they have broached.

“Just like a well-oiled machine works efficiently,” she says, “so does a well-thought-out and planned classroom environment.” Thus, the classroom she shares with her (also new) Assistant Teacher Mrs. Kimberly Tyson, with her own impressive résumé, encompasses several discrete learning environments—there’s a technology corner equipped with computers, an area with worktables for  groupwork such as with manipulative materials, a large carpet for whole-class circle time, and even a settee for students to sit back and enjoy a book on individually. She also generously brought along her own personal class library, which students are encouraged to use as much as possible.

One aspect of teaching that Mrs. Jacoby holds very dear is knowing and understanding her students. She has quickly learned a lot about her kindergarten/1st-graders and has an amazing ability to adapt to their needs on her feet so as to keep learning happening. So, when she found that after Spanish lessons, for instance, students struggled to be able to focus, she decided to let them “get the wiggles out” for a few minutes before resettling. Even the movement she incorporates in class has an express cognitive function. She uses a version of Simon Says that gets them using their whole brains—that is, integrating both left and right hemispheres—by performing a series of continuous movements and asking them to repeat the last movement she made. She demonstrated the activity for parents attending Back-to-School Night, many of whom were surprised by just how challenging it was! As if she had intuited it, TNCS will begin implementing movement regularly within classrooms to promote blood flow to the brain. (More on this topic is to come in the near future!)

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This artwork was created by TNCS elementary students to exemplify the school-wide theme of Community Building.

Finally, mutual respect is the capstone of Mrs. Jacoby’s pedagogical approach and is yet another way she shows just how right for TNCS she is. “A healthy learning environment must also include respect for all, a sense of safety as well as trust,” she says. “I work extremely hard to build a learning community based on mutual respect for one’s self, others, and our surroundings. Creating a strong sense of community in my classroom instills security, which builds trust and in turn builds comfort levels conducive to learning. I nurture that sense through personal modeling, class meetings, role play, and reflective journals.” It just so happens that TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali’s first theme of this school year is Community Building, and school-wide, students have engaged in activities that help them grow stronger both as individuals and as a team.

We welcome you to TNCS, Mrs. Jacoby, and anticipate an incredible first year together! Stay tuned for more posts in this series to meet TNCS’s other new lead teachers and learn the inner workings of their classrooms!

Mrs. Jacoby’s Bio

Teresa Jacoby holds a Master’s Degree as a Reading Specialist from Loyola University in Maryland and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Special Education with an Art Education Minor from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She also has an Advanced Professional Certificate Special Education 1–12 and an Advanced Professional Certificate Reading Specialist Certification, both from the state of Maryland. She has taught a wide variety of students ranging from Kindergarten through 8th grade Special Education in all content areas in both self-contained and inclusion environments. She also has run many extracurricular activities from chairing the Science Fair to Chess Club to Lego Robotics Club. She lives in Baltimore and enjoys using her artistic skills in and out of the classroom, gardening, riding bikes and spending time with her family.