The Arts and Passion-Driven Learning: Three Days at Harvard

by James Sheridan, Advanced Teacher

This summer, I was selected by YES Prep and the Harvard Club of Houston to spend three days at Harvard University attending any summer class of interest to me.  I chose the Arts and Passion Driven-Learning Institute. Below, I’ve reflected on the experience, in five acts.
I. Macbeth & Madness

I’ve been doing it all wrong.  No swords.  No props.  Just our voices and our imaginations.  So far from the elaborate costumed performances that I’d encouraged my students to stage.  Kevin Coleman, creator of The Shakespeare Company, lined about thirty teachers up on one side of a large classroom space in the Harvard Graduate School of Education building on a lightning-filled summer afternoon. We faced off: a room full of about forty Macduffs, the widower and grieving father, staring steely-eyed across the space at a room full of forty Macbeths, all derangement and madness by the end of the play.  Coleman carried a giant drum and used it to signal our line readings: “Turn, hellhound, turn!…My voice is in my sword!” we shouted across the empty space before launching into a sprint towards our opponent, clutching our imaginary swords. As Kevin urged us to “tell our death story,” I watched educators from around the country flail, shriek, hiss, and cry out as slain warriors in battle and realized that the immediacy of the text was undeniable. To run and scream, to fall in agony, to die onstage is to be fully immersed in what you are studying. There was no distance between me and a four hundred year old story. It was a living thing, right there in front of me. The passion that Coleman modeled for us that summer afternoon was something that inspired me to think of my teaching as a form of creative artistry. He highlighted a tension I have always had in teaching Shakespeare: get it right vs. bring it alive. I’ve always focused on getting it right.  Bringing it alive means engagement and immediacy and vulnerability and silliness and permission to infuse the words with your own experiences.

II. Yo-Yo Ma’s Imagination

The great artist Yo-Yo Ma opened our three day conference The Arts and Passion Driven-Learning with a conversation onstage and then took part in a stunning performance by The Silk Road Ensemble, a marvelous group of composers and musicians from over twenty different countries. When pressed by Director of the Arts in Education Program Steve Seidel, Yo-Yo Ma stated, “Imagination is when you use all of yourself, when you avail yourself of all of the history of your experiences” and that struck me as vital in teaching as well as composing and creating. To use all of myself when I teach could be a pretty powerful thing.
The history of my experiences—both positive and negative—includes performances that I have given and presentations that I have made. It includes my running, my love of film, my family, my journeys, my failures, and my successes. How do I access the parts of my history that will resonate with my students?

III. Modeling Excellence

The conference helped me to de-mystify improvement and growth in students. I must talk about improvement, incremental and gigantic, as well as build a culture of support and affirmation. In Ron Berger’s course Models of Excellence, he called upon us to model and archive Beautiful Work in our classrooms; without it, we do not have models of what’s possible for our students to see and surpass.  I thought about my impulse to grade-grade-grade and enter-enter-enter, but the very important action of identifying Beautiful Work and saving it hasn’t been as big of a priority.

I am inching forward with this charge by scanning and preserving the best pieces from each six weeks to show the next year. A phenomenal Style Steal (a type of writing where students imitate the voice of a famous author) of a speech by Jonathan Edwards can echo and could inspire in the next year if I intentionally capture it and show it to students at the right time. A presentation or video clip from last year’s award-winning Shakespeare Festival Acting Company would inspire what’s possible in this year’s class of AP English Literature students.

IV. Questions and More Questions

Director Steve Seidel quoted the artist Robert Irwin early in our course, and his words resonated in me as I carried the conference experience from the Charles River in Cambridge back to the bayous of Houston.  Irwin stated, “I have no answers.  All I have is the quality of my questions.” I am struck by Irwin’s honesty because I tend to think of myself as the authority, the holder of knowledge, the one with the answers. I am the one who has read the play or the novel the most times. I majored in Literature in college. I am in charge. Except that I am not.  I do not have the answers.  I have the ability to ask the questions that provoke and disrupt. A good teacher crafts questions that are intriguing and difficult and require much unpacking. They are neither simple nor surface-level. The Essential Questions of my course such as “Are people basically good?” and “How is community built up, and how is it broken down?” resonate with the world of 2015 Houston as much as they did in the 1950’s and in Shakespeare’s time. They beg to be engaged with because they are relevant, open-ended, and tough to answer. They are questions that I do not have the answers to and that I will wrestle with my entire life as a teacher, reader, writer, and thinker.

V. Thank You

This unforgettable opportunity would not have been possible without the support of The Harvard Club of Houston, an unbelievably generous organization that worked with YES Prep to fully fund my summer experience. Thank you to my family, my school, and the YES Prep leadership for supporting me and connecting me with this chance to learn in such marvelous company.


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