How and Why I Do It

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 By: Cristina Hernandez

My friend Jeff does not speak Spanish. I mean, he has a few college-Spanish-words in his back pocket but not enough to teach to a bilingual, mostly Spanish speaking audience. And yet, in April of 2000 that’s exactly what he was doing. His teaching partner, Emily, had even less Spanish than he did. She could maybe say “Holaand “Si, senor. So, Jeff, a Teaching Artist with ENACT, asked me if I could help him and Emily with a class at the school where he worked.

I was born in the Dominican Republic and spoke fluent Spanish. Jeff was a good friend. So, I said, “Sure, I’ll help”. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I joined Jeff and Emily as a special guest in the classroom for the entire year. Jeff and Emily swore that the group came alive because I was able to speak to the kids in Spanish.

I spoke Spanish. I translated. I learned.

As it turned out, it was not only a great experience for the kids, but for me. It was exciting and fulfilling for me to work in the classroom. I had no idea that I could be a “Teaching Artist.” When Jeff first told me that he was a Teaching Artist, I thought it had something do with watercolors. Anyway, by September of 2000 Jeff encouraged me to come work for ENACT officially. He said I was a natural.

Early on I worked all over the five boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and even in far away and exotic locations like New Jersey! The groups would range from 1st grade to high school, from Special Ed to Regular Ed, with teachers often named Ed. It is interesting and mind expanding to be working in the five boroughs because you get to travel to different ethnic neighborhoods and learn about them through the students you meet. It’s like traveling the world without a passport or the need for extra vaccinations. The vibrant and varying ethnic tapestry of New York creates opportunity to learn and grow in exciting and challenging ways. It is pretty amazing.

I found myself playing theater games and creating scenes, helping the kids develop their ability to think on their feet and develop skills in creativity and emotional awareness. Through play and humor we all learned how to work as a community, find our voice, and accept each other as we were. I learned these skills right alongside the kids.

Throughout the years I have had so many great moments in the classroom: teaching, helping, mentoring and creating art with hundreds of school kids.  I have partnered with amazingly talented Teaching Artists as well as concerned parents who love their babies and only want the best for them. I have given and also received so much from all of them – high on the list: how to make the perfect Sofrito.

Many of the kids I’ve worked with throughout the years were also Dominican and they felt comfortable with me. I was familiar. We were all from DR. They would often ask me questions about when I lived in DR and how I adjusted to being in a new country. And they often said my stories would actually help them feel less alone, to know that they too could adjust to living in a new country.

My Dominican background was also important when meeting the parents of the Spanish speaking children, who also often did not speak English. I would put them at ease and explain in Spanish what ENACT was. “No, we do not sell mint cookies. Yes, we are a type of performance group. No, we cannot introduce you to Ricky Martin.” Once we got that out of the way, they felt comfortable with me and would often reach out if they needed help with any aspect of their children’s school issues. This rounded support system made the kids more open and trusting; therefore, they would take more chances in class and speak up when they had a thought, a good idea, or the need to express themselves. The more they spoke up, the more I could get involved. It became a circle of care and progression.

If you have not guessed by now, humor is a big part of the way I get the kids to trust me. I do not have a problem being silly as a way to break the ice. When I go into the classroom and tell a joke, even a bad joke, the students love that I’m taking that risk and it helps them to relax, trust, participate and take risks too.

I once worked with a particular student in the middle school where I am stationed now, full-time, as a Teaching Artist and Site Director. She was part of the ENACT after-school program in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade until she graduated from middle school. When she first started with me she was very shy and was still learning English. It was hard for her sometimes to participate. I started giving her encouragement and extra attention often using humor to get her involved. She went from being a shy young lady who barely spoke English, to President of the United States…okay, I went too far. But you never know. No, she did not become President, not yet, but she did end up being one of our top performers at our annual ShowUp! Gala. Each year the kids perform original plays in front of parents, peers, and their community to proudly present themselves as kids who show up to school to learn and excel. She speaks fluent English now and was also one of the students selected for Derek Jeter’s Leaders organization for youth. Derek was right, we could certainly use leaders like this young lady. Next stop, the White House.

I have had so many students who improved their English and became open to trying new things. Students who have found courage, who now speak up for themselves, their issues, and their educational needs. These skills are especially needed right now and these kids are inspirational to me in this way. On the flip side, it is also a great feeling when you have kids chasing you outside of the school years after they graduate: “Hey! Cristina, the ENACT lady!” It is like being a local celebrity or the Gingerbread Man.

Besides celebrity status, this work has truly been a gift for me. It is not only very special when you see a student transform in front of your very eyes, but it also makes you feel proud that you had something to do with it. Like a parent, without all that waking up at 3 a.m. and changing diapers. Being able to give children and their parents some major tools that they can use to deal with the slings and arrows of life has been a gift that keeps on giving.

 

cristinaCristina Hernandez hails from the Dominican Republic and has been a NYC Teaching Artist with ENACT for the last fifteen years. Cristina is an actor, writer, and founding member of the CityKids Repertory Company. She is currently the Site Director and a TA for a middle school in the Bronx. She brings her talents, her experience as a bilingual Latina female raised in the South Bronx, her humor and her heart to every teachable moment in which she participates.

Saying Goodbye

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by: Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P

Goodbyes can be hard for anyone; they are often connected with sadness, confusion, hurt, or anger.  Now imagine goodbyes for the put-at-risk youth with whom ENACT often works. Students who have experienced the death of a parent; students who have been bounced around the foster care system; students who have moved schools each year because funding was cut or schools districts redistributed; students who lost a friend, sibling, neighbor to an act of street or gang violence. You can see why a positive goodbye experience with a loving adult figure could be restorative for these young people who have already faced so many challenges.

Yesterday was my last day in the New York City public schools with the young people I have worked with this year. I have provided services individually, in large groups, in small drama therapy sessions, in-school, after school, helping with homework, hearing about test anxieties, exploring fears, and daring to dream about futures. We have covered a lot of ground this year. I know it will only be a few short months before I work in many of the same classrooms again, but no year is ever the same and each kid I interacted with this year has a special place in my heart. It will be odd not seeing them weekly, and I will feel the void.

I’m currently carrying one void more heavily than the others: one goodbye that I didn’t get to have.

Let’s call her “Shanae”.

Shanae is a student I’ve been working with in group and individual therapy for most of the school year. While every young person I meet is special, there are some you connect with more quickly for whatever reason. I had an instant bond with Shanae, a very shy girl, short for her age, but with bright brown eyes that flashed with intelligence. Like many of our students, Shanae was struggling with school attendance and so she was assigned to me for therapy. Although I had an immediate affinity for her, Shanae took longer to warm up to me. Our first few sessions were pretty quiet as Shanae avoided eye contact and softly mumbled short responses to all my inquiries.

 “So what do you like to do for fun?” I asked.

“Uhuh” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.

“Do you like to play in the park? Or ride a bike maybe? Or play basketball?”

“No”

“So you just go straight home or—“

“Yeah” she quickly blurted out.

I paused for a moment to see if she would say anything else. Finally I ventured, “Well, what about school? What’s your favorite part of school?”

“Technology I guess”

“Oh cool! Like playing on the computer?”

“Yeah”

“Neat. I like computers too. Do you play on the computer with any of your siblings?”

Shanae glanced at me and sighed heavily. I had hit something there. “No, not really” she finally responded. Shortly after, Shanae asked if she could go back to class and I told her I would be back to see her at the same time next week. I quickly learned that having a set time to meet each week was difficult because Shanae often did not show up for school. Arriving at school to find that Shanae was present that day was like a small gift, and the more I met with her, the more she slowly started to open up to me.

Through our sessions, I learned that her mother was very sick and her father worked two jobs to support the family, so was rarely at home. She was the second of three children and had vastly different relationships with each. Her much older brother was often very abusive to her and her younger brother, taking his anger out on them. He no longer lived with the family but would show up unannounced, so Shanae lived with a level of constant fear about his potential arrival. Her mother did not or was not able to do anything to quell the brother’s temper and Shanae frequently felt responsible for protecting herself, her mother, and her younger brother. She often did not come to school because she had overwhelming anxiety that something bad would happen if she left her apartment. So, at 12 years old, she took it upon herself to stay home to guard her family and her home.

Once I knew more of her story, Shanae and I did work around the roles she played in her family, at home, and at school. Throughout the weeks we discussed her feeling like “The Protector”, “The Bad Student”, “The Victim”, “The Good Sibling”, “The Weak One”, “The Unworthy Child”, and “The Survivor”. I explained to her what happened to her physically when she had an anxiety attack. She explained to me her feelings of isolation and hopelessness. We made an action plan for how to manage her anxiety symptoms and an attendance incentive to encourage her to show up for school. After a lot of hard work, and many meetings, Shanae showed up for a full week of school (the first time in months) and we planned to celebrate together.

Much to my disappointment, however, quickly after this achievement, Shanae’s attendance dropped dramatically again, making it difficult for us to meet. For weeks I came to the school with a special treat to celebrate Shanae’s attendance achievement, and for weeks I left with the treat in hand, disappointed that I did not see her.

Yesterday was my last day in the schools and my last opportunity to meet with Shanae and say goodbye. Shanae did not show up for class.

As I write this, I am filled with emotion about saying goodbye to the students I have grown to care so much about. For some, the goodbye is not complete because it did not happen. It will never happen in person. So, I’d like to say my goodbye to Shanae here. And while the message is specific for her, the sentiment extends to all the kids I have seen this year who I will carry in my heart forever.

Dear Shanae,

Thank you so much for letting me get to know you this year. Thank you for your bravery in sharing your story and the vulnerability you showed me through your honesty. Thank you for the laughter we shared and the way your eyes lit up when you saw me. Thank you for working so hard with me this year. I am so proud of you for the way you showed up for yourself. I know it was not always easy.

I think you are wonderful. You are intelligent, courageous, caring, creative, funny, kind, considerate, faithful, resilient, and much more on top of that. I hope that you remember that you can be whatever you want to be. I hope that you continue to grow and reach toward your own potential and don’t let anyone else’s negative assumptions hold you back. You are special.

I’m sorry that you get scared and anxious. I wish I could take that away and protect you.  But I also know that you have everything inside of you to overcome these challenges. I believe in you full-heartedly and hope you can find peace and happiness in whatever way that means for you. I’m sorry that you have had to deal with so much already. I’m sorry that you have been thrust into an adult role when you are still so young. I hope the child in you gets to come out and play sometimes. I hope that smiles and laughter don’t get shoved aside for scowls and fear.

I hope that you can open up to others in the future and know that there are people who want to help you. You are important. Your story is important. I am so proud of you and so grateful for getting to walk aside you for a bit on your journey.

With much love,

Darci

 

*names and identifying information have been changed for confidentiality *

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Darci works as a Drama Therapist and the Programs Supervisor at ENACT. She has her Master’s in Drama Therapy from New York University and her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from Missouri State University.

ENACTors without (language) borders!

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By: Rebecca Elkin-Young

One of the reasons I was drawn to drama therapy as a career path is because I value the power and complexity of non-verbal communication. Anyone reading this who knows me is laughing to themselves right now because they know I can TALK. So, maybe it is more accurate to say that I am a lover of all forms of communication and a proponent of access to it. This is why I love drama therapy–it offers endless communication options. If you can’t express your inner life in words or if you speak a different language, drama therapy can offer an embodied, physical alternative; if your heart’s voice pours out in sonnet form, we’ve got a place for that; and if it’s too difficult to speak from your own voice, come on down because drama therapy has got a safely distanced projective technique for you, my friend.  Drama therapy’s inherent boundary-crossing power lies in its capacity to adapt to many different forms of communication and translate without verbal language.

I am the proud ENACT site director and drama therapist at a high school whose student population is comprised of over a third English Language Learners (ELLs). The majority of those students’ first language is Arabic with a large number of students who immigrated from Yemen. One day in the copy room (the public school version of the water cooler, I’m finding), I got into a conversation with one of the English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers about the emotional life of our beginning ELLs.  This teacher shared with me that some of her students have expressed that they think they are “dumb” just because they are overwhelmed by the demands of learning a high school curriculum in a language that is not their native tongue. If you are a native English speaker, imagine being thrust into a school in Yemen where you are expected to keep up with class work as well as adjust to a whole host of cultural norms without fully having the vocabulary to convey if you are feeling confused, frustrated, angry, embarrassed, or sad. Imagine being continuously misunderstood with no one to tell you that the resulting feelings of frustration and overwhelm are totally normal. This ESL teacher and I discussed how many behavioral issues seem to stem from this dissonance between emotional experience and ability to express. It is easier to goof off in class than explain “I am embarrassed that I don’t understand the material” and it is easier to pick on a fellow student than to share I’m jealous of how easily this is all coming for you”. This phenomenon is certainly not unique to English Language Learning students (which is why ENACT focuses on teaching social/ emotional competencies to all staff and students), but it is certainly compounded by a language barrier.

In my relatively short time at this school, it has become abundantly clear how important it is for ENACT to actively respond to and support the unique needs of this part of our student population. One of the ways this has manifested is in a group I lead with students who are beginner ELLs. These groups were created to focus on emotional recognition and the behavioral masks we may wear to hide the emotions we can’t explain. An Arabic translator is available for the entirety of the group to make sure that we are all on the same page, but much is able to be communicated nonverbally. The groups give us the opportunity to explore, in an embodied way, what emotions may look like visually and what they feel like somatically so students can then attach those physical experiences to both the English and Arabic terms and become more comfortable expressing them. We then open into activities that, with varying levels of distance, allow the students to speak about their personal experiences of these emotions.

In one group, we utilized a developmental theatre game called Emotional Museum. In this activity the students milled around the room and when I called out an emotion they froze and then transformed into a statue representing that emotion (they also had the option to draw a piece of art if that felt safer, but I was surprised to find that everyone chose the embodied option). Some of the class then acted as ”museum patrons” who discussed these pieces of human art and practiced identifying emotions and sharing associations and connections. I called out AFRAID and we focused on one young man who was frozen with his hands outstretched in front of him in a protective way, tension crumpling his face and furrowing his brow. I asked the group when they have felt fear at school and answers such as “when I have a test” and “when I have to speak in front of the class” were shared. When I asked when we may experience fear outside of school, however, the tone shifted and yielded responses like “when I see cops” or “when I hear a loud noise, it reminds me of bombs going off back home”. These were a poignant reminder of the level of vicarious (or direct) traumatization many of these students are facing on top of the average high school stressors. When diving into the layers of these student’s emotional lives, it is also impossible to ignore the current climate of Islamophobia and stereotyping of people of Arab descent in the media and elsewhere. We may be unable to control unfortunate misconceptions or less-than-welcoming attitudes towards immigrants that exist outside our school doors. However, by making space for the individual emotional experience of a student who is an immigrant or a beginning English language learner, we are creating a culture of community, safety, and freedom from within. We are sending the message that no one will be left to their own devices to weather the hurricane of feelings they may be experiencing.

Finding myself in this school environment feels like a precious opportunity to help create warm, empathetic young people who then go out into the world knowing how to express their emotional needs and recognize when their actions contradict their inner experience. This falls in with ENACT’s mission to support student growth through self-awareness and positive communication.  The implications of this work are great with all of our students, but they have been particularly highlighted for me in my work with our beginning ELL students. Drama therapy gives us the tools with which to safely cross boundaries, recognize each student’s unique humanity, and speak the universal language of feeling.

 

 

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Rebecca is a Registered Drama Therapist, Licensed Creative Arts Therapist, certified Child Life Specialist, and actor. She works as a site director/drama therapist at a high school in Brooklyn where ENACT has a full time partnership.

 

The “Perfect” Gift

 

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By: Emilie Ward, RDT, LCAT

The holidays are a time to feel joy and love, to give yourself the time you need to relax and be with loved ones, but also a time to reflect upon the things that matter, that sustain us in this crazy life.  While the commercials on TV and barrage of print advertisements would have you think it is all about buying the “perfect” gift, the truth is, the special ingredient for a joyous holiday is connection. To me, the greatest gift we can give ourselves and others is to say thanks for those meaningful connections to people in our lives. Besides family and loved ones, friends and neighbors, there are countless others in our lives with whom we feel a special kinship that we can and should acknowledge over the holiday. In the busy and frantic world in which we live these encounters are often what sustain us—turning a big city into what can feel like small town familiarity. Unfortunately, there are many people in our day to day lives that are without the support of friends or family. What a different world it could be if everyone made an effort to connect in some way to someone who is lonely or lacking in support.

I am grateful for the myriad of connections I make daily in my travels in NYC. Without those familiar “acquaintances” the journey would feel a lot longer.  I am thinking of Wilfredo, the bodega owner I have known for years, near my ENACT school in the Bronx at 184th Street. It is not just that he warms the milk for my coffee; it is that he knows my name.  It is the connection we have had over the years.  It is our history. We have shared a lot of stories and a lot of changes in the time we have known each other. I have known him since before the complete renovation of his store. I know that he sells sandwiches for a dollar so that kids from the school can eat a healthy and affordable meal. I know that he is the guy who will let you pay him later if you’re short on cash one day.  I have credit if I need it—good to know.  These are the little things that sure make a cold winter morning a little warmer.

This time of year I think about how thankful I am that I have just about the coolest job in the world. I am a teaching artist (and for many years the Director of Training and Research) for ENACT. I create original, theater-based workshops that use theater as a tool for relationship, to create community, and to get groups talking about their challenges and concerns. It is my goal to create a classroom community that is fun and supportive, non- judgmental, and relevant to kids’ lives and experiences. I want our workshops to be a space for students to feel connected.  The teaching artists and drama therapists strive to make this connection through our scene work. We aim to play scenes that resonate deeply, that will reflect our students’ needs and challenges.

During the course of our brief time together each week, we leave both the past and any concerns about the future (a test, the Dean’s office, a fight in the lunchroom), and enter the present through the portal of a fun theater game. We all board a train in the form of a scene and take a journey to some familiar place. Once there we examine conflict in the hopes of looking at it in a different way. We emerge from our journey armed with better ways to manage our feelings, a clearer understanding of other’s needs, or recognition of who we can reach out to for support in times of need. We know the scene works when the students share similar feelings and experiences from their own lives.Helping kids identify their feelings and connect about situations that may feel isolating or overwhelming is a huge part of the work.

I often think about the children we serve at ENACT and our relationship with them. I am so thankful to all of the students over the years with whom I have connected.  So many beautiful kids who have shared their thoughts and feelings, who have opened up despite their best resistant intentions and changed throughout the course of the year. I am so grateful to my fellow teaching artists and to Diana and the ENACT staff, past and present, for their dedication, inspiration, and trust that what we do matters. I am forever grateful to the teachers and school administration who invite us to work with their students, parents, and staff. There has never been a dull moment in this work and that in itself is a present.

I think the perfect gift for the holidays is to be able to tell people how much they matter in our lives, in whatever capacity. The small act of recognizing connection can bring joy and meaning to lives. I know this warmth personally; I have felt it brighten my day. This season I hope to be someone that gives a gift that sustains and connects us to each other. It is a gift everyone can afford to give – appreciation and validation.

 

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Emilie Ward is a Registered Drama Therapist and a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist. She has been with ENACT for almost 20 years and has contributed significantly to the development of the curriculum and current method. She has been recognized for her work at ENACT by the North American Drama Therapy Association’s Research Award and was a co-founder of Drama Lab NYC, a therapeutic theatre company pioneering new and exciting theatre around the topic of mental health/mental illness.

 

To the Moon Man, with Love

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By: Diana Feldman, RDT-BCT, LCAT

When I first opened the basement classroom door all those years ago and saw a dozen eight and nine-year-old boys and girls swirling like wound-up- toy boats let loose in a pool, none of us expected we would shortly be heading to the moon. My teaching partner and I were in our first year working in the New York City schools special education department. I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and had come prepared for anything with a toolbox full of colorful material, balloons, a surplus of stretch bands, and the like. I was not yet on the road to becoming a drama therapist, nor did I plan on this being my life’s work, but my encounter that day with the dozen or so kids, hidden away in the basement, led me to the path I travel today and my development of the ENACT method.

The school honestly had not counted on much from us in terms of reaching these kids. We were invited to the special education classroom to test some fresh creative drama methods with challenged and challenging students. Despite youthful bustle and a few hums, none of these children were talking or playing with one another, each on their own planet it seemed. They were, we would soon find out, labeled as non-verbal, autistic. In those days not many people had heard of or understood what we now call Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Social Communication Disorder (SCD) and these kids were considered a hopeless case.

Anxious but undaunted we rounded up the children and joined their hands to form a circle. I looked into their sweet faces, felt their small hands in mine and tried to feel what they felt but could not articulate. Loneliness, Isolation…Isolation! That was it! An idea came to me. “We’re going to visit a man on the moon,” Brian, my partner, looked at me a bit confused but nodded, trusting my lead. I knew he was in.  “Yessiree! We’re going to visit a man on the moon.  A moon man who is very sad because no one understands him, and he cannot speak our language.”  Bingo! I had my premise for connection.

Within minutes, the children had lined up to form an imaginary rocket ship and we began our journey. I invited them to travel over rocky obstacles, through dark passages, and down into deep crevices, in search of the lonely moon man. The physical trip I took them on was more than just engaging their imagination, it was my way of assessing how connected they were to the activity, what levels of physical ability and coordination were present, and if they could follow instructions as a group toward a common goal. As we traveled around the small room I saw the kids charged with excitement and fully engaged in the search for our mysterious new friend.  My partner Brian, wrapped in a purple cloth, hidden behind the desk and slowly allowing himself to be seen, was hunched over like a gentle Quasimodo, and moaning in longing tones. For once, every child stood still and watched.  With the help of the classroom teacher, now thoroughly engaged,  we deftly led each child into interacting with the lonely moon man.  I suggested to Michael, a child who earlier had been humming in his own airplane world, that we move with the moon man to lessen his shyness. Together we got the moon man to laugh and to jump; Michael laughed and jumped in response. The moon man finally said “I”. “I” Michael repeated. “Love” , “Lo-ove”   the boy said. “You”, the moon man said, and “You-u-u” Michael gave back, his joy apparent. More children followed with similar call-and response, while others brought him imaginary gifts.

These children, who minutes earlier had been enraptured in their own inner worlds, each stood together with one intention—to communicate love to another lonely being. It was the first time most of the children had ever uttered a word, let alone expressed such deep empathy for another person. The children had, we agreed, come off of their secluded planets for a few minutes.

26 years later, and the lessons I learned from those kids about connection continue to impact all aspects of ENACT’s work. Now backed by intensive research, evaluation, and a company of 50 ENACT instructors, ENACT has reached over 150,000 youth of every age and ability in New York City schools.

The lessons?  Identify with a child’s core emotion, attune to it, create a safe environment for expression and you might just find a way to a child’s heart and even their voice. Deep empathy, attunement, creativity and empowerment can transform buried or unexpressed feelings that may help children find a voice deep within them waiting to be expressed.

The payoff? From the schools point of view, the ENACT work is a bridge to improved behavior, social emotional skill building, increased attendance etc.  But the true payoff for me is more. It is the meaningful opportunity for a deep connection human to human, through non-judgment, or even love if you will.

It is these connections that keep me going after all these years. Running a busy non-profit is no easy task, making sure 50 instructors are trained and up on the latest research, raising funds and adjusting budgets are necessary tasks to keep our company alive on a day to day basis. My amazing staff juggles lots of balls at the same time but they would agree that it is the connection with the kids that keeps the heart beating.

In this blog we want to show you the backstage of ENACT’s work. You’ll read stories from the field, new research advancements affecting our approach, insight into the operation and development of our organization, and much more. Stay tuned each month for new posts and subscribe to our blog so you never miss out.

To find out more about ENACT visit our ABOUT page or check out our website.

 

dianafeldman-300x274Diana Feldman is a Registered Drama Therapist and Licensed Creative Arts Therapist. With almost 30 years of experience using drama therapy in public schools, she is the Founder and CEO of ENACT, Inc.; author of several articles outlining her specific method of work; and frequent presenter at drama therapy, trauma-informed, and mental health conferences around the world.

 

Taken in part from To the Moon Man, with Love, a book of 20 case histories of working with youth, now in development by Diana Feldman