Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Guns, Education and Improv by Michael Golding

Due to budget cuts at high schools who normally host El Camino College’s after school outreach courses, I was not offered any assignments for the spring semester. This was not unexpected. Last fall, when Trump’s cuts to education began to take effect, my colleagues and I knew that it was just a matter of time before this impacted our program. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.

The students I work with are at-risk. I teach Theatre Appreciation and Intro to Acting on a rotating semester basis. Students show up expecting a lecture course. Instead, they are exposed to my learning by doing approach. The objectives of the curriculum are achieved via theatre games and the class is conducted like an improv workshop.

My courses, which run from 3:30pm – 5:30pm (sometimes longer), keep the students out of trouble and from being targeted by gangs. It also instills the idea that college is a possibility for them.  Being exposed to a different approach in learning has a ripple effect on the students that enhances their academic and social skills. Attendance improves as well.

Now we don’t have the budget to keep this program going – on top of the recurring issue of no funds for supplies and resources in classrooms where enrollment hits 40 or more. This is not new for teachers. What is new is Trump’s proposal to arm teachers.

Here are my thoughts on that; I have been working with at-risk teen populations in Los Angeles since 2002. First through Los Angeles City College, then El Camino College (both the Torrance and Compton divisions). I have taught at high schools in Compton, Lynwood, Carson, Inglewood, Torrance and Hollywood. I have met and observed countless teachers doing their job extraordinarily well under the most daunting conditions.

I have also encountered a large number of teachers who do not have the temperament, patience, empathy, compassion or maturity to be working in education. Some are flat out sadists who enjoy the control they have over their students. I have witnessed this first hand. Believe me, a gun is the last thing you would want in their hands. If they could get away with shooting a student by claiming self defense, they would.

If I was teaching this semester, I would explore scenarios of a political environment that has armed teachers and how that would affect the classroom dynamic and relationships with students. A missed opportunity for me, to be sure.

A large percentage of my male students glorify guns. These students often want to improvise scenes about bank robberies, kidnappings, and hostage situations. Guns are brandished side-ways with a machismo that is simultaneously amusing and terrifying.

Occasionally, I’ll acquiesce to a scene about a bank robbery, with the guidelines of no shooting or pistol whipping.  Additionally, the guns have no bullets (or aren’t real). First time I tried that in a workshop with the guidelines one of the students playing a customer yelled out “hey, that gun isn’t real!” and I had to end the scene before it collapsed into a mass fight in the bank.  Now I instruct the students playing customers and tellers “You don’t know that the gun isn’t real or has no bullets.”  The emphasis is on the threat of the gun and power it wields – not seeing someone being shot.

I have a warm-up game where I play a series of sound effects and students have to engage in an activity that would correspond with it. The sound effects are typically bowling, ice skating, rain forest, traffic, beach, pool hall, which the students perform with varying degrees of commitment. When military battle sounds emanate from the speakers, the energy and commitment from the students spikes and there is disappointment from the class when after 30 seconds or so, the next sound effect pops up.

So, let’s review my perspective on inner city high schools in Los Angeles.

There is now no money for an after school program that keeps high school students out of trouble, enhances their academic and social skills and prepares them for college. A proposal has been made to arm teachers (some who carry resentment towards their students) around teenagers who glorify guns (and would figure out how to get the weapon from the teacher). Classes are still overcrowded.

What could possibly go wrong?

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.