My play, Ripple of Hope: One Teacher’s Journey to Make an Impact, is a comedic one-woman show that explores public education issues through my personal experiences as a drama teacher in some of the roughest public schools in New York City. I use personal anecdotes – my love of Hillary Swank as a teacher-hero in “Freedom Writers” to rapping “Annie” and grappling with the Common Core. This story tells my 10-year journey as an Equity actress and comedian-turned public school teacher.
How 9/11 Made Me Want to Be a Teacher
Literally 9/11 is why I decided I needed to stop being a starving artist. I was in line for an audition when the first plane hit. I made a decision right then that I could not miss my life anymore. I was doing stand-up comedy with Colin Quinn (“Saturday Night Live”) in support of NYC firefighters, and feeling like I finally had meaning again in my life, and I wanted to continue to make a difference. I joined Actors Work, and got a substitute teaching job in the South Bronx, where the principal offered me a full-time job as the drama teacher. I got hooked on the challenge of working with students and helping them find their talent and express themselves.
A Stand-Up Background Helps in the Classroom
I think everybody should do stand up. It makes you see the world in a completely different way. Having a sense of humor helps when there are so many difficult aspects of the public school system and teaching in general. In stand-up comedy, you get used to rejection quickly, and you deal with rejection all the time when you’re a teacher.
Love for Michael Jackson Saved My Student
There are so many. But, the student whose story kind of started the entire show is a fifth-grader named Le Jean. I wrote about Le Jean’s in an article for the Teacher Artist Journal in 2010, and the story spun into the current Ripple of Hope. Le Jean was a bully and a troublemaker. I tried so many ways to get him to focus until I finally tried music. I played Michael Jackson, and Le Jean came to life. He started dancing and impersonating Michael Jackson. A light bulb went off in my head to use his love of MJ. I worked with him to rehearse for a fall performance for the entire school. Not only did his focus improve, but he was having fun. That was one of my biggest successes.
Bringing Human Rights to the Classroom
I work with Speak Truth to Power, a global educational initiative led by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. I first got involved when I met Kerry Kennedy (a STTP founder) at an event in New York, and started talking about using drama to teach students human rights. We struck up a great conversation, and she invited me to create a lesson plan for the project. This summer I was asked to spearhead the theater component of the program in New York City. Theater for social change is so important. What I thought was missing from the STTP program was the element of expression. That’s where empathy comes from. We’re using social justice plays to get students involved in support of human rights. Children can handle so much, and they should be learning at a young age about social issues. This aspect of my work is really important to me.
DC is a Hot Spot for Education Issues
DC is a hot spot for education. So much has happened in DC as far an educational reform. And I have a lot to say about the changes in the public school system, which I talk about in Ripple of Hope. This show is very personal; it’s about my experiences as a teacher in the South Bronx. But, it’s also about the little guy vs. the system. The people – teachers and students – don’t matter anymore. Agendas matter. I want to have this conversation. Every teacher is dealing with this right now, all over the country.
– Karen Sklaire