Shop Talk: Education Director David Daniel

Posted September 2, 2020

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In honor of the start of this very unusual school year, we chatted with Core Company Actor and Education Director David Daniel on the pivot toward online learning, and what APT has to offer teachers and students this season.

APT: As a Core Company actor and Education Director at APT, you’d getting ready to act in student matinee performances and planning in-classroom workshops this time of year. Instead, you’re engaging with students on Zoom. How is it different from normal times?
David Daniel: It’s the same thing in a different way. It's all about connecting with students and inciting and provoking a love of language. So that hasn't changed. That is the foundation of what we do, and that can happen in a classroom, and it can happen on Zoom. It also could happen in an auditorium, because the difference between teaching in an auditorium and teaching in a classroom is as wide as teaching in a classroom and teaching on Zoom. I mean, they're not the same space at all. And so Zoom is just another way to do the same thing that we've been doing. 

APT: What do you miss about the in-person workshops?
DD: So first of all, it's going to sound hokey, but I meet incredible people. Those kids are awesome, and I get to meet them. That's fantastic. And they've always got some insight that will absolutely blow my mind. I've been doing this for so long, and I sometimes have this ‘there's nothing you can tell me’ kind of viewpoint. And they turn that on its head, and suddenly I'm like, ‘Oh God, I never thought about it like that before!’ And that’s something to celebrate. So I miss the one-on-one engagement with them - just the goofing around that we always do in the classroom to make learning a fun atmosphere. I miss that.

APT: Are you learning anything while teaching on the virtual platform that you didn’t expect? 
DD: Well, this is a rare opportunity to actually sharpen what it is that I do, and to sharpen the mission. To figure out what skills I need to enhance in this format. Like names. I love to connect with students, but I never use names because I'm usually right beside that person, so everyone knows who I’m talking about. On Zoom, I have to use names, oh my gosh, a quadrillion times more than I ever had in any classroom. And I've always recognized the power of using someone's name – that it makes people feel identified and acknowledged. So I'm going to take that with me when I go back to the physical classroom; that use of names and the power that comes with it. So yeah, I miss some things, but I'm so excited about using this new stuff and carrying it forward.

APT: Can you talk a little about the virtual Potency of Poetry program?
DD: When it comes to poetry, it's the same thing whether you’re on a screen or in class. The mission is the same. And I will say that on, on a Zoom call, I’ll have the poem on my screen, and it's much easier, technically, for me to jump from poem to poem, or share the screen with the class. And for the students – it's just you and the poem on the screen. It's not you in the classroom with all of your peers and everybody watching to see how you're taking in this form. So it's a little more personal, and you don’t have to worry about what other people think of your reaction. 

APT: Have you been looking at the content that you're sharing differently to try and enhance that connection? 
DD: So the content will always be the same. In the years that I've been the Education Director, I've always developed workshops that talk about human beings, the human condition, what it is to be alive – heartbreak, love, joy, jealousy, all of that stuff. And then we use great, classic literature and poems – Shakespeare, Moliere – because it's the easiest way for us to have this conversation about these things that we all want to talk about, but don’t always know how to approach them. So at APT, we've never “taught” Romeo and Juliet. We've taught about love and hate and inspiration and violence. Romeo and Juliet just happens to be a really great way to talk about those things. How we connect with that content, it has to be a little bit different. But connecting in that gray area where students can develop into really great thinkers, and feelers, and people who can connect with situations that aren't always true or false, and can work their emotional intelligence through those situations? That is the same. If you make that connection, you fan that fire that keeps the embers underneath glowing, it will keep going on the Zoom plan.

APT: Is there anything about the virtual play-readings that could speak to students a little bit more clearly than if they would have seen it in person? 
DD: We are a theater that is about words. And we moved away from flying someone in on wires, and raising the set from the floor and having explosions. We love to make it about the words. Like “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows,”  - just using that kind of evocative language to connect with Shakespeare, using nothing to set the scene except your imagination. So we've always loved words, and what words can do for us. And still, when we get down to Zoom, we’re reduced even more. The costumes aren't there, the sets, the blocking's not there. So now the students don’t have anything to distract them from the words. So in a way, that restriction can actually make the story and the language come through more clearly.

APT: Have you received feedback from any teachers that you've worked with about how they're feeling about virtual classrooms? 
DD: I know that the teachers that I've spoken to have shared my own anxiety about how to manage a classroom. And when we talk about managing the content, it's really about managing focus. So in a classroom, you’ve got 10, 15, 25 individuals out there who are all in different places. And some had breakfast and some didn't. And maybe mom and dad had a fight last night. And some are like I really love this subject. Or, wow, I really don’t understand this. They’re all in different places physically, and in their education, and their lives. And in the classroom, there is a lot that a good educator can pick up from the students without the students saying anything. But on Zoom, it's much harder to read the individual. If you put 20 people on a computer screen, I'm just getting a thumbprint-sized picture of what’s going on with them. I know I can give them information. Information dump is not a problem, but keeping that student connected when they're the size of a thumbprint, that's the hard part. 

APT: So what do you hope the teachers will get out of the workshops and the Potency of Poetry programs? 
DD: Our goals with those workshops haven't changed. But what I hope now, in this time that we're in, is that the learning, and the experience can still be as rich, fruitful and rewarding as it was when everyone was in the classroom. So we’re working on Zoom workshops for Julius Caesar and As You Like It. And the goal, the drive is that that we create those workshops in a way that when they’re used in classrooms, not only are the teachers satisfied with result, but that the teachers are inspired. Because we love inspiring teachers. We want them to think, ‘Oh, I can do something like that in my classroom. I’d love to keep this going in my classroom.’

APT: What’s keeping you going and grounded right now?
DD: I've had adversity in my life, and everyone has had adversity in their lives. And your outlook in face of that adversity directly determines the quality of your life while you're going through it. And it would be really easy to just go, ‘Oh, Zoom, how am I going to teach this? And I can't work these computers. This is too hard.’ It's really easy to get overwhelmed by all of that. 

But as an opportunity for educators, I think it's awesome. Because in the education field, we are the voice, the hope, the heart of positive possibility, when a lot of these kids are already being shown so much that’s negative. And teachers have the honor of being the people that can give those students hope in something a little better. And we should all put teachers in a place of honor and respect, and they should know that they are needed now more than ever. 

And so I hope that through all the obstacles and the chaos that comes from teaching on Zoom, that one of the results is that we just become better educators. That we become better at connecting with people. And in an environment that is, in some ways, terribly restrictive, it can also be a release for moments of meaningful expression. We haven't discovered yet all that it can be. And that search  for those moments and those expressions is good, it’s what's going to keep us alive and vibrant.