Saturday, 09 May 2020 06:36

Relationships and the Arts Matter at the IS Belgrade by Tracy Lord-Ryan

I would like to share with you how relationships and the arts matter in my teaching practice here at ISB under the current pandemic. There are two aspects to my experience. The first aspect is keeping the connection going in our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and the second how the final DP Theatre performance tasks were completed with one senior performing from their home in Canada with an audience of peers online live here in Belgrade.

If there is any one take-away for me as a teacher here at ISB it is that once class platforms are ready to go it is the relationships we have with our students that then make the arts (substitute with any subject that requires a human connection) matter. At no other time in my almost 20 years of teaching experience have I been reminded of these two key principles as much as I have over the past two months guiding my students to complete their final work under this new reality.

I have no doubt that without a set up platform or positive relationship with my students prior to this crisis then the tasks would have been made ever more difficult or perhaps impossible. I am reminded of a TED talk our principal, Kristine Greenlaw shared with us from Rita Pierson, who talked about kids needing a champion and the importance of our relationships with our students.

The IB Diploma Theatre students at HL need to complete a Solo task. For those who may be unfamiliar with the details of the task let me give you a brief lowdown. Each student has to research an unfamiliar significant theatre practitioner, explore it practically, record their findings, write a 3000 word academic report and use this to create a solo piece of theatre from the perspective of the performer along with scenic and technical production aspects.  This is then performed and filmed for an invited live audience with a talkback session. Now in VLE. Breathe!

When the audience is no longer live and resources are limited the task begins to change and so our challenge began.  From a teacher meeting, with DP Theatres online via ISTA, Shout out for ISTA!, to the constant discussions with our DP Coordinator extraordinaire, shout out for Ms Branka Sreckovic-Minic and close contact with students and their families. Final shout out for our ISB families and staff who attended the intimate performances online and offered their support. The relationships here mattered again as much as the art itself.

Our grade 12 students managed to complete this and all group 6 tasks for the expected IB deadline. It goes without saying that the tasks could not have been completed if it was not for the full support of all parties and the set up of our VLE here at ISB prior to the crisis.The relationships that provided the organisation and patience to ensure the task was completed whilst in isolation.

It is often said that art reflects life and helps us to understand the world whether we realize it or not so you can imagine the topic choice for our students who used their own experiences of their own lockdown and isolation. Reflecting on Covid19 was bound to become part of their new performance work. With titles like ”Cruel Isolation” and “Tempus Fugit”. From one student filming the empty streets from the car window to slow mo project images on herself to another trying to scream at the top of their lungs trying not to disturb new neighbors, playing with home lighting tricks and all recruiting family members to take on stage management roles.

One experience I would like to share is that of a senior who was repatriated back to their home country of Canada who from there managed to perform with an audience of his peers back in Belgrade via a google hangout audience.  It was an emotional gathering of support, creativity and technical application.  We could definitely feel the energy usually reserved for a real live audience. With mum acting as stage manager/lighting operator- opening and closing a door to allow light to filter into an empty room in a small apartment room filled with candle light filmed  by an older sibling for peer online filming of the piece for assessment records all on a mobile phone in an apartment with little resources. The art mattered and throughout the experience it is quite possible that relationships were made stronger- the act of observing and supporting the process for the family, peer to peer student relationships and student to teacher were made more personable.

Was the filming or the angle of the lights perfect?  No.  Did this experience and others stretched and engaged the students in ways that can not be explained? Yes. There was no choice but to be fully engaged and at a new level - the task demands that students must acquire audience feedback. A talkback session was conducted with peers to be online again via the google chat feature who willingly at different time zones offered their honest and thought provoking feedback of the piece allowing the student to fully reflect on his intentions and artistic choices. The feedback too  in this VLE  talk-back for the student was immediate. One of the key essentials in any class performance work -that all drama teachers will recognise- how the development of the atmosphere in the space, the safety and the ability to be able to confidently feedback without judgment to allow for more learning and the willingness to take more risks the next time. Without prior experience and the relationships formed in the real physical building of our small school this would have been near impossible to try to cultivate online.

For the teacher, that’s me, well I managed to improve my own learning like how to compress files. I improved how to give more focussed feedback, listen to my students and unmute myself.  My operation through the use of google was for me and my students essential. To work at how to develop a sense of ease in an online environment by offering more encouragement and simple rules for talking with a mute or not to mute. All of this when online makes it so much harder to pick up the physical and vocal clues of behaviour on screen - drama teaching is so personal, it is about telling and listening to stories, collaborating, sharing and allowing students to direct their own voice- most of which cannot be fully replaced by the VLE.  However,  it has to be said that as a teacher I am thankful that ISB was ahead of the curve and as a faculty we were fully prepared to go into a VLE and were encouraged to go with the less is more at this time. Earlier in the year ISB held a Google summit for all faculty to attend and  this without a doubt helped to extend our use of the class room suite, develop our own sites, explore apps and choose and play with what was best to suit the individual needs of our classes.  We also tested how this would work with our classes before the school physically closed with support from our IT team. All of this work behind the scenes at ISB contributed in ensuring students had the confidence to fulfill the demands of their final tasks during our VLE lockdown with success.

For me I believe the arts will always matter, perhaps now more than ever and for my graduating theatre class, and their families I think we all now know that maintaining relationships in our classrooms and making them personal is so important in being able to achieve a task to its fullest at a time of real crisis.

This is my shared tribute and public congratulations to the work of the ISB Theatre class of 2020!

Written by Tracy Lord-Ryan, High School DP Theatre/MYP Drama & English teacher at the International School of Belgrade