Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Introverted Teaching Artist: (Quietly) Celebrating All Learning Personalities

I am an unlikely candidate for a theatre-focused teaching artist. As a student, I preferred writing papers to giving presentations or, worse, anything called a “performance.” After over a decade of theatre experiences, I still viscerally dread name-and-gesture introductions; they make me so uncomfortable that I sometimes wonder if my aversion makes me unfit to teach creative drama or perhaps to teach at all. In recent years, countless articles on introversion and extroversion have saturated the internet, accompanied with advice on how to overcome your shyness and how to effectively work with people with different personalities. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, this onslaught of popular description allowed (or forced) me to finally claim my introversion, both personally and in my work as a teaching artist.

Teaching artists, myself included, tend to prize the idea of hearing every student’s voice. Hearing every voice means that we are exploring diverse perspectives, therefore moving toward a more democratic and co-constructed classroom experience. I recall feeling triumphant when particularly quiet students raised their hands, even when the experience of doing so visibly terrified them. In these moments, I forgot that these students, the ones afraid to speak, have the closest approximation of my experience holding my breath because saying my name and a gesture paralyzes me. Once I truly allowed myself to empathize with these students (which shouldn’t have been so hard, given that our experience was actually similar), I began to alter my teaching in ways to help them–as I would have appreciated as a student–find value in the activities we pursued together.

Drama activities seem, in many ways, like an extroverted student’s dream. They involve movement, kinesthetic engagement, vocal expression, and group conversation, all elements that speak to extroverted students’ personalities and learning styles. While drama offers more obvious benefits to students who struggle with direct instruction, it also provides something equally valuable to introverted students. When I facilitate drama activities, particularly ones in which students specifically create a character, I intentionally celebrate salient, spirited contributions from different perspectives that students express through their characters. I also intentionally appreciate (with a smile or moment of eye contact) students who listen and contribute with their hands, their eye contact, or the bodies if not their voices. Sometimes, these students eventually offer quiet, well-articulated fresh perspectives in the conversation, be it a story or a debate in role. Sometimes they continue to listen actively. This balance between speaking and listening benefits all students, as it helps more introverted students express their opinions verbally and aids more extroverted students in sharpening their listening skills and truly hearing their peers’ contributions. The goal of this balance is never to make students’ personalities be “more extroverted,” (as I was often encouraged to be as a child) or “more introverted,” (as I have heard some parents express as a wish for their active, talkative children), but to strengthen everyone’s skills and celebrate their unique personalities and assets.

I co-taught for a year with a teaching artist I respect greatly. We excelled at sharing teaching time so both of our identities held a strong presence in our classrooms. One part of the co-teaching experience, however, consistently baffled us both. “Why don’t you talk to the kids more when we get into a circle to start class?” he asked me. “How do you talk to the kids that much when we get into a circle to start class?” I replied. My teaching partner’s extroverted personality allowed him easy and joyful small talk with students. Mine, well, did not. In the lessons, however, structured with specific objectives and topics of discussion, our styles came together to make us a cohesive and inclusive teaching team. I found that the extroverted students loved my partner; he was never short of high fives and stories at a class’ end. At a residency’s conclusion, though, one or two students, who didn’t talk much, who I often thought had disengaged completely, would say, to me, “Ms. Lauren, I didn’t think I liked drama, but now I do.”

Vygotsky gave us idea that all learning is social, and many of his theories echo throughout creative drama and classroom arts integration techniques. We, students and teachers, introverts and extroverts alike, learn from each other’s contributions to a classroom or artistic process. After embracing my own location on the introversion/extroversion continuum, I have found more ways to celebrate all types of contributions to a classroom community and to guide students toward an appreciation of these same ideas. Sometimes, this means offering a writing prompt as a reflective tool or allowing time to prepare a gesture before sharing it with the class. Often, it’s simpler, a gentle invitation to speak or a silent acknowledgement that active listening is a valuable means of participation. Through these small steps, ones my introverted student self would have appreciated, I strive to both challenge and capitalize on the strengths of all types of learners. 


Better together: a journal page utilizing visual, nonverbal ideas to express thoughts and feelings. Photo: Lauren Smith

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