There’s a monster in there!

Aaron Rossini, a 2019 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, shares this blog post about his experiences teaching through the ASTEP Arts at Refugee Youth Summer Academy. A team of 16 ASTEP Volunteer Teaching Artists are leading the creative arts classes at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy, which supports the personal growth, cultural adjustment, and education of multicultural refugee youth and helps them successfully transition into the US school system. 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.

The theme for RYSA 2019 is PRIDE!

RYSA’s Final Week

By: Aaron Rossini, 2019 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow

Heading into the final week of RYSA is, in all honesty, bittersweet. It’s sad to know that our time with the students is coming to an end, and it is inspiring to see how much they’ve grown in what seems like such a small amount of time. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve been able to accomplish, and I am constantly wondering whether or not we could’ve done more. It’s a strange push and pull that teachers need to live inside; we need to meet the students where they are and hope to guide them a little past their comfort zones. We accomplished so much, and it feels like we can do so much more. There is always work to be done.

I want to share three moments that define this summer for me, and I hope can offer some insight into my experience to you:

 

“I want to be a better actor, so I can be a hero.” – Lower School 3
At the beginning of every class, we ask our students to set intentions or goals for the day. Miss Jasmeene or I might ask something like: “How do you want to grow today?” or “What do you want to achieve before the end of class today?”

On our third class, the Monday of our second week, we asked our students to shout out one goal they want to accomplish. This was met with a flurry of responses, some genuine, some goofy, and one in particular stood out to me. “Mr. Aaron, I want to learn to be a better actor, so I can be a hero,” said a girl in our Lower School 3 class. She went on to say that boys always get to be the superheroes, and she wanted to become a better actor, so she could be a superhero and save the world. To anyone wondering about the value of storytelling, this young woman offered us the case in point.

 

“Can I tell him in French, so he understands?” – Lower School 2
We often break the students up into smaller, more intimate groups to work on storytelling activities. On the Wednesday of week 3, we had the students break out into three groups of 5 or 6 to work on filling out some word sheets for their Mad-Libs.

Many of the students were super-charged-up at this chance to show off their vocabulary skills. Others were a little intimidated at the prospect of coming up with Verbs, Nouns, or Adjectives. One particular student, whose primary language is French, was very overwhelmed by the activity. When I engaged with him about the task, he shut down even more. This came as a surprise to me, since I had clocked him as able to understand most of my instructions in the previous classes. I looked up for some help, and there was one of his classmates and friends with a big smile on his face, “Mr. Aaron, can I tell him in French, so he understands? Then he will be able to do it in English.”

“Of course and thank you for the help!” Relieved and rescued by a 9-year-old, I saw this young man explain the entire activity– every last detail– in French, then translate it into English, patiently helping his classmate. I was so moved by this demonstration of empathy and patience, that I almost lost track of the fact that the first boy was now deeply engaged and enjoying the activity all thanks to his friend’s compassion and understanding.

 

“Mr. Aaron, you gotta make sure there isn’t a monster in there!” – Lower School 1
There’s a fun storytelling game called “Box on a Shelf” that involves a Silent pantomime where we pull a box off of a shelf, open it, and act out what’s inside. It can be an ice cream cone or a kitten or a rocket ship, anything the performer wants to make. Toward the end of class, the final day or Week 2, I performed a “Box on the Shelf” that had a monster in it. The monster chased me around the room, and I needed to solicit help from my fellow teachers to get it back in the box. Naturally, this was a huge hit, and all the students had tons of fun. Well, almost all of the students…

The following Monday, I started the day with another round of “Box on the Shelf”. As I reached up to pull a box off the shelf, one of the students screamed at the top of her lungs, “NO! MR. AARON THERE’S A MONSTER IN THERE!!!” I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at her, “Mr. Aaron, you gotta make sure there isn’t a monster in there!” What could I do? Well, I got the whole group to circle around the box and keep their eyes peeled and their monster-catching-hands ready. Fortunately, there wasn’t a monster in the box. This time there were popsicles, and we all had a treat!

 

This was my second time as a RYSA instructor, my first time as a Lead-Teacher, and my first time working exclusively with the Lower School students. I’m grateful for my time, my students, the IRC, ASTEP, my co-teachers, my peer mentors, my teammates, and for the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship. I hope this summer is a proper dedication to her memory, and I am honored to have shared in it.

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?