Lessons Learned in the Classroom & The Value of Teachers

I have spent the past two months teaching workshops in schools throughout the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. This opportunity came about through Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio (YANEO). YANEO enriches the lives of children and promotes creative learning by uniting arts and education. I am one of many teaching artists on their roster who is called upon to enhance student learning through the arts.

For this particular project, I offered a Poetry Through Theater workshop, introducing students to the tools of the actor and giving them the chance to use those tools in the dramatization of a poem. In the span of two months, I visited fifteen different schools in the district where I presented over forty-five workshops, up to four per day. The workshop was primarily designed for 3rd grade students, however, I also visited 1st, 2nd and 4th grade classrooms.

This opportunity gave me the chance to really hone my classroom management skills. One of the things I learned right away was the importance of setting up clear expectations and giving very clear directions if I wanted the students to be successful in the tasks I was assigning them. The workshop itself also developed over time as I saw that what I had initially planned for the students to accomplish left us all feeling rushed. Thus, I scaled back and focused on giving the students a positive experience in the art form that they could later replicate on their own rather than having a polished performance to present by the end of our fifty minutes together.

Students in a second grade classroom expressing emotion with their bodies and faces.

Throughout my experience, I visited all types of classrooms. I wish I could say that every experience was pleasant, but that was not the case. There were classes where behavior was a huge issue, and as I struggled to get control of the classroom and present my material, I found myself thinking, “Why am I doing this?” It was in these moments that I had to remind myself that while I wanted to be able to reach every student, in some cases this would not be possible (especially in only fifty minutes!), and if I could reach even one student that would be a victory.

In these difficult situations, I noticed my tendency to focus on the bad behavior and allow it to drain my energy, rather than feeding on the enthusiasm of the students who were eager to learn and drawing strength from that. I couldn’t help but think what a natural human tendency this is. We can hear twenty positive comments and three bad ones, and the bad comments will always be the ones that stick in our heads. Teachers must struggle with this each day, searching for ways to reach the students with behavior problems without neglecting their other student’s needs. This is no simple task.

Over the last two months, I have gained an enormous amount of respect for teachers and the many hats they must wear. Some of the stuff that they have to put up with is ridiculous! (I saw my fair share of temper-tantrums, insubordination and the like.) It’s not just teaching. They also have to be behavior specialists dealing with a number of different problems, many of which may stem from things at home that aren’t being addressed. Kids are also very emotional. If you don’t call on them for one question, they can instantly “check out” because you didn’t give them attention, even though you called on them for the previous question. (This happened to me on more than a couple of occasions as I tried to get as many people involved as possible!)

Dealing with thirty children with so many ever-changing emotions is not easy. Of course then you’ve got children coming to school hungry and going through more at home than some of us can even imagine. At times, teachers may be the only ones that show a child the kindness and love that he or she so desperately needs. In that regard they are almost playing the role of a parent.

On top of all that of course is the actual teaching, the lesson planning, the grading, ensuring that the Common Core Standards are met and that students are prepared for the state-mandated assessment tests. As if all that weren’t enough, teachers are expected to communicate with the parents of their students and keep them apprised of each student’s progress. It is a huge job, and one that is greatly important because no one spends more time with our children than their teachers.

Teachers are truly are shaping the future. And when you are in the classroom of an extremely competent teacher who is able to juggle all of the above, you can really feel the difference. I know I did.

I am grateful for what I learned in those classrooms in the company of such skilled professionals. These teachers exhibited an excellence that commanded the respect of their students while communicating the compassion and care they felt for each one. In my book, a great teacher is worth more than gold.

Another lesson I learned?  Thank you notes, hand-drawn art and Scooby Doo stickers are great motivation, even for adults.

Gifts from some of my students, including a post-it note thank you, a Scooby Doo sticker and a mermaid drawing. Priceless!

Mesi: Paying Tribute To An Incomparable Storyteller

Yesterday I received the sad news that a dear woman I know has passed away. That woman was Damn, whom I met on my trip to Haiti three years ago. I actually stayed in her home on my visit, getting to know her and her husband, her daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren and even nephews. She was strong, yet humble in spirit, humorous and full of life, and boy, could she tell a story!

Not long after I’d arrived I heard through the grapevine that she was a storyteller, and I asked Kent, the man leading my trip who had lived with the family for many months when he first arrived in Haiti, if she would tell us some stories. I saw him ask her in Haitian Creole (she didn’t speak English), and then her eyes flashed and she smiled and nodded. I could hardly wait for evening when the storytelling experience would begin!

Danm did not disappoint. Even with the words in Haitian Creole, her storytelling was unforgettable. As we sat in the still, dark Haitian night, I hung on her every word as she waved her arms, shook her backside, danced in circles and playfully swatted at her sons-in-law, making them part of the story. Her children and grandchildren requested their favorite stories, one after another, and sang along as she told with an animated style that held me spellbound. Kent apologized saying, “She’s talking too fast for me to translate,” but it didn’t matter. She was that engaging.

As I watched her and saw the joy she was bringing to all those assembled, I remember thinking to myself, “That’s the kind of grandma I want to be.” The kind that can gather her whole family around to share in a magical experience that draws everyone closer in love, laughter and gratitude. No TVs, cell phones or electricity required.

As storytellers, we are called to pay tribute to the voices that came before. The ones who paved the way. Danm is one of those voices. She may never have performed before a large crowd and her name may not have been known outside her own familial circle, but to me she stands as a shining example of all that storytelling can and should be. A way to bring people together and to make them marvel at life and the relationships that make it meaningful. Her voice will be greatly missed, and I am saddened to know that I will never have another chance to sit spellbound before her in the dark Haitian night.

But perhaps her children and grandchildren will take up her mantle. Perhaps they will tell those same stories that they once loved to hear. And I pray that they do. For if they do, her voice will not be lost, but will live on.

Mesi (thank you) Danm, for leaving a legacy through stories.

Change for Haiti: 5th Graders Making a Difference

At the end of last year, I received a grant from Arts In Stark to take one of my storytelling programs to the 5th graders at Stinson Elementary in Canal Fulton. One of the things that I love about telling folktales from around the world is the chance to get students interested in other cultures, and while I know that storytelling alone can do that, this time I wanted to take it one step further. I wanted to give the students the opportunity to get involved in making a difference overseas and to see how they can have an impact.

I spoke with 5th grade teacher Amy Lower about the possibility of doing a fundraiser in conjunction with my performance. The proceeds would benefit Haiti, which was also the country of origin for the folktale I’d be telling. I told her about my involvement with an organization called Haiti Partners* whose mission is to help Haitians change Haiti through education. They have a “Change for Haiti” campaign which allows students, teachers and parents in American schools to connect with schools in Haiti. Amy checked out the website and immediately jumped on board, spearheading a two-week fundraising campaign/competition amongst the 5th graders in the weeks leading up to my performance.

On May 14th, the date of the performance, the campaign closed, and I’m excited to announce that the students raised close to $500! The best part was to hear about the enthusiasm they had for the project. Amy said that her students took the project and ran with it, setting a high goal right from the outset! She had printed out a list from the Haiti Partners site that showed what different amounts of money could purchase in Haiti (ex. $1 can send a child to school for a day, $125 provides a teacher’s salary for one month, etc), and the students knew exactly what their current donation level could afford and were eager to add to it!

I had wanted the US students to be able to get a taste of Haiti and talked to my friends at Haiti Partners about the possibility of doing a Skype call where the students could see and communicate with students in Haiti; however, due to the inconsistent nature of internet connections in Haiti, my friends thought this might not be the safest option. They did however say that they could make a short video to thank the students and to give them a tiny glimpse into one of the schools. The video was filmed at their newest school, Children’s Academy, and shows some of the youngest Haitian students who are looking toward a bright future through the generosity of people like the Stinson 5th graders. You can see the beautiful video here: Change for Haiti

I have no way of knowing how this experience will affect the 5th grade students in the future, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help build a bridge between two countries and cultures and to give students here a glimpse into life outside of North America. It is my hope that it will not be an experience that they quickly forget, and that it will remind them that there are lots of little ways in which we can make a difference in the lives of others. I am blessed to have been able to work with a teacher as dedicated and caring as Amy. She went out of her way to make the campaign a success, and it wouldn’t have worked without her diligence.

I hope to be able to continue this type of work in the future — pairing my storytelling with fundraising campaigns that open up doors of education for children around the world. If your school or organization is interested in partnering in such an undertaking, please let me know.

Students pose with their Change for Haiti fundraising canister

*Back in May of 2010, not long after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I won a writing contest which earned me a trip to Haiti to get a first-hand look at the work of Haiti Partners. For me, the highlights of this trip were staying with a Haitian family and having the chance to tell stories at two different Haiti Partners schools, one of which had been destroyed in the earthquake but has since been rebuilt. I remain in contact with the great people at Haiti Partners as well as the family I stayed with, and I hope that in the future I will be able to return to share (and learn) more stories!

A Recap of My Trip to Guatemala

This post is long overdue, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a glimpse of the wonderful time that I had in Guatemala in late January/early February. The people there are truly incredible and so generous. At each school that I visited I was welcomed with big smiles, bigger hugs and lots of kisses on the cheek. (A kiss on the cheek is the standard greeting in Guatemala as opposed to our handshake.) I laughingly teased my husband by saying that I’d never been kissed so much in my life because every welcome and goodbye meant more kisses!

I was privileged to perform at five different schools and two churches and also got to teach two workshops. The schedule kept me very busy, but I also had time to do some sight-seeing, including visiting the famous Antigua. I was also able to pick up a few collections of Latin American folktales which I hope will help me to begin work on a new program of Guatemalan stories! As a gift from one of the churches where I presented, I was given a skirt made from traditional fabric, and at one of the markets I purchased a huipil, a traditional brocaded blouse still worn by many Guatemalan women today. So now that I have the clothes, I just need the time to get practicing some new stories! You can be sure that when I do find the time, one of the stories will be about the legend of the quetzal, a famous bird with deep significance to the Guatemalan people.

Guatemalans today face many difficult challenges. Throughout the country, there is a lot of violence brought upon by gang activity. Many people, especially business owners, are forced to pay extortion by these same gang members. In most of the schools where I presented, parents do not allow their children to walk to and from school alone for fear of danger. In some cases, the parents pick up their children and walk them home from school, and if they have to go back to work, they will lock them inside the house to keep them safe. Many schools, including playground areas, are completely walled in for the safety of the children. At some schools, there was no room for a play area and the only space the children had for recreation was a patio area which probably wasn’t even half the size of a standard gymnasium in the United States. Still the children reflected so much love and joy!

In every location I visited, the children always asked me, “When are you coming back?” I often get asked the same question at performances here in the states, and I love the innocence that children bring. They don’t ask if you are coming back, but rather when. I do hope to have the chance to return to Guatemala, but until then, I carry the people I have met and the stories and memories I have made in my heart.

Posing with the beautiful children of Tecpan after a storytelling program.

The Most Innocent of Invitations: How A Simple Offer Leads to Great Adventures

A couple of years ago, right after I got married, a good friend, Scott, invited my husband and I to stay at his home for the weekend and attend an Ohio State football game as our wedding present. At the same time we were there, he happened to be hosting another friend, Glenn, a triathlete from South Africa. Fascinated as I am about the world and especially Africa, I begged Glenn to tell us about his homeland. He regaled us with all sorts of interesting stories of safari adventures, cultural dancers and more, and when our weekend came to a close he said, “Well, if you ever come to South Africa, be sure to look me up!”


My husband, Estith, with our friend, Glenn, in a park outside Johannesburg

Six years later and a few facebook and email correspondences in between, I did just that. Last January my husband and I headed to South Africa to fulfill one of the biggest items on my bucket list – a safari in Kruger National Park. While in South Africa, we ended up staying at Glenn’s home for two nights and spending time with his lovely wife and children. They showed us some great spots in their hometown, took me to the bookstore to load up on African folklore, and gave us lots of great tips for the rest of our South African adventure. While our time with them was short, it didn’t take long for us to feel like close friends, and I was choking back tears when we said our goodbyes. It’s only been a year since we were with them, and already I look forward to the day when we can return to visit them.


Ever since this experience, my husband and I have always smiled and raised our eyebrows whenever anyone invites us somewhere. “I hope you mean it,” I’ll say, “because while it may take a couple of years, there’s a very good chance that we’ll take you up on it!”


Just a few days ago, I returned from a two week trip to Guatemala and that trip came about in much the same way as my South African visit. In October of 2011, I was invited to teach a workshop about using storytelling and the creative arts in ministry. The workshop was held in San Jose, Costa Rica and was directed toward pastors and youth leaders from across Central America and the northern parts of South America. The participants were enthusiastic students, and during my five days there, I met many wonderful people. One of those was David, a young pastor from El Salvador who was ministering in Guatemala – and I remember him telling me, “If you’d ever like to come to Guatemala, just let me know. We’d love to have you.”


Well, at the end of last year, after a trip to India that I’d been planning fell through, I remembered David’s words. I sent him a message asking if his offer was still standing, and if so, if he and his wife would be able to host me as soon as February! He wrote back with an enthusiastic “sí,” and told me about all of the schools in the area where I would be able to share stories. That was all it took for me to make Guatemala my next overseas destination!


And so, to this day, I continue to laugh when someone invites me somewhere, especially if it seems like a somewhat far-flung offer. Because where there’s a will, there’s a way. And anyone that knows me knows that I have a will to see and share stories in as much of the world as I can. So if a door opens, well, there’s a good chance I’ll walk through, even if it takes me some time to get there.


Posing with a group of students at a school in Guatemala after a story presentation