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Arts Unite Us Once Again

20150527_110823Once again our fabulous cast of Youth in Arts Mentor Artists created art, community and opportunities for students in the Bay Area.  Students in 25 Special Day Classes, Pre-K to Post-Secondary, explored techniques in Visual Art, Music, Dance and Theater and shared their talents with the community through culminating events.

The Arts Unite Us program aims to make high quality arts opportunities accessible to students of all abilities and to build understanding and acceptance in our communities.  This year students from Redwood High School, Harding Elementary and Mount Tamalpais High School participated in collaborative residencies in which students from Special Day Classes and General Education classes worked together to create art.

Teachers in the Special Day Classes we serve value the program and what YIA Mentor Artists bring to their classroom:

“I am always so blown away and impressed with all the skills learned by our students during Rachel, savannah hands smsizethe YIA sessions, but am especially impressed with the leadership skills, creative thinking, self-expression and artistic expression that our students learn. The YIA artists and lessons bring out skills in my students that I don’t always have the opportunity to bring out. Without the professional artists coming into our classes, we do not have the access to adults with these skills at our schools. Mainstream classes can be too impacted, and general education teachers are not always equipped to handle the needs of students with special needs in their classes. Having art activities that are tailored to meet our students needs enables all students to access curriculum and experiences that their general education peers receive.” SDC Teacher Rachel Hughes, Terra Linda High School

20150527_100036Under the guidance of YIA Mentor Artist William Rossel, students from Katie Peter’s Special Day class worked with students from the Band program and opened the music concert at Redwood High School with a percussion piece.  YIA Mentor Artist Melissa Briggs worked with Tam High’s Julianna Rees to lead students from Michael Lovejoy’s Special Day Class and Advanced Theater students in writing and performing an original play.  At Harding Elementary, YIA Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt lead a group of 40 students in writing, directing and performing a play that incorporated American Sign Language and featured students from Harding’s HOH (Hard of Hearing) program.


ASL Translator Paul says this about the program at Harding:20150401_105046

“I have truly enjoyed being a part of The Arts Unite Us program and watching HOH students as well as other students in the classroom where I work grow in confidence in their class room participation. Maya, the primary HOH student I work with rarely spoke up in class. This changed dramatically after she started participating in the program and after taking on a significant speaking part in the play. It is amazing to see how her and other students confidence begin to soar so quickly!”

IMG_20130603_112404Each of these experiences have left a lasting impact on the students involved.  Many students from Special Day Classes and HOH programs performed in front of their peers for the first time.  Many of the General Education students had their first experience interacting with their peers who have abilities that are different than their own, gaining understanding and empathy.

This is what a few General Education students had to say about that experience:

“I loved participating in this project.  I thought it was a great way for me to learn about people who have different abilities.  I learned that they have the ability to create great things.”

“It was really fun to meet and interact with the Special Ed class. They were so sweet and AUU flyerfriendly. I learned that some things that are easy to me are difficult to other people.”

“I had fun! I really enjoyed spending time with the [Special Ed] kids and would do it again.  I learned they often have interesting ways of thinking about things. It was interesting to hear their perspectives.”

“I learned that everyone is unique in their own way. Not everyone does the same moves or talks frequently.  I feel like I’ve learned so much about interacting with other people.”

As the creator and director of the Arts Unite Us program, I am so proud of the work we have done over the years and I have witnessed first hand the impacts that this program has had on students, teachers, artists and families.  This program has served as a catalyst for progress, acceptance, understanding and art making that will last a lifetime.

DSC02607This year, as I step down as Program Director, I pass the torch over to my colleagues at Youth in Arts so that they may continue to promote accessible programming for everyone in our community.  I would like to thank every artist, teacher, administrator and student who has participated in this program.  And, thank you to those who have provided much needed funding for this program, including Thomas J Long Foundation, The Green Foundation, Marin Community Foundation, Green Foundation, Marin Charitable, and Italian Street Painting Marin.

Civil Rights and World Folk Tales at Cornell

2nd Graders perform a traditional African tale

Anansi & the Strange Moss-Covered Rock

Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt reports on his theater residency this Spring at Cornell Elementary in Albany.

Youth in Arts new program at Cornell Elementary resulted in 8 story adaptions performed by 2nd and 3rd Grade students in just 8 weeks!

Weekly classes with the 2nd and 3rd Graders covered the basics of acting skills and then quickly plugged those skills into fun and challenging plays put on by the whole class.  We worked on creating Stage Pictures, showing emotion with the body, movement and most of all STRONG, CLEAR VOICES!  All of the students really loved the Vocal Resonator warm-up, which I learned from my teaching artist friend Mariah Castle a couple of years ago, which was a great way to balance big, wild expression with complete focus.  I watched as the groups got stronger each week as ensembles and as every single individual grew as a performer.

In the 2nd Grade, we had “The Little Monkey and the Garbanzo Bean” from Cuba, “Anansi and the Strange Moss-Covered Rock” from West Africa,  “Zomo the Rabbit” from Nigeria, and “NO DINNER!” from Southeast Asia.  The 2nd Graders really impressed me with remembering where to be at all times and by staying in their characters throughout each performance.

The 3rd Graders had the challenge of doing curriculum-based Civil Rights plays which dealt with serious matters.  They did an excellent job of enjoying the process while bringing maturity to the hardships that African-Americans faced in these stories.  We performed “Martin’s Big Words,” “Ruby Bridges,” “I Am Rosa Parks,” and “Richard Wright and the Library Card.”  These were all adapted from children’s books.


Third Graders perform their Civil Rights play

After each performance, we had a “Talk-Back” session with the audience (each show had family members and another Cornell class visiting us).  The audience gave appreciations, and in every single session we hear how impressed they were by the loud, clear voices on-stage.  I believe that whether or not these students go on to be actors, learning to speak in front of a crowd with confidence is an incredibly important skill.  They also spoke to learning a lot of history from the shows and many audience members said that they were able to feel what it was like for people in the Civil Rights Era.  We talked about this being the power of theater- that it’s not just facts, it is emotions.  Many of the actors reported feeling nervous before the show and proud and happy after the show, especially upon hearing the responses from the audience.  One actor said she felt it was “respectful” to hear such praise.


Reflecting after the show

Handmade flowers for Mr. Thomas

Handmade flowers for Mr. Thomas

We are so excited to be at Cornell, creating a new, powerful theater program that we hope will continue for many years!  Thank you to the amazing teachers, parents, families and kids!

Fooling the King! And many more at Harding Elementary

By YIA Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt


IMG_7511“I’m BORED.  BORED, BORED, BORED!!!” exclaimed the king, slouched in his throne with his chin on his fist.  And what a grumpy face he had!  The other actors worked very hard to fool him, and finally it was the little girl who saved the day!  “Fooling the King” was one of many new short plays that my two Harding classes worked with for the past several weeks, and they did a wonderful job.

In the first weeks, we built trust and basic acting skills – especially focusing on using strong, clear voices and using one’s body to express emotion.  We also declared our classes a “Judgment-Free Zone” and had some great discussions about what is so scary in 6th Grade about performing in front of others.  Once we had that discussion, we were able to check in every day with how the class was doing at supporting each other.  We had a great day with “Building a Machine,” in which we eventually built a machine full of noise and movement using every single person in the room.  In this case, no one had to worry about being watched because they were all busy acting.IMG_7507

My goal for each class is always to have each student grow in some way at their own level.  Especially in the last 3 weeks while we worked on our short plays, I saw each kid finding more strength in their voice and more expression in their character.  One student had the most stage fright I’ve ever seen.  We got him to take small steps.  First, he decided to be the Stage Manager.  Then, he rehearsed but didn’t perform.  And finally, he performed off stage, using a microphone as the Narrator.  I think it was a huge success.  I also saw many students who struggled with reading growing stronger as they did the same short play 3 weeks in a row- once they knew their lines, they really opened up!

And overall, we just had a great time performing Fooling the King, My Teacher Ate My Homework, Wayne the Stegosaurus, Sometimes Arthur Is Choosy, Hershele Gets a Meal, and I Call First!

“Time (Travel) to Make a Difference” at Harding Elementary

20150319_143044This year, in the Arts Unite Us After-School Playwriting and Performance Group, we created an immensely powerful show about the need to celebrate diversity.  The story and themes were built over 15-weeks together of 2-hour sessions with a 38 member cast at Harding Elementary.  Once we had picked a topic and a frame (Time Travel and the Future), the students created short skits, which we used as fodder for our playwriting.

Starting in the bleak future, where it’s the law that your favorite color is GRAY, “The Futuristas” soon find themselves chased by robot enforcers for admitting that they love BLUE.  They are saved in the nick 20150401_102314of time by “The Time Traveling Triplets,” (played, ironically, NOT by the actual triplets who are in the class), and soon find themselves traveling through time (and space?) to learn their forgotten history.   Dinosaurs teach them lessons of bio-diversity, with the Spirits of the Really Past reminding The Futuristas “YOUR survival depends on YOUR diversity.”  Then they are swept into an era of Social Justice Heroes, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks to Audre Lorde to I. King Jordan (the first deaf president of Gallaudet University).  For the I. King Jordan piece, we had Paul, our interpreter, work with a hearing student who 20150401_103254has a passion for American Sign Language.  For her piece, Paul switched from interpreting in ASL to speaking out loud, and it was a joy to see some of the non-hearing kids in the front row of the audience light up as the actors began to speak their language.  “DEAF PRESIDENT NOW!”

In the end, by celebrating diversity, the Futuristas were able to get people in the Present to commit to getting off their phones and connecting with each other in more direct ways.  When they finally returned to the future, April 1st (the day of our show) had become an international “Diversity Day!”

The process was one of community building and personal growth.  Many students in the class do not see themselves as actors or performers, but stepped up in big ways and let their voices be loud and proud.  After each performance, we had a “Talk-Back” session with the audience, inviting first the audience to give appreciations and then speak to what they learned from the show.  The actors then responded with how it felt to hear their work celebrated and it was clear that they all felt deeply proud of themselves for the work they had done.

We are excited to keep this program going, as it serves so many purposes from artistic expression to social-emotional skill building to team work.  I’m so proud of the Harding kids and wish them all a fabulous summer!

Thank you to the Thomas J Long Foundation and the Green Foundation for their continued support that makes this program possible!

Princesses, Puppies and Plays at Grant Grover

by Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt

“PRINCESSES!!!” exclaimed the Dinosaur.  He was on “The Family Feud Dating Game” (a play written by a group of students at Grant Grover School at Marin College) and he had just been asked–by the Princess no less–what his favorite food was. Clearly, he did not make the cut, as she inched away and the buzzer sounded. The sad dinosaur slunk away.

I had my first experience working with severely handicapped adults at Grant Grover School this semester and absolutely loved it. It was challenging, especially having such a wide array of abilities in a single class, but the students were all so attentive to helping each other succeed at their own individual levels, it was a great opportunity.  Three separate groups, each mixed from different classes, created their own shows: “The Family Feud Dating Game”, “The President’s Sneeze”, and “The Skeleton Bone”.  The students lit up each day and grew a tremendous amount during our classes together.  I saw students understand more and more each week about how to participate, and I know they were all proud of the work that they created.

Our final performances were a huge success!  Parents and families all crowded into the common space, and laughed, cheered and applauded at the great, creative work that each group did. It was a true honor to be a part of the team and I look forward to seeing them again next year!


Creative Problem Solving in the Land of Gee-Jo! Theatre at Harding Elementary

P1040680by Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt

There’s something special about Harding Elementary; a shine, a willingness to jump in, an eagerness to share and collaborate.  Starting in February, I worked with 30 amazing 4th – 6th Graders every Monday in the Arts Unite Us Performance and Playwriting Group.  Using directed free-writes, group discussions, acting lessons, improvisation and partner work, together we decided upon the issues we wanted to tackle and the way we wanted to tell our story.  I think this is one of the brilliant ways in which theatre works: we take ideas and issues and explore them in creative, engaging ways.  We don’t even have to come up with all the answers, but we grow in our understanding through making it all come to life.

“There’s Something Wrong in the Land Called Gee-Jo” follows a young girl, Lydia, who’s being bullied at school for dreaming up fantastical creatures.  One day, one of her books takes her through a portal to that land that even she thought was only imaginary. Her Animal Guides take her through the major issues facing their world: pollution, self-image, not talking through conflicts, and people being afraid to just be themselves.  She literally pulls back the curtain on the real story at a destructive factory.  She helps two princesses, stuck in a castle–and an argument about who’s escape plan is best–, realize that they should join their ideas together.  For a group of creatures who fear that they aren’t good-looking because they don’t look like the pictures in popular magazines, Lydia offers them a new kind of “magazine”– a mirror, to which they reply, “Hey, I look like that!  Awesome!”  She encourage a group to grow their self esteem and dance it out (excellent choreography from assistant, Ms. NeeNee).  And ultimately, they get to the root cause of bullying and people causing harm: loneliness, isolation, and histories of pain.  The students performed 2 terrific shows on Wednesday, May 21st, for their classmates and families.

The process of writing this show was beautiful: for example, one student wrote early on that he is made fun of for dancing, adding “but when I dance, I feel graceful and like I’m on top of the world.”  More and more as a teacher, I see these as the golden opportunities, not to console or counsel, but to invite a creative challenge to take these feelings and put power into them.  Together, we wrote a monologue for him, followed by a dance to Michael Jackson’s (his favorite musician) song “Why You Wanna Trip On Me.”  It was a profound experience to see his small, private thought jotted down in a notebook become a huge, central piece of the show, with him BEAMING out at the audience as he and his classmates rocked the dance!

More than anything, I saw collaboration in this group.  We had a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds in the group, but it was clear from Day 1, that everyone was there to learn, work together, and create something brand new together.  I think this is one of the greatest things about this work: it’s not a chore for the students.  They engage in a true group activity, problem solve, make offers, make compromises, and build a brilliant story together.  Overall, I was awed by their inner-motivation and focus, and look forward to seeing what they come up with next year!

Many thanks to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for their support of “Arts Unite Us” at Harding Elementary.

“What Are You Doing?” Sneaky Spies and Making Your Partner Look Good!

By YIA Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt

For 8 weeks this Spring, I worked with 4 in-school 5th and 6th Grade Classes at Harding Elementary, exploring the basics of theatre and storytelling.  We began small, practicing mirroring and attentiveness to a partner.  I like starting this way because it teaches both awareness of the self and a sensitivity to the others in the room.  By the time we arrived at Improv Day, the kids were totally ready for one of the basic rules of improv: “Make your partner look good!”  With so much focus in the world on being competitive, it’s powerful to watch young people work hard to support their partners in “Alien Translator” or “Family Vacation.”  I think they really good see the way that, by supporting their partner, they were increasing the overall success of their scenes.

We also spent some fun time on voice and movement.  Vocally, we learned about “resonators,” warming up everyday so that we had full access to the different parts of our voices.  We discussed and experimented with the ways that different types of voices can create different kinds of characters.  We also played with the way that physicality can generate fabulous new characters.  Borrowing a lesson from my friend Bryan Quinn, I taught a Laban movement class where the students tried out different styles of movement choices: Heavy/Light, Slow/Quick, and Direct/Indirect.  I then had them form a line and instructed them to each make a choose for each category of movement.  Finally, I gave them a character type (Sneaky Spy!  Librarian!  Alligator!) and had them move across the room to grab a pen, placed on a chair.  (The pen generally transformed into something new each time: you can imagine the “T-Rex” trying aimlessly to pick up its prey!).  There’s something about this set up in the lesson that sparks even the most wall-clinging kid to step forward–it’s only 20 seconds of stage time–and make HUGE character choices.  This was a memorable day that they students and teachers referred back to often.  We simply had a blast this semester.

One of my big learnings this year came in one of my classes with a group of Deaf/Hard of Hearing students.  If you’ve ever taken a theatre class, there’s a good chance you’ve played the circle game “What Are You Doing?”, where people offer different activities (“Riding a bike!”, “Brushing my teeth!”, “Chasing a polar bear!”) for the next person in line to act out.  I noticed that the interpreter was making a very simple ASL sign for the game’s question, which is repeated ad infinitum, “What Are You Doing?”  I learned the sign, and ever since that day, no matter where I’m playing this game, I incorporate that sign into the game.  It’s a great reminder that we can always be working on multiple levels at once with our teaching.  Add “(Person’s name), What Are You Doing?” and you’re also playing a name game!  So, incorporating many levels of learning in a single theatre game, that’s “What I’m Doing”!   Happy Summer everyone!

Many thanks to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for their support of “Arts Unite Us” at Harding Elementary.

Traveling the World at Harding Elementary

Dancing Samba Reggae

Dancing Samba Reggae

Recently, families from Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito joined Youth in Arts Mentor Artists in a Passport Art Event.  Participants received a paper “passport” and traveled to various countries and exploring their art forms during this evening event.

Outside the Multipurpose room we danced to the beats of Brazilian Samba Reggae with YIA Mentor Artist Stephanie Bastos.  Stephanie has been teaching dance in the K-3 classrooms throughout the school year and during this event students, parents and siblings got the opportunity to dance together with her.

Persian Classical Dance

Persian Classical Dance

There were many moments of dance solos that were not to be missed! Inside, we swayed to the melodies and rhythms of Persian Classical Dance with YIA Mentor Artist Shahrzad Khorsandi.  Dancers got to use beautifully decorated scarves to highlight the dance movements.  We also learned about the instrumentation with live music provided by Pourya Khademi.

Chinese Brush Painting with Julia and Miko

Chinese Brush Painting with Julia and Miko

Utilizing special rice paper and bamboo brushes, YIA Mentor Artists Julia James and Miko Lee led participants in Chinese Brush Painting techniques to create beautiful paintings of bamboo.  Artists also learned how to make their special “chop” or, signature in the corner of their painting.

We also created tin medallions representing our Mayan Nahual or, birth sign.  Using the Mayan Calendar, each person calculates their Nahual, which indicates the “essence” of their spirit according to Mayan beliefs.  We used wooden stylus to etch in the outline of our Nahual and colored them with markers.

Youth in Arts is thankful to all of the families staff and friends who showed up

Making Nahuales with Angela and Sophie

Making Nahuales with Angela and Sophie

and traveled the world with us!  We look forward to continuing our day-time programs in K-6th grades which will culminate in sharing events later this month.  YIA Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt is teaching theater classes during school as well as in a special after school group dedicated to writing, producing and performing an original theater piece that addresses issues of acceptance, friendship, appreciating differences and being true to yourself.  Stay tuned for a performance date!

Thank you to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for making this program possible!  With their support, we are able to provide financial aid for year-long arts programming at Harding Elementary and celebrate our diversity and expression in many forms!

To find out how you can bring this to your community, click here.

“Being Understood” at Harding Elementary

By Theatre Artist Thomas Arndt

This Fall, I spent a fabulous 8 weeks with 3 classes of 4th and 5th Graders at Harding Elementary in El Cerrito.  We had a great time together exploring many facets of acting technique and storytelling.  One of the main goals we worked with was “Be Understood,” which led to a journey through what it means to be “clear” on stage: with our voices, with our movements, and with our story creation.  We spent a good deal of time working with “Space Substance,” with activities such as throwing invisible balls against walls and to each other with the instruction “Keep it in the space, not your head!” (instructions from Viola Spolin’s great books on theatre activities with kids).  This led to a discussion of “where theatre happens,” ending up with the answer that it takes place when the actors and the audience connect with each other and imagine something together.

Debriefing activities throughout the residency, the responses from the kids were compelling and the teachers and I could see their minds lighting up!  I heard one of the best things I’ve heard from a teacher too, something that really gets to the heart of this work: “It’s amazing to see some of these kids who I thought I knew, showing up in a totally different way when on stage!”  Whether these young people go on to become actors or not, the chance to explore an unseen side of themselves, to express something new, and to be witnessed in front of a group of peers and celebrated for their successes has a huge impact.  It was also great to note that, for example, children who had struggled with speaking clearly were the ones asking for additional speaking roles when we performed.

At the end of the residency, we had a small performance, coupled with Stephanie Bastos’ dancers.  Each of my 3 classes created a short show, with a rotating cast playing the characters for each piece of the story.  We developed the short plays together, each based on a theme of either bullying or making new friends.  The students of El Cerrito Superhero Highschool banded together to stop Iron Fist from pushing everyone around and always throwing the Principal onto the moon.  A lonely basketball player and a sad football player, after initially coming into conflict, decided to create a new sport, BasketFoot, for which they are now famous.  And, in a small old town, a little boy and a dog, who were archenemies (!) were taught to compromise and play together–now that dog plays catcher for the boy’s baseball team!

We had a great time together and I feel lucky to be working with such a great group of young people.  I’ve begun my after-school Playwriting group, with many of my students from the Fall, and we are creating a wonderful show that will go up in May!

Thank you to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for supporting “Arts Unite Us” at Harding Elementary.

JumpOnstage IMG_1148 WarmUps2 KidsOnstage2