Volunteer Reflection: Gabby Serrano


Name: Gabby Serrano

Age: 28

Where are you from, originally?  New York City!

How did you find out about ASTEP? Referred by a fellow volunteer. Shout out to Luz De La Cruz!

Which programs have you been a part of? ASTEP Arts Camp at Shanti Bhavan and ASTEP on STAGE! at the Incarnation Children’s Center and CHOICES Alternative to Detention program.

Do you have a background in teaching, when you started? No!

What is your arts background? I’ve been a visual artist for as long as I can remember. It all began with two of the finest mediums, crayons and paint (I’ll include fingers, as it was finger-painting to be exact). Early on, I realized that I truly enjoyed taking the time to freely express myself and continuously build off of previous efforts. Like many adults, life happened, and my passion lay dormant for a few years. It wasn’t until I decided to take an elective in sculpting that I found myself drawn back in and reacquainted with my long time love of the arts. I continued to create at my own leisure and pushed myself to explore different mediums and forms of art. A friend took notice to my artwork and recommended that I check out an organization that she had recently volunteered with in Florida. It wasn’t long after that conversation that I found myself on a flight heading to ASTEP’s art camp in India at Shanti Bhavan to teach visual arts. I currently use art regularly as an outlet and as a challenge to encourage myself to keep learning new and fun ways to create.

What challenges did you overcome while on site? There were times when we had additional attendees at a workshop and limited art supplies. One particular activity required drawing your neighbor’s portrait. Because there weren’t enough utensils to allow each child to choose their own medium, the activity underwent some impromptu revisions. We asked each child to randomly exchange mediums throughout the lesson, so that each child had a chance to explore a different medium while creating a single portrait. This essentially encouraged them (and I) to improvise and foster resourcefulness.

What victories did you achieve, while on site? There have been several occasions where people (both children and adults) have communicated their dislike or difficulty with visual arts prior to starting the activity because they feel that “they’re just not good at it.” It has been an ongoing learning experience for me as a teaching artist to find innovative and empathetic ways to help others overcome that self-proclaimed barrier, which can potentially influence their ability to thoroughly try. There was one particular instance, when a teenager didn’t want to partake in the activity for the same reason. However, after sharing a short chat with him that I realized he just needed some additional guidelines to work off. Once I provided him with some helpful hints on how to create a proportionate face, he really got into the assignment and created an amazing portrait. He was so proud of his work and even his fellow classmates took notice to his artwork. He’s a visual artist–he just needed some tools and encouragement to see his own potential.

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself? I’m currently a social work intern with a passion for visual arts. ASTEP is largely accredited for encouraging me to continue to pursue the arts and integrate it into my future career.  I’ve learned that I can combine my two passions and that it is totally possible to create whatever it is you envision.

What program is next for you? As an intern, I have fortunately been able to still partake in some of the volunteer opportunities in the tristate area. Some of the new, and more recent ASTEP programs are Women in Need and CHOICES. Once I graduate, I’d love to return to Shanti Bhavan and try other international and statewide opportunities.



Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: Paint on the edges

Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


Blog Post #2:

May 10, 2018

It’s always amazing to see how quickly things can change and how at times they stay remarkably the same. For several months I had much of the same core group of students, and then while somewhat knocked out of commission due to being sick this month, I came back and it felt like I had to start all over again, earn their trust again, explain why I had been absent, deal with the guilt of unexpectedly needing to stay home to rest. Then learn someone from the core group, one of the little ones (which is how we affectionately refer to the younger class), left while I was gone. The turnover struggle is real, and you would think it gets easier with time.

Recently we had a class working with body and face paint, and the children really got into it. Maria, our Teaching Artist for this particular lesson had worked with the children before, and those who had been there, remembered her favorably. We had a large group of older students, and bunched them in at the tables.  We had some newer students who came in a little late, as they were completing their orientation. No matter, the more the merrier, and for whatever reason, at this site I’ve observed that the children take particularly well to the visual arts, and are good sports about sharing materials and space.

I always find it interesting how the confidence of very small children is something to be envious of. Perhaps it is not even what one would call confidence, more a disregard, or a lack of self awareness, a beautiful naiveté that leaves them refreshingly unguarded and willing to try something new. Working with children ages 5-17, I notice that self-conscious behavior can often set in as early as 10. I say all this because in the younger group, I had a little girl and boy saying they couldn’t paint a heart, even after I saw them do it, and wanted me to do it for them. They wanted it to be perfect. A new child, 5 years old and all smiles (also the younger sibling of the little girl) not only did not care whether he could make the perfect heart, he was not interested in it. He proceeded to paint his entire arm green with such dexterity, he would have painted his sleeves had I not jumped in to roll them up. Una casa! he proudly proclaimed. If only we were all so confident in our renderings, in what we create. There is always much we can learn from the little ones.

He proceeded to wipe off his arms and paint over and over again, enthusiastically creating new temporary masterpieces, marvelling at the fact that he had transformed his skin into a canvas. There was a lot of laughter, and his sisters kept telling him not to get it on his shirt, as I repeatedly rolled it up and he repeatedly painted to the edge (he definitely got it on his shirt, but it washes off easily). If I could give the students one thing only, it would be the ability to never lose that innate curiosity so many little ones have. To maintain that spark, that eagerness, that imagination, that beautiful naiveté, and fearlessly transform it into art. To not worry about getting paint on the edges.




Marcus Crawford Guy’s blog: A 2 SHOW DAY

Marcus Crawford Guy, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about his experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


Blog Post #2:


545am / My alarm rings and the only thing slower than me is the sunrise. I’ve got an hour long train ride ahead, followed by a 15min walk to my first site for the day: a juvenile detention center where I’ll be leading classes in poetry over 4 days in the next two weeks. ASTEP Shirt – check! Supplies – check! Game Face – check! And just like that I’m out the door…

845am / My Teaching Artist cohort and I are taken through 3 security doors to meet the school librarian who’ll escort us and our pre-approved materials to the classroom. “The kids are excited for poetry month!” I am too. And I’m hoping the caffeine (now 3 hours old in my system) keeps working its magic.

915am / SHOWTIME. Act 1. 2 young women write Acrostic poems and open up, sharing the positive qualities they’ve assigned to each letter of their name. Their uniform ages them and for a moment I forget they’re just teenagers – they speak so beautifully. But their youth shines through as colored markers (approved contraband) are brought into the mix.

10am / One of these young women is going to be released today. She wears a smile brighter than the sun and the girls giggle their way out the door, the guards having called and approved movement between classes. My energy and spirit are rejuvenated – who needs caffeine?

1055am / Act 2. The class draws to a close as 4 boys, having written their own Acrostic poems, share what they learned with the class. Through their lens of “cool” I can hear them celebrating one another, having a new set of armor being built up as their positive behaviors are acknowledged. As they walk out the door I know they’re all questioning: Can clever be cool? And is that alliteration?

1230pm / I crash in through my front door, inhale my lunch and switch out supplies for the afternoon show… I’m about to head back out on another hour long train journey… but not before I nap!

345pm / I meet my next team of Teaching Artists and we immediately start talking about how our plans can change if the group is too small, too large, too energetic, too exhausted, too noisy… you get the picture! They’re flexible, they’re ready and it’s showtime all over again!

445pm / Energy is flowing – dare I say uncontrollably. We’ve explored our signature rhythms and are trying (oh, how hard we are trying!) to focus on drawing the things the music makes us think of. Suddenly, “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana blares out through a handy portable speaker and becomes the ultimate antidote to chaos. Crayons and markers are held up like candles, it’s Beyonce at Coachella, and the kids join one another for a chorus of their favorite song. The joy is palpable.

550pm / Time to wrap up. “What’s one thing you learned or enjoyed today?” Several kids sigh. “What?!” I exclaim, shocked by the reaction. “But we loved so many things! The drawing with Mr. Eric and music and playing the BAH! game and playing Bunnies and Hawks with Mr Julian.” The reviews are in and it’s clear they were a hit!

715pm / After my fourth hour underground today, my front door slams shut behind me and my ASTEP shirt stares up at me. The word STRIVING looks a little bolder than it has before. Today we did that. We were striving in pursuit of something great and I think we inched our way closer to the goal. I open my laptop and refresh my email. Gmail politely reminds me that tomorrow I’ll be an Actor again, out in search of a whole other kind of two-show day.


Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy.

Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.

Blog Post #1:

March 31, 2018

March was quite the month. I have had to say goodbye without the opportunity to actually say it, to a few of my students who had been with us the longest, nearly 6 months. It is important to note that each week the size of the group alters. Some children come and stay for a couple of weeks, some several months, though it is rare, and some only once. As all of the children are protected as Refugees under U.S. law, once they move on, and for their own privacy and protection, they are not permitted to maintain contact with anyone who works at the Social Services agency, nor with each other. So imagine our heart beak upon discovering young love had blossomed between two of the teenagers. One in particular, whom I will refer to as Jose, had been with us for about six months. He was generally reserved, and more brooding once he fell in love with the “new girl” who arrived a few weeks after him. The children are not permitted to date one another and for many months I have dreaded the day that took place just two weeks ago. I walked in, asked where Jose was, and discovered he had left that morning. I could not disguise my disappointment, and the girl who told me expressed her observation that I looked as if I would miss him. Of course I will, I told her that each week is difficult, and I will miss him. A younger boy popped his head up and asked if I would miss him when he left, and I said of course. The girl who told me, she has also moved on since that week.

When asking each child to go around the room and say their name (for review and also to meet the newcomers), the girl he loves was still there, and bravely and honestly said that she was feeling sad. I thanked her for her honesty, and told her I respected her. I did not push for her to participate in all the activities. Just two weeks prior there had been a grey cloud over the heads of the older group, as two other students who had been there for a long time had also moved on. It is hard to explain the feeling, the impermanence, the hope, and yes even joy that is also found in this classroom. I have seen children arrive and be despondent, head hung low, tears streaming down their faces because they are far too recent arrivals in a new place, a new land, with a new language, and new cold weather that seems to be adding insult to injury. I have witnessed these same children, miraculously, come running into the classroom to meet me, jovial, playful, delightfully rambunctious, at times content, verbal, expressive, smiling. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes a few days. To see them again just being children.

These children have traversed and overcome great odds just to be here. Alone, for that is truly what Unaccompanied means..these children have experienced much more in their 5-17 years than many of us will in a lifetime. Many are escaping violence, poverty, gangs, hoping for a better life, hoping to succeed and thrive, sent ahead by families desperately hoping they will do better without them, or by joining others who are already here in The States. And this is where we come in.

ASTEP. An art class. A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy. I am always amazed at how respectful, and eventually willing to play the children are. I admire them when they advocate for themselves, when they tell me they feel uncomfortable dancing or acting, and ask to observe, ask not to be pushed, not yet. And when they do it anyway, awkwardly, laughing, getting out of their heads if only for an hour.

At times we explore deeper themes, such as the day I led an activity with poetry and music from our cultural backgrounds, where the children were encouraged to write poems of their own, many expressing their pride for their native lands, for their culture, how they carry their flag in their heart wherever they are. Other days I just want them to laugh; we play theatre games, we make weird sounds, we dance.

A couple of weeks ago, our Volunteer Teaching Artist taught a dance class, and one little girl, whom I will call Liana, who had recently turned 9, and is often a very vocal and helpful and expressive participant, sat in the corner with tears streaming down her face. She had danced the week before and this had not happened, but at times we can be triggered unexpectedly. As the Volunteer Teaching Artist continued her lesson, I went to Liana in the corner and asked her why she was crying. She told me her father had taught her to dance, and it made her sad to think of him. I said I understood, that I had also learned how to dance from a parent. I let her know that to dance we don’t always have to be happy, that I even dance when I am sad, that it helps me, to literally move through it, that it can help her feel better. I said if she wants to come back and join us, I will be waiting, but if not that’s ok too. She nodded while more tears splashed on her cheeks, and I went back to the group. 5 minutes later she walked back to the circle, I motioned to her to stand beside me. We danced together. We laughed, we smiled. She taught me some words in her native indigenous language, Mam. Promised me a vocabulary list, one I am constantly worried I will never receive, for she keeps forgetting, or perhaps won’t be here the next week to give it to me.

Another boy who taught me how to say “thank you”, in Mam, also from Guatemala, lit up as I attempted the pronunciation. Quiet, shy, hesitant, this was the same boy who the week before during our poetry and music exercise I mentioned above, showed me his work, a paragraph written in both Mam and then translated to Spanish. Telling me a little about his life. Because I had asked him to write, or draw, express something. This is the power of storytelling. And this is what we do, this is why I use the arts as a tool for empowerment, for social justice, to foster empathy, to build community. To give them a voice. To facilitate the space in which they may discover it for themselves.


Marcus Crawford Guy’s blog: from the classroom

Marcus Crawford Guy, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about his experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.

Blog Post #1:

It has taken me two years of participating in ASTEP on STAGE! workshops around New York City to realize why the project has its name. Much more than being related to the many performing artists who help teach and facilitate these workshops, the name stems from the fact that these workshops happen live. Just as we do in the theatre – we have to respond in the moment and we have to keep the show moving. This serves as a guiding principal in all of our workshops around the city with students in shelters, in Alternative To Detention programs and non-traditional housing.

The fact that ASTEP on STAGE! happens live, and in the various contexts it does, means that the students often arrive in the classroom with no time to debunk or hit refresh and reset. This brings with it the challenge of hyperactivity (yay – kids!), anxiety and sometimes aggression (my teenage self can’t imagine going through that transition here in the chaos of New York) and all of the politics that come with these communities. With this in mind, the teaching artist entering these classrooms needs to be flexible, ready to improvise and needs to lesson plan with less linear thoughts and more a web of activities and plans of action should the class not come primed to work. This level of readiness means that the teaching artist can support the students through these challenging moments rather than being thrown and potentially presenting them with judgement.

The other important element of these workshops is that they have to find a conclusion. Just as in the theatre, we need to bring our students to a place where the lesson ends and a measurable achievement can be acknowledged. For so many of the students, this kind of affirmation just doesn’t exist in their day to day lives and we get to offer a sense of completion and a celebration of that – regardless of how tumultuous the journey was, or how the lesson veered from the google doc we all share and collaborate on before we arrive. The importance of offering the students something labeled with success cannot be valued highly enough. As small as the gesture may seem, it lifts the students up and we begin to break, what may be, patterns of negativity in their lives.

The ASTEP on STAGE! experience is a challenging, but rewarding, one to step into. No two classes are the same and the lesson often bears little resemblance to the plan, but I’ve never left the room without new knowledge. It’s a great venue for volunteers to get their feet wet before committing to longer term opportunities. So what are you waiting for? Come play, share and learn!

Email sami@asteponline.org to get involved in our ASTEP on STAGE! programming in New York City.


Volunteer Reflection: Emmett Phillips, Jr.

Name: Emmett Phillips Jr.
Age: 24

Where are you from, originally? I was born in Wichita, KS and raised in Des Moines, IA by two beautiful Liberian immigrants named Emmett and Marie.

How did you find out about ASTEP? After landing a lead role in the first play I’d ever done in my life during my sophomore year of college, I was invited to attend The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I remember going into a workshop at KCACTF that sounded like something I would like and meeting Ali Dachis who told the group about ASTEP. I was so intrigued that I followed up with her afterwards to get more info about ASTEP and we exchanged contact information. About a year later, I got an invite to apply for the Artist as Citizen Conference in 2015 and I’ve been involved with ASTEP ever since.

Which programs have you been a part of? I have been apart of the Artist As Citizen Conference, I have lead an ASTEP Chapter, I am an active member of the ASTEP Leaders Network, and I have completed the ASTEP volunteer training.

Do you have a background in teaching, when you started? I started teaching the arts to youth when I was 19 and working at the Boys and Girls Club. I was really limited with what I could do with the kids there so I longed for opportunities to teach more freely. Once I became a Program Coordinator at Children and Family Urban Movement in 2015, I gained much more creative freedom to the weave arts into after school curriculum. I have gone on to facilitate Hip Hop Summer Camps, lead a poetry workshop within a local middle school, and guide the drama club.

What is your arts background? I am a Hip Hop Artist first and foremost. I started pursuing Hip Hop seriously in 2014. I am a poet and actor as well. I started acting during my sophomore year of college and have done a total of 5 plays (1 collegiate and 4 community).

What challenges did you overcome while on site? My first official ASTEP Volunteer site will be in Elaine Arkansas in July. I foresee that the challenges will be working in such close quarters with 3 other artists and adapting to the culture of a segregated southern town, being raised in the North. I look forward to the adversity though!

What victories did you achieve, while on site? I hope to achieve a deeper understanding of what it means to be a young African American growing up in Elaine. As a Black man myself, I’m excited to be able to be a real life example of artistic excellence that those youth might be able to relate to. If I can help empower, uplift, and inspire them to explore their own creative sides, I will consider my experience an overwhelming victory.

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself? Working with ASTEP has taught me the value of being a teaching artist. I grew up in a world that didn’t place much value on artists at all, let alone teaching artists, but ASTEP has opened me up to an entire culture that is committed to the development and proper placement of those who create art and also love to teach it to others. Thanks to ASTEP, I will always search for opportunities to live my truth through my art and teach as many young people everything I have to offer along the way.

What program is next for you? My assignment in Elaine is what’s immediately next for me, but afterwards I would love teach some poetry and Hip Hop in Brooklyn or travel abroad with ASTEP. Either way, the joy of teaching my crafts is a pleasure no matter what space I’m in. The real question is what does ASTEP have next for me?




Volunteer Reflection: Rosco Spears

Name: Rosco Spears

Age: 30

Where are you from, originally? Detroit, MI

How did you find out about ASTEP? A good friend of mine referred me to the program. She is a performing artist and she told me about the amazing things she heard about ASTEP.  After a bit of research, it didn’t take much to sell me on the organization.

Which programs have you been a part of? ASTEP on STAGE! at WIN and CHOICES Alternative to Detention as well as ASTEP Arts at Shanti Bhavan.

Did you have a background in teaching when you started? I did have a background in teaching when I started volunteering with ASTEP. I taught business technology for 2 years at a high school in Grand Rapids, MI and I also led an after school, art enrichment program in Newark, NJ for a year.

What is your arts background? I do not have any formal training in art. I began sketching as a kid, and I created a signature design at the age of 13. During college, I brought some of those drawings that I created during middle and high school to a local art gallery.  The owner, Reb Roberts, practically forced my hand into painting after I told him that I was not interested. He was able to convince me to create a piece with him and the rest is history. I fell in love with painting.

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself? Working with ASTEP taught me that there is so much that you can learn while working as a teaching artist. I’m pretty certain that I’ve learned more from the children than they’ve learned from me.  I’ve learned how to move through adversity. How to excel through rough circumstances. How to creatively work in a group with others. How to take risks and try new things. I’ve learned how to communicate without words. Working with ASTEP showed me what I should be doing for my life’s work. Nothing on this earth makes me happier than working with children as a teaching artist. Especially working with kids who are impoverished in any way.

What victories did you achieve, while on site? On occasion, I’ve worked with kids who were in a program as a form of punishment, and they did not want to do any of the activities that were placed in front of them. These are the kids that are most interesting and challenging to me (also my favorite to work with). At the end of both experiences, even if it was just getting a kid to take their hood off during class or to pick their head up off of the table, I felt accomplished. If they actually participated in an activity, I felt like I won a million dollars.

What program is next for you? As I have recently relocated to Los Angeles, I am unsure! I would love to get back to Shanti Bhavan in the near future. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Week 5: Successes Large + Small

By: Marcus Crawford Guy, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow

Success at RYSA comes in all forms: students standing quietly in a circle; hearing a student’s voice for the first time; or bringing a student back to neutral after an experience that has triggered something traumatic, and often yet to be articulated or grasped. Our students are brave in ways I will never be — their early childhood experiences have shaped them sturdily and as much as I hope I have impacted their young lives in America, I know that they have affected mine immeasurable. Today one of our assistant teachers (tactlessly, I might add), told the students that the end was nigh… and while I think the language barrier protected many of them from this truth, it got me thinking about their triumphs and there are a few I want to document because they were moments where I too was learning.
A student in our youngest group (we’ll call him Austin) has been engaged since day 1. Sometimes Austin wanders, sometimes he is a little despondent and at times he has acted out, but his intention has always been clear — he wants to learn, even when that process is challenging. Today Austin was full of beans – unable to stand still, incredibly verbal and just a little hyper. In spite of this, he was engaged more than he has ever been in the classroom. The excess energy and noise was not problematic because, though untamed, it was allowing him to engage in the work and demonstrate knowledge in a new way. Kelsey and I worked with it, acknowledging that though the behavior will eventually need corrected, it was better to celebrate the positive improvement in his work. The skills can’t coalesce all at once and that’s OK! It strikes me just writing this that this is a lesson I need to teach myself in my own professional and creative endeavors – thanks Austin!
Next up: Corey. Corey is incredibly sensitive. The slightest sense of negativity or disappointment from a teacher will send him spiraling – he huffs, he needs to leave the room, he cries and he shuts down. But I think it is born of a pressure that I have noticed in many of our students — a need to impress, to embrace this new opportunity and to succeed, with positive reinforcement, in every moment. I can relate to this. An over-achiever from a very young age, the most potent moments of my young life, even now, are the ones where it feels like I am on the brink of letting someone down that I respect. For me, it is important to just keep Corey involved, to take his answers even when they are incorrect, and to listen to him offering correction, redirection and opportunity where possible. Corey is an active learner, and so when he is left to sideline, or his behavior is treated as “bad” or “disruptive”, he recedes and regresses. The arts classes at RYSA allow us the time and space to celebrate these differently able learners and engage them in ways the traditional classroom may not.
Finally, there’s Bethany. Bethany started class today with a statement not dissimilar to, “This class is rubbish!” If an adult spoke to me with this apathy, I’d likely walk the other way, but in the classroom with young students, its an invitation to engage more carefully with that student’s experience. What is this a reaction to? And how can I, the teacher, or leader in this environment, guide this student towards success, achievement and growth that will alter that negative response? I let her know how that made me feel, and asked the entire class to engage in one particular value of the RYSA program — respect. As soon as Bethany sat down today, I verbally narrated all of her positive behaviors, making clear that her successes were not going unnoticed. I respected her adherence to the classroom code of conduct, and in turn, she respected the work we were doing. She participated thoughtfully, and though she might not admit it herself, she even cracked a smile and enjoyed herself! This small interaction reminded me that it is much easier to engage with students with positive attitudes, but that good behavior + work can be culled from any student and it is the teacher’s duty to find a way to activate this kind of positive teacher-student relationship, even when resistance is offered.
The RYSA experience is so much larger than the classroom spaces we occupy for 6-8 hours a week. For me, it has sparked a continual assessment of the way I engage in all of my professional and creative interactions. Am I present? Am I positive? Am I willing? And can I do more? The answer to all of these questions always has to be yes, especially when I am in the drivers seat and a young person’s education, development and growth is in my hands.

Volunteer Reflection: Courtney Liu

Name: Courtney Liu

Age: 26

Where are you from, originally? Cincinnati, OH

How did you find out about ASTEP? 

I found them online and reached out before having a wonderful first conversation with Lizzy on the phone. We immediately connected in a magical “this was meant to be” way.

Which programs have you been a part of? 

RYSA 2016

Do you have a background in teaching, when you started? 

Yes!  I actually started teaching dance in the 5th grade during one summer that I held a toddler dance camp in my parent’s basement… I’m pretty sure my Mom helped a LOT with that one.  Prior to joining ASTEP, the teaching experiences dear to my heart included assisting the Dance in Schools Program at the San Francisco Ballet School, teaching for an arts integration program in China, and founding a dance program for children seeking services at the domestic violence shelter in Durham, NC.

What is your arts background?

I trained and performed with the Cincinnati Ballet and San Francisco Ballet before leaving the professional dance track to pursue a degree in Psychology at Duke. During college I fell in love with jazz and salsa and one year post-graduation decided I was tired of sitting at a desk all day and it was time to dance!  I started auditioning and have been dancing professionally and teaching since then!

What challenges did you overcome while on site?

The work itself is honestly so exhausting… much harder than performing.  Some days when you start class the energy starts rolling and the hours fly by.  Some days drag and the students are tired or have decided they are too cool for dance class.  By the end of the day I was either completely exhilarated from a breakthrough of expression the students had made… or completely exhausted from trying to motivate thirty students.  On the worst days it helps to write down small victories… one student who tried something new or another student who smiled in dance class for the first time.  They are ALWAYS something there but hard to see as a teacher who is putting out one fire after the next on rough days.  If we shine a light on the small victories they energize us to get up, day after day, and try again.

What victories did you achieve, while on site?

One day I spotted a new kid in the middle school class who clearly wanted to do the Rihanna dance but was hanging in the back to figure out if it was cool and if he would be good at it.  He had missed the day we taught the combination so I can imagine it was scary.  When we did African dance day the following week he was doing an awesome job so we had him demonstrate for the class.  It built up his confidence and gave him the motivation to practice the Rihanna dance outside of class.  He soon caught up to the rest of the class and performed confidently in the final showcase.  What a special moment to see talent bloom out of insecurity and into a beautiful performance for all to see!

Speaking of… the final performance was such a special day. Each class chose their favorite dance style and created a piece using the material we gave them over the course of the program.  Class 1 performed a African dance and Ballet mashup, Class 2 performed Bachata with a class chant they created, and Class 3 performed a Jazz routine that ended in a breakdance circle.  Then they performed their individual spoken word and movement pieces about their dreams for their future in America and all three classes performed a hip-hop dance as the finale.  What a feat!  They performed ALL of this without their teachers!!!  We were so proud :):):)

What did working with ASTEP teach you about yourself?

I found the role of Assistant Teacher to be quite challenging!  As an Assistant I had trouble deciding the best way to provide support in the classroom.  Was it best to help teach? Was I supposed to lead the next combination… oh yes!  Was it most useful to demonstrate in the back?  Or to walk around and give individual corrections?  I realized that I was very comfortable making lesson plans and teaching in the front of the room… but other important pieces of teaching had been lost from constantly managing classrooms from the front.  I am thankful for the experience and to work with such a talented co-teacher (shoutout to Marissa) that summer!

What program is next for you?

Hopefully another year at RYSA and Choices!  One summer soon I hope to teach for the Teach for India program.


Week 4: “I-We-You” Learning Process

By: Kelsey Lake, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow

This week at RYSA included a few challenging moments but culminated in some exciting and encouraging progress. Marcus and I were very excited about the prospect of our classes working as teams to create stories on their own. We wanted to see at what degree of independence they could accomplish this is at the RYSA graduation performance. So, we gave them a Mad Libs type story structure, set a five -minute time limit, and for the older students told them they had to complete the group story without communicating verbally.

We had practiced filling out Mid Libs-style sentence stems and stories together as a class, but we didn’t realize that the task we actually set for the students was one they didn’t have much practice with – working as a team, without teacher supports, in the specific context of Storytelling class. The class quickly got a little chaotic: there was conflict between students, confusion about how to complete the task, and frustration as some students took leadership roles while others felt excluded and shut down.

Yikes! We let the timer run out and decided to spend time reflecting on “what went well” and “what could go better next time.” Most of the answers received – “listening to the teacher,” “doing better next time,” “not talking” – were rote responses about classroom behavior, instead of the reflection on teamwork that Marcus and I were driving towards.

Once Marcus and I had a chance to reflect, we realized we had set a task that many adults find difficult to achieve. Though we still believe firmly in the students’ ability to work as a team in Storytelling class, we realized also that we’d skipped an essential step of the “I-We-You” learning process. In fact, we had jumped all the way to the “You” phase, asking them to independently model a task and demonstrate comprehension of a concept that we hadn’t explicittly modeled ourselves or practiced with them in class activities.

So, for Thursday’s class, we decided to take a conscious step back and focus on reinforcing the storytelling and language concepts we’d been working on, but also including conversations, observations, and examples of how being part of a class was similar to working on a team – it includes compromise, respect, and listening as essential ingredients.

We temporarily lost sight of a main RYSA objective – to help students develop interpersonal skills. To get back on track, we made such skills part of our process, instead of expecting them to magically appear in class without practice or exploration. Students started embodying these teamwork principles in different ways; one very prominent example was the students putting their hands down after another classmate was called on, showing respect and giving space for other ideas. These small moments at RYSA are actually the big victories, helping students understand “school rules” from a perspective of teamwork and leadership skills, instead of just learning rules by rote.

As we helped the students learn, we had breakthroughs as educators. Sometimes, for one step forward, you take two steps back. But, if you refocus on the learning process rather than any products you’re driving towards, students and teachers together can grow in their understanding of teamwork and leadership skills in the classroom.




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