Whenever I work with young people, creating a classroom contract that outlines expectations for respectful behavior and collaboration is a no-brainer. Even if it’s a one-time workshop, establishing these kinds of expectations gets everyone in the room on the same page and definitely affects the group’s productivity in the session. We decide on reasonable expectations for the group and for individuals, write them down on a big sheet of paper, and every signs it. Then up on the wall it goes. The written and signed contract is visible for the entire time the group is together whether that is one hour or one month. And with very young, pre-literate students, taking the time to verbally establish expectations for how everyone (teaching artists included!) is going to treat one another goes a long way. No matter what, creating a classroom contract is always in my first day lesson plan.
A check-in was the first group ritual I ever encountered in a rehearsal process. As a high school student in Shakespeare & Company’s education programs, we began each rehearsal with a group check in. This was an opportunity for everyone in the room has a chance to share with the group how they’re feeling, what’s on their mind or anything they need to put out in the space in order to be mentally present our time together. When I was in high school, I lived for this open, supportive check-in space that was waiting for me at the end of the school day at the top of a rehearsal. After holding so many thoughts in all day, having the space and support to articulate and share them was a gift.
Experiencing this special gift of a check-in from a participant perspective came up again for me this year. This spring I was one of eight graduate students working together to devise a new interactive theatre piece for undergraduate students about healthy romantic relationships. Under the excellent guidance of Lynn Hoare (theatre-for-dialogue specialist with Voices Against Violence), we created a classroom contract on the first day together and started every rehearsal session of the semester with a check-in. More often than not, I am on the facilitator side of things, initiating the conversation around a class contract. I had also forgotten how powerful and necessary a check-in space is for a rehearsal process, particularly when creating a piece around such a deeply personal issue.
I ultimately served as the stage manager for our informal sharing of the piece we devised over the course of the semester. Though I was not performing or directing, I still had an artistic stake in this piece. I felt a strong sense of ownership and pride in our ensemble and in what we had created together. It was a true collaboration where the lines between individual ideas were blurred to the point of nonexistence. We each brought something unique to the process and the product, and as a result, we created something new that could not have been done by any one person independently. We fueled each other’s creativity and supported our individual journey through the research, material and creative process.
This is the kind of ensemble-based, supportive and inclusive community I want to facilitate in each space I’m in as a teaching artist. I want young people of all ages to have access to the gift of feeling a sense of belonging to a supportive, creative ensemble who trusts and needs you and your ideas. Many theatre artists are drawn to our particular artistic community because theatre is inherently collaborative. Many teaching artists recognize the power theatre has as a vehicle for developing social-emotional skills and building creative communities of young people.
Classroom contracts and check-ins are two of many strategies out there that teaching artists can use to build strong classroom communities with young people. But let’s not forget about the other collaborative and artistic spaces that we move through. Our ensemble of grad students creatively thrived in this supportive environment. Don’t leave your teaching artist hat at the door. Wear it proudly in every artistic community. As you trade these strategies for community-building back and forth with other teaching artists, along with fun warm up games, new devising techniques and other resources, don’t forget that your colleagues and adult collaborators benefit from inclusive, supportive communities too. We all want to be included and have a sense of belonging. Remember, it’s a gift.