Name: Courtney Liu
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?
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.
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.
By: Kelsey Lake, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow
Last week, the newness of RYSA was a lot for everyone to take in! It definitely took some time for everyone to warm up to one another. Many students were shy, others stood out as natural leaders, and everybody was trying to learn so many new names!
As Week 2 comes to a close, I can confidently say that the students of RYSA have moved through that stage! They are boldly stepping into a new phase of more confident exploration and creative risk-taking in the classroom, and this thrilling new energy has led to some beautiful breakthroughs in Storytelling class.
One student’s rapid transformation sticks out clearly in my mind.
Last week, one boy (let’s call him M) came into class and did his very best to hide. He shrunk away from our silly warm ups; if he started raising his hand, he’d catch himself, his hand shooting back down again. Once, when he did speak up, his frustration with finding the English words to express his idea made him hide his head in his hands and back into the corner of the room. Marcus and I could see him following what was going on, and knew he had all sorts of thoughts and feelings about class, but we struggled to find an opportunity that could help him shine.
Then, this past Tuesday, something completely unexpected and delightful happened. Halfway through the class, it was time to “wake up” Sparkles and Spellzy, our puppet friends who have helped us learn so much about the power of imagination.
“How can we wake up and welcome Sparkles and Spellzy?” we asked.
M raised his hand! Marcus and I were thrilled to see he wanted to participate and quickly called on him.
And then, out of NOWHERE, M started to sing. He came up with a fun, short song to help wake Sparkles and Spellzy, belting it out confidently in front of the entire class. It was brilliant! We asked him to teach it to the rest of the class, and it became a fun new way to bring the puppets into the room.
Since then, M’s light has been shining so brightly. He offers creative ideas, gets up in front of his classmates to act out silly skits, and sticks it out when he struggles to find words for what’s going on in that creative mind of his!
Alongside M, we’ve seen many students take their scattered, incredibly high energies and focus them into leadership roles. Other students are taking their English language acquisition to the next level by volunteering to read our stories out loud with growing confidence! It’s incredible to see how quickly these students are learning to trust their own voices and imaginations; they all have such unique, riveting stories to tell, and I can’t wait to hear them.
It’s hard to believe that training and week one of teaching at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA) have already come and gone. Lots of information, data and procedures that were learned on paper and through presentation in the training sessions were put into practice, challenged and executed this week. It was so important to be reminded that we can only be trained based on what has happened in previous years and that only serves as guidance for the experience we are currently having. There is no standard way for a student to experience the programming at RYSA. It’s improvised and live and as an actor, I find it thrilling.
Most notably, I was taken aback at the extensive and complex English vocabulary that many of the lower school students demonstrated on the first day of class. It was an incredible gift to be met with students who not only had English language capabilities, but also felt (for the most part) uninhibited sharing them with the group. It was shocking in the best of ways, because Kelsey and I had buffered our lesson plan, almost scripting it, to ensure our use of language wouldn’t be confusing. We were met with lots of raised eyebrows, knowing smiles and nods of understanding that proved our students are ready for the next level of English language immersion, tutoring and acquisition.
In deciding how best to tell and share stories with the students, Kelsey and I decided that we wanted to distinguish between the real and abstract and teach these concepts with clarity. What is real, actual and based in fact — that chair is wooden — and what is fictional, abstract and imagined — there is a blue elephant dancing in the corner of the room. As trained actors, we decided to create two alter-egos, SPARKLES & SPELLSY who accompany us when we are telling stories and really challenge the students to see more than what they are – wooden spoons with pipe-cleaner arms and legs! In teaching our first class, where we learned to introduce ourselves and where we are from, we had a hearty laugh with Lower School 2 (the Flying Arrows!) when the following scene unfolded:
Marcus: Everyone say hi to Sparkles and Spellsy!
Students: Hi Sparkles and Spellsy!
Kelsey: Can anyone tell us where Sparkles and Spellsy are from?
Student A: They’re wooden spoons. They’re not from anywhere…
Marcus & Kelsey: … (exchanged looks – they’ve unraveled our elaborate plan already!)
Student B: I know where they’re from!
Student B: TOMATO SAUCE! They’re wooden spoons!
We then engaged the students in a dialogue about how it feels to be called the wrong name or incorrectly identified, which proved a useful hook for opening up the idea of imagination and investing in another reality, where we agree upon the circumstances presented to us. Their ability to grasp this idea quickly made it clear to see that our students are prepared to go on an exciting journey with us where they are not only playful, but curious and inquisitive – skills that will serve them well when they enter the school system later next month and that we want to encourage and cultivate.
Next week we will be continuing our exploration of THE SENSES and seeing how Sparkles and Spellsy — who are now so much more than their wooden spoon exteriors — hold up as the students learn more about how to tell stories by describing the world around them (real or imagined) with specific detail.
Last September, I had the opportunity to join the ASTEP team headed to Shanti Bhavan in India as a visual arts teacher during a two week arts camp. Those weeks on the ground changed my life! I had no idea that it was even possible to fall in love with so many different souls in just a week. I also didn’t go into teaching at SB thinking that I would learn so much from my students. They taught me how to be joyful, grateful, considerate, open, innovative and so much more.
The students were so driven, well-behaved, and willing to try new things. These students are a part of a completely different culture than mine, but they had the biggest hearts and were some of the coolest kids I’ve ever hung out with. This was my first time visiting India, and the staff and students of SB made me feel right at home.
Aside from working with the brilliant students of SB and their kind staff, I learned so much from my co-teachers and volunteers that lead the program with me. We participated in a plethora of different team building exercises including meditation, group lesson planning, photo challenges, writing exercises, and more that enhanced my teaching and leadership skills a great deal. Spending time at SB has made me a better teacher, a better mentor, a better team-player and a better student.
If there are any artists looking to impact a beautiful group of students while learning just as much as you are teaching, SB is a haven of peace that will love you as much as you will love it.
Rosco was part of ASTEP’s Fall Arts Camp at Shanti Bhavan in September 2016.
** Email Aaron Rossini at email@example.com or give us a ring at 212.921.1227 to learn more about the volunteer experience.
Last week I spent some time as an intern at Orkestai Farms, a non-profit organic vegetable farm that works with students of varying ages and disabilities. Their program brings these students to the farm to participate in the amazing world of agriculture; from planting seeds to weeding and mulching, and finally to harvesting, as a way to develop skills and learn about sustainable living. After a week spent working on the farm with Alethea and Erin (co-owners) and their students, we led a community day where parents, students, and friends of the farm opened their awareness to different ways of experiencing the land through art- who knew you could create a beautiful sculpture of people with mulch, weeds, and rotten vegetables! (Additionally, this sculpture served as a compost for the potato beds for the next season!)
If there was one lesson to learn from this experience at Orkestai, it would be about patience: patience for the land, for the people around you, and for your art. Alethea, Erin, and the students at this farm taught me that the same care, love, dedication (and hard work!) that is put into planting and harvesting the land, must be applied to the people around us, and the relationships that exist there. A plant dumped into a shaded patch of land and left to its own accord will perhaps grow, but it won’t thrive. It needs attention and dedicated care to produce its best- the same should be said about our relationships with each other, and our relationship with our art.
— Linnell Truchon, ASTEP Volunteer Artist and 2014 ASTEP Fellow
ASTEP Volunteer Artist Lucie Baker, Adam Miller, and Kyle Netzeband spent the fall and spring semester leading after-school arts programming at Claremont International High School in the Bronx — visual art, dance, and drumming classes. Since the majority of the students are English Language Learners, the focus of our classes is to engage the students in language development through creative expressions as well as build their self-confidence and critical thinking skills.
This video shares the final project for the visual art class — screen-printing! Check it out!
All of the ASTEP programs I’ve worked for are truly remarkable, but the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA) holds a special place in my heart. Each summer, ASTEP volunteer artists partner with the International Rescue Committee and a team of New York City teachers to create a unique summer-school experience for recently-arrived refugee youth.
The goal on paper is clear and direct: strengthen language-skills and self-confidence, and prepare these youth for schooling in the United States. On the ground, however, things are far less cut-and-dry, and far more surprising and wonderful.
With refugees and asylees representing dozens of countries around the world, the teachers end up learning about as much as the students! A group of Nepalese boys performed traditional songs for us from Nepal, a young man from Sierra Leone gave me a chilling history of the diamond trade that no Hollywood film could ever match, and I was taught to count to ten in Japanese.
In return, these students learned about painters like Monet and Rothko and the movements in art they represented, they were introduced to break-dancing and Judo, and they created original poems and dances that told of their journies to the U.S., the challenges they were facing here, or simply the joy they felt at being able to work together and create. And, yes, English skills were improved – through telling stories in Drama class, learning lyrics in Music or simply via casual conversations out in the hallway.
But, it struck me one day as I watched an older boy from Guinea help a younger Tibetan girl with her still-life painting in Art class—that what we do at RYSA goes beyond preparing students for school. We create a safe space that, after six weeks, these students come to think of as home. That sense of belonging, I think, for kids who’ve only just gotten to this country, is truly a gift of immeasurable value.
– Alejandro Rodriguez, ASTEP Volunteer Artist
+ Visit Get Involved to learn about becoming an ASTEP Volunteer Artist!
Artist as Citizen
Do you believe in the power of Art to transform communities? This interactive workshop will focus on how we can delve beyond our technical training to harness our collective power and begin to build a space where everyone’s stories can be heard. Together, we will explore how we can use our craft as a means of ensuring the strength of our communities, our culture, and the future of the American theater. Come and reclaim ownership of your own artistic fulfillment.
Devising with ASTEP
ASTEP artists live at the intersection of the Arts and Global Justice. In this workshop, we’ll be building original pieces of Devised Theater using ASTEP’s unique process-oriented approach. Drawing from your own personal experiences and ideas, a few inspiring prompts, and techniques for devising that an ASTEP facilitator will guide you through, participants will create pieces around a common theme.
We’re mid-way through the festival! Sharing updates from each of the eight regions visited so far are returning ASTEP team members:
Abby Gerdts, ASTEP’s Director of International Programs
* Saginaw Valley State University – Region 3 highlights
* American River College – Region 7 highlights
Mauricio Salgado, ASTEP’s Director of Domestic Programs
* University of Nebraska-Lincoln – Region 5 highlights
* Cape Cod Community College – Region 1 highlights
* Los Angeles Theater Center – Region 8 highlights
Nick Dalton, ASTEP Volunteer
* Towson University – Region 2 highlights
* Darton College – Region 4 highlights
Alejandro Rodriguez, an ASTEP Volunteer Artist
* Centenary College of Louisiana – Region 6 highlights