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Welcome to Meet the Member, where TDF members share theatrical stories.
Today's member: Arthur Goldstein, a New York City public school teacher who brings students to shows via the TDF Introduction to Theatre arts education program
Traditionally these Meet the Member columns have been structured as Q&As. But Arthur is such a compelling and prolific writer, we decided he should tell his own story of how TDF has impacted his life, both as an individual theatregoer and as a veteran NYC educator. By the end, you'll wish you were one of his students!
Years ago, I took a group of English Language Learners (ELLs) to see the short-lived Broadway version of Carrie. I think TDF tickets were around 15 bucks each back then, and most of the kids could swing it. Some prop machine didn't work and someone had to come out, apologize, and explain they were fixing it. My students talked about that for the rest of the year.
While Carrie was a notorious flop, I kind of liked it. And my students loved it. Whatever The New York Times wrote about it made no difference to them at all. I think it was only around for a dozen or so performances, so it's kind of amazing we got to see it.
More recently I took more than 60 ELLs to see Wicked courtesy of TDF's Introduction to Theatre. They were amazed by the experience -- even before the curtain went up. The Gershwin Theatre is gigantic and imposing. It seems like you have to go up two stories just to get to the first floor. (It's a lot different from the neighborhood multiplex showing ten movies at a time.) My students looked left to right, up and down, and appeared awestruck. Some of these kids had spent weeks traversing mountains and witnessed things young eyes never should. This was a new and welcome sight for them.
I've been teaching since 1984. I started out as an English teacher but I could never find a job teaching English. One day, a supervisor asked me, "Would you like to teach ESL?"
"What's ESL?" I asked.
"English as a second language," the supervisor said. "Try it, you'll like it."
I'm fascinated by my students. They come from all over the world and have the most incredible stories to tell. I'm thrilled to be able to teach them English, which they desperately need not only for school, but also for their everyday lives. I usually ask to teach beginners. One reason is because they make very rapid progress and they're very cool to watch. Another is because few of my colleagues want to do it.
In my classes we don't act per se, but we read a lot of dialogues. Sometimes I find them in books; sometimes I write them myself. I'm very big on making students emphasize things and speak as though they mean it. It's quite a challenge since a lot of them come from cultures that actively discourage participation. Our trips are very interactive, and help them open up.
I love taking ELLs to the theatre, particularly since they'd likely never know it existed otherwise. I was very excited to learn that TDF had a program to bring city kids to the theatre. I think I spent three years sending various emails and begging to enroll. I was very excited once we were finally accepted.
Wicked is all about a woman who is green -- not with envy, but really green. When Kermit sang, "It's Not Easy Being Green," he didn't know the half of it. My students have to deal with all sorts of issues in the United States. Elphaba has problems, too. She's ostracized not only by the public at large, but also by her own family. To see her succeed against incredible odds is particularly inspiring to those who feel like outsiders. I know my students feel that way a lot, and I think stories like Wicked leave them a little braver.
I've now taken two groups of students to see Wicked. Both times, we spent weeks explaining and discussing the plot and songs. I also screened The Wizard of Oz so students would have the background they needed to understand and appreciate the story. Many of them walked around singing "Wonderful" for weeks after seeing Wicked. A very cool moment occurred right after the show, when I said to a very shy girl, "I hope you're happy." She smiled for the first time in my memory, and then sang back, "I hope you're happy now," quoting lyrics from the show.
Another student didn't want to go. He complained about everything we did, and everything we studied. He kind of liked The Wizard of Oz, but thought this whole studying and discussing songs thing was taking it too far. To spend an entire day traveling just to listen to music he didn't even have on his phone was beyond the pale. I more or less forced him to go. At the end of the show he looked at me and said, "You were right. It was wonderful."
I've been a theatre fan for decades. My personal favorite show was the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. I saw the original with my parents many years ago. I don't recall how much I liked it back then, but this time they managed to make a relatively old show very new again. I loved that they updated the beginning and end to reflect the plight of more recent refugees, like some of my students.
I thank TDF for giving the inaugural theatre experience to my newcomers. I hope it inspires them to become lifelong theatregoers, like me.
Help Arthur and other New York City teachers continue to take their students to theatre by contributing to TDF. In the same way that a theatre needs an audience, we need you to do what we do.
Arthur Goldstein is an ESL/ English teacher and UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School. He blogs at nyceducator.com almost every day, and has written for the New York Daily News, Gotham Gazette, Chalkbeat, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @TeacherArthurG. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photo courtesy of the author