Although everyone in the world is now living under the threat of COVID 19, American school children, at least right now, when we’re doing this interview in mid-July, don’t have to live with the daily threat of getting killed or maimed in a school shooting.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Jeff Raz.
Jeff started teaching in a bilingual pre-school in the Mission District of San Francisco on a grant from the California Arts Council. Since then he has taught theater, mask performance and circus around the world, from New York to Nanjing, Alaska to Aarhus, Denmark. Jeff is a graduate of Dell’Arte International where he has also taught and directed. He spent seven years in the Artist Diversity Residency Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, five years as a lead teaching artist at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts and a decade as the founder and director of The Clown Conservatory at Circus Center, S.F. Since 2010, Jeff has also worked as a communications consultant with the global firm Stand & Deliver, teaching and coaching in organizations, corporations and business schools such as IMD, INSEAD and Stanford.
Jeff has had starring roles in circuses, including Cirque du Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus, and in theaters from Berkeley Rep to Broadway. He has directed dozens of circus, dance, puppet and theater productions and written 17 plays and three books. Jeff lives in the Bay Area and continues to teach, direct, write and perform.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
When I was a young performer, working with circuses, theaters and New Vaudeville companies in San Francisco and on tour around the country, teaching was that thing I did between performing jobs. I took it as an obvious truth that being on stage in front of an audience was better than being in a classroom in front of students. But I secretly enjoyed teaching, even though that pernicious saying, “Those who can’t do, teach” kept me from admitting this even to myself. In 1988 I was coming off a stint on Broadway and leaving a successful performing company I had co-founded but the only gig I could find was directing a theater camp. I didn’t do a good job. I asked myself, “If your performing was as bad as your teaching, wouldn’t you do something about it?” The answer was “of course” and I took a year off from teaching to learn the basics of the craft.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Over a decade ago I was a lead teaching artist at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley, my home town. I was working with a 7th grade class taught by a veteran, no-nonsence teacher. My first day in class, they were talking about civil rights. The teacher held up images, like Dr. King giving a speech, and asked the class to talk about why this image was historically important. At one point, she held up a picture of Ghandi with a crowd of people standing on a strange landscape. None of the students knew what it was so the teacher turned to me. I wasn’t sure, either, but, being the guest teacher, I started faking a plausible sounding answer. After a few minutes of this, the teacher held up a placard with a cartoon of a bull defecating. It had a red line through it. The class howled, I blushed, then laughed and we had a great year together. I learned to trust that students can deal with big issues, with messy moments, and that trying to maintain the façade of an all-knowing teacher is both wrong-headed and impossible. In the process of exposing my lack of knowledge, the two of us adults in that room demonstrated how to be honest with each other and still stay friends, not a bad way teach about King and Ghandi.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
When the wild rush to take classes on-line is over and students can once again sit safely together in a classroom, educators will have more tools at their disposal because of everything we’ve learned during quarantine. One project I’m working on is a virtual tool for high school, college and university theater teachers to engage their students with physical theater in a “blended learning” environment. The project is still new enough that I can’t go into details but I can say that I was inspired by all the amazing ways that body-based artists — dancers, clowns, actors, musicians — have engaged students and audiences in the disembodied world on-line.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
Any claim I have to being an authority in education comes from long and varied experience in the field. For many years I worked around the country, and sometimes abroad, as what is now called a teaching artist. My second book, The Snow Clown, is based on my trips to rural Alaska, teaching and performing in Yup’ik villages on the tundra between the Yukon and Kuskukwim rivers, and my work with the Artist Diversity Residency Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
In 2000 I founded The Clown Conservatory, the only comprehensive training program for professional clowns in the U.S. and directed the school for a decade. My first book, The Secret Life of Clowns, was inspired by the year I spent touring as the lead character in a Cirque du Soleil show while still running the school.
Since 2010, I’ve used my teaching skills in the business world as a global communications consultant, training and coaching executives at large organizations such as Deloitte, Cisco Systems and Sony, as well as the faculties of business schools including IMD, INSEAD, the Swiss Education Group and the Asian Institute of Management. Some of my clients use The Secret Life of Clowns as a learning and development tool.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
When schools had to close because of the pandemic, many people started to see the results of the U.S. education system in the negative, because of their absence: no students could to be in a room with a great teacher, no performing arts or sports at school, no lunch for many children, no playing with friends. They also saw the results in the positive: teachers finding innovative ways to connect with students virtually while also acting as social workers for the children for whom “shelter in place” is precarious and/or dangerous, meals distributed to families, do-it-at home dance programs and drive-by visits from teachers.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
1) Schools at all levels are right in the middle of this complex moment, grappling with racism while trying to keep students, faculty and staff safe, and parents sane, in a global pandemic. They are doing this with no help, and a lot of harm, from a cadre of appallingly mercenary politicians. A friend who works with schools in the Midwest sent me this observation: “Administrators are overtaken with dismantling systemic racism and preparing for an unknown environment for reopening school.” The reality behind this understated sentence is breathtaking.
2) Innovation, the real kind that is grounded in experience and love, is widespread. I’ve talked with teachers who have figured out how to connect with and engage their physical theater undergrads, their students studying to become sommeliers, students without wifi at home, etc. Stephen Bass teaches over 100 theater students a week in six different San Francisco public schools, including a pre-K special education class with six children on the autism spectrum. He’s making it work.
3) Taking care of students as whole people. My niece Rachel Carter is part of three-person dance department in a Portland, Oregon public high school. When the school suddenly went all-virtual, she and her colleagues knew that her students would need to move their bodies, feel the joy of grace and sweat and sinews stretching. They also knew that some students are sharing a room with multiple siblings, some have almost no space to move and some might even have a family member who would frown on dancing, or worse. They started with the premise that 1) they would give “exercise” assignments instead of calling it dance and 2) everything would be designed to fit in a 5’ x 2’ space, approximately the size of a yoga mat. They made dozens of short videos of exercises and put them into categories. Each student got to custom design their own circuit, picking one activity in each category. At the end of each week, the teachers would encourage the students to make their circuit a little tougher and, if they didn’t hear from a student, they’d call to check in.
4) All of this forced innovation has highlighted the fact that students learn differently. Not everyone is neurotypical; in fact, the brain is so complex that might not even be a useful category. Some students have thrived in a virtual learning environment, some hate it and many are finding hacks to try to get what they need. Hopefully, this focus on the importance of multi-modal teaching will last and grow. Landmark College in Vermont, where my son Micah is a senior, sets the standard nationally for this kind of inclusive learning. https://www.landmark.edu/.
5) Although everyone in the world is now living under the threat of COVID 19, American school children, at least right now, when we’re doing this interview in mid-July, don’t have to live with the daily threat of getting killed or maimed in a school shooting.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Arts. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this interview, I will have made a case for the value of teaching the arts as well as using arts and artists as catalysts for teaching other subjects.
- Citizenship. It takes work and training to be a citizen of a vibrant democracy. Now that the U.S. is at risk of losing some of our vibrancy, and some of our democracy, it is even more vital that all students are educated to be aware, active, creative, joyful citizens of this country. Watching students lead many of the Black Lives Matter protests makes my heart soar; they might write a lot of the new curriculum
- Anti-racism. This has been a major subject around the world in the last three months; now we need to make anti-racism part of the bedrock of our education system so the next generation can take the next step, whatever those might be, instead of having to fight again for basic rights.
- Real history. No one in this country should grow to adulthood without grappling with the complexity and paradox that has been the hallmark of our country since before we were a country. Whitewashing the past is bad pedagogy and gives autocrats and bigots the upper hand. This short essay by Guy Raz (no relation) is an example of real history: https://www.facebook.com/NPRGuyRaz/posts/whenever-i-hear-white-americans-say-my-family-had-nothing-to-do-with-slavery-so-/2871375106321681/
- Modes of teaching (see my answer #4 to the previous question).
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
From my point of view, the best way to increase engagement in STEM is to add “Arts” and make it STEAM. For too long, the arts have been seen as an option, a nice to have, in American education. My work as a communications consultant often involves teaching executives the basics of the performing arts, things that they would have studied in grade school if the arts hadn’t been purged from their schools. As adults, they realize that without performing arts skills, what are still called “soft skills,” they struggle with the reality of their STEM jobs.
The arts — theater, dance, visual arts, literature, music, circus, etc. — are subjects to be taught. They are also vehicles for teaching other subjects. I have used the lens of theater and circus to help teach about ecosystems, history, architecture, religion, etc. So adding the “A” in STEAM not only enriches students’ lives by introducing them to the arts, it gives educators more tools to teach science, technology, engineering and math.
When my brother was getting his degree in bio-statistics, he started to worry that he was only training part of his brain. To fix this, he started writing poetry. The year he got is PhD he also won a major poetry prize. Jonathan credited poetry and his love of music and visual art as major factors in his success as a statistician.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Since this is not an area that I have much, if any, first hand knowledge, I will answer these two questions broadly. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, etc. are all embedded in our culture, including our education system (for example, college students I worked with in the ’90s were shocked to find that was racism, not biology, that led to a dearth of Black quarterbacks in football).
Change is needed in many areas — in families, where parents still label their children as the “smart one,” “the pretty one,” etc.; on the screen, where stereotypes still hold sway in everything from sitcoms to blockbuster movies, indies and even the news; in business, where the culture, compensation and conditions are often woefully outdated; and in schools, where everything should reexamined — who (teaches), what (they teach), how, where, why and when.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
See my answers to the two previous questions.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The issue that job one for every educator right now is planning for the 2020/21 school year. The national government’s attempt to force districts to bring children, teachers and staff into school buildings in the midst of a raging pandemic without massive funding to make them safer complicates this issue, to say the least. This push looks like an obvious attempt to win votes in November by claiming a “return to normalcy.” The eloquent historian Heather Cox Richardson has another theory why our government would want to put millions of lives at risk. In a recent newsletter, she quotes U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as saying, “If schools aren’t going to reopen, (the federal government should give funding) to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise (of education).”
Richardson then offers a chilling observation: “This is the best explanation I’ve seen for why the administration is so keen on opening up the schools. It seems (Betsy DeVos) is hoping to use the coronavirus pandemic to privatize education across the nation.”
Public education is a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy and even the most enlightened version of privatization will deepen our current crisis of wealth and opportunity inequality. The current situation is complex but the solution does not include privatizing the public school system.
My friend Emma Macchiarini, a jeweler, dancer and mother of two, calls this a “terrible and fascinating” moment. Let’s get scared enough and curious enough to re-examine curriculum and teaching styles, buildings and schedules using what we now know about learning differences, modes of learning, good use of technology, erased history, anti-racism, etc. to rebuild great schools.
And immediately bring in professional performing, visual and literary artists of all kinds into schools. The profession of “teaching artist” has grown rapidly in the last few decades to the point where most communities have amazing artists who are also skilled teachers. Bring them into every school to offer classes in their art form and work with other teachers to deepen and integrate learning in all subjects.
Reduce the budgets of systems of social control — prisons and jails, police, the military — and use those savings to lavishly fund all schools, and all schools at an equal level of funding. At the moment, the U.S. spends on average over $30,000 per inmate per year and $12,000 per student. Switch those numbers, use the money to raise generations of creative, engaged citizens and watch our country blossom.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
How about my least favorite? This quote, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, has done untold harm to teachers and students — “Those who can, do; Those who can’t, teach.” For the vast majority of the teachers I know, “doing” and “teaching” are integrally connected and, at the same time, they are separate skills. For people who teach “on the side,” like I did, it is crucial to recognize that teaching is an art and a craft to be learned and trained, just like acrobatics or statistics. For folks who start out as teachers, we as a society need to value them for all their skills, both their teaching and their doing, and not belittle their knowledge and practice in their field.
GBS, I love a lot of what you wrote but you really blew it with this quote.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Alan Alda, because he has done many of the things I do, and done them better and for a lot longer. He now has his Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where my father was a physics professor many years ago. Since my brother was a bio-statistician and my mother was a sociologist, sharing an omelet with Alan Alda and listening him talk about his work “empowering scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways” would feel like having my family together again.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!