The Power of Language

Amina Henry

Sarah Guayante, a student at St. John’s University and a T&W editorial intern, is interviewing teaching artists who take part in the TATIP* program. Amina Henry, a playwright and poet teaching with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, attended the Teaching Theatre & Social Justice seminar facilitated by Patti Chilsen from Community-Word Project and Renée Watson from DreamYard Project.

Teachers & Writers: How do your roles as teacher and writer overlap? Does your experience as a teacher influence your work as a writer?

Amina and students
Photo by Jordan Dann

Amina Henry: One of my passions as a playwright is language. Getting the opportunity as a teacher to be interested in language and in what language can do is where they overlap. I think both of my roles as a playwright and as a teacher emphasize the power of language, and how you can be powerful if you use language in different ways. In terms of my work as a teacher influencing my work as a playwright—beyond writing more plays for younger audiences—I think that, as a teacher, you’re constantly looking for different ways of reaching students. As a playwright, it’s been helpful to be thinking about the different techniques you can use to reach audience members.

T&W: When you are in the classroom, what are the most important things about writing that you want to communicate to your students?

AH: I want to emphasize that writing is just another form of communication. If you can be specific and clear as a writer, you’re in a good place.

T&W: In your experience, what does including arts education in the curriculum give to students?

AH: It expands their world view. I think it offers up opportunities to students with different learning styles, to access them all. As teaching artists, our job is to come in with a different perspective than, perhaps, their regular teachers.

T&W: How do you design your lesson plans? What sparks them? Do you use any online resources, books, or magazines?

AH: My residency right now is mostly focusing on poetry and creative nonfiction. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by a primary text, like a poem, and I’ll find the lesson plan because of what the poem is doing, whether it’s alliteration or onomatopoeia or lining, or something like that. Or I will use a wish list from teachers. I’ll try to find ways to crack the curriculum that they use, in terms of what they want to focus on, but I’ll try to do it in a way that’s creative and fun. Sometimes the students will inspire me by telling me what they want. Sometimes I’m working on something really specific, like how to work together in a group, so I’ll look for projects that lend themselves to ensemble group work. Sometimes, I look at Teachers & Writers Magazine and look at curriculum from other teaching artists. I’m definitely inspired by them and I will adapt lesson plans based on what I need.

T&W: How will what you learned in the social justice seminar inform your teaching?

AH: I was really interested in the way they layered different lesson plans and different steps that increase in complexity to ask more of the students. I’m interested in finding ways to implement that with my students. I mean, I think I always scaffold, but I think they showed me ways to scaffold better than what I’m doing.

T&W: Recently, you came out with a new play called “The Animals,” about a group of US public school teachers. Was this play inspired by some of the experiences that you had in the classroom?

AH: “The Animals” was inspired somewhat from my experiences as a teaching artist. I became increasingly in awe of teachers who seemed to have to do it all. Teaching is hard work, and there are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of in terms of students, teachers, administration, special programs (like the one I am a part of), lesson plans, rubrics, standardized tests—it takes a really special person to be able to balance it all with grace, while still having time for a personal life. That being said, there was no one specific experience that inspired the play. It was more of a meditation on teaching that began when I was doing a residency at The Pacific School during the 2014-2015 school year. Those teachers work hard.

*The “TATIP Cohort” is part of Community-Word Project’s eight-month Teaching Artist Training and Internship Program (TATIP). This select group of New York City arts education organizations is a partnership initiative to expand professional development not only for the TATIP students, but also for teaching artists working with these organizations. Our mission is to combine efforts to better prepare artists to bring arts to city classrooms. With professional development seminars that deconstruct the dynamics of teaching artistry in a variety of settings and focus areas, the January–May Saturday sessions are geared towards developing new ways of stimulating creativity and understanding in students.

The TATIP Cohort partners with Community-Word Project, include:

Brooklyn Arts Council
Center for Arts Education
Dreamyard Project
FreeArts NYC
MagicBox Productions
Marquis Studios
Maxine Greene Center
National Dance Institute
New Victory Theatre
Teachers & Writers Collaborative
Wingspan Arts
Voices Unbroken 

Teachers & Writers Magazine is published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative as a resource for teaching the art of writing to people of all ages. The online magazine presents a wide range of ideas and approaches, as well as lively explorations of T&W’s mission to celebrate the imagination and create greater equity in and through the literary arts.