2009-10-30 / Columnists

School Scope

Learnin' New Tricks
Commentary By Norman Scott

I've always tried to take the "old dog, new tricks" cliché to new heights. One of the fascinating things about teaching was how much I learned from the students, probably more than they learned from me.

I certainly learned a lot about the human condition. Most of the things I learned from kids occurred during the 17 years I taught self-contained classes in grades four through six. Spending almost entire school days with a bunch of kids for an entire year certainly gives you lots of insights. Twice I moved up with my classes. Spend two years with the same kids and you've moved into their heads. And they've moved into yours. But you have to pay attention and do a lot of observing.

In today's world of test prep all the time teachers don't seem to have the luxury of just watching their kids. Watching them do what? Fill in test bubbles? I used to enjoy watching them just be themselves and observe how they related to each other. We had enough space in the day for me to give them some breaks to relax and talk to each other.

A very important aspect of education that is too often ignored is how much they learn from each other. And the numerous class trips, for many the only times they left the neighborhood (Williamsburg), were like little psychological laboratories. How much fun was it to see kids who were sniping at each other in class walking arm in arm and sharing a sandwich?

Acting 1.1

In the seven years I've been retired this old dog has discovered new tricks in unusual places. I recently began my third round of acting classes at the Rockaway Theatre Company with the amazing Frank Caiati.

The members of the class range in age from late teens to ancient (me). Now Frank is about 23 years old and I probably could have taught his parents, but I'm learning a hell of a lot from him, not just about acting, but the human condition. Frank is not only a great actor but also an insightful director. Teach ing acting is not about showing how it's done but helping the actor discover the character.

What would a person given these characteristics do in a giv en situation? Having such understand ings are important skills in the real world. (My ability to predict the behavior of the kids in my class, once I got to know their characters, made a big difference in the way I dealt with issues that arose.)

So when you get up to do your lines he wants you to know as much as possible about the relationships the character has, the background, what took place before your lines get read and what happens after you finish your lines.

He gives us short two person scripts of about ten lines totally out of context with no plot or background. We have to make up the context and fill in the details. The script for each twosome is the same, but the lines come out meaning different things to each pair of actors.

Wow! What insights. And then Frank starts pushing. If you say you broke something right before the scene started he wants to know exactly what you broke. He wants to know what took place years before between the characters. "What does your character want and how will he/she get it?" That is his constant refrain. And he often sets up a situation where the two characters want very different things. That's when things really get going.

No one ever considers me shy. But getting up on a stage in front of an audience to perform is a frightening thing.

As the videographer for the RTC, I watch every play they do through the lens and marvel at the talent and abilities of the people involved. So the idea of me ever having the nerve to go on stage seemed totally out of the question. Until I started working with Frank I used to think that acting involved getting it right the first time. But Frank teaches there is no right or wrong. Try stuff and don't be afraid to fail. Work with the director and your fellow acting students to uncover the character and the relationship to other characters. I gained enough confidence in last year's class with Frank after doing a short scene with Joe Lopez, a young up and coming RTC actor, that when I was recently offered an opportunity to play one of the card players in an upcoming production of "The Odd Couple" being produced by the Bays - water Players in Far Rockaway, I was ready to take my shot, whereas BF (Before Frank) I would have run away screaming.

My time constraints made me take a pass. If you're thinking, "what time constraints, you're retired," don't ask. But maybe next time. I learned a few more tricks recently. Like when someone calls you with an offer with two free tickets to last Sunday's Yankee game with a few hours notice, drop all plans and say, "YES!" Which is what I did when a Met fan and Yankee hater chose to watch the Jets game. So I called up a former pre-k teacher from my school, a rabid Yankee fan. She didn't hesitate. She is almost 80 years old now, but all the young female teachers in my school used to idolize her as the kind of independent woman they wanted to be, a woman who never stopped learning new tricks. Unfor - tunately, I had to miss an event I was look ing forward to. I help out on a Manhattan Neighborhood Network TV show called "Active Aging" which is run by a group of mostly former professionals in the industry, a fascinating group of people, mostly in their 70s and 80s, who have taught me many new tricks. Sunday evening there was a birthday celebration for a 91-year-old tango dancer named Alex Turly at Sessions '73, a restaurant and club that holds Tango dances every Sunday night. My partner, Mark Rosenhaft, and I were supposed to go up and tape it. My wife and Mark's wife were kind enough to take my place and do the sound and lighting. The footage of Alex dancing with one woman after another, all dressed in Halloween costumes and learning new Tango tricks from an old dog, is priceless. We took our twenty something cousins to Peter Luger's on Monday to celebrate one of their birthdays. The boys had just returned from a weekend in Michigan where they went to see the Penn State/ - Michigan game. They returned Sun - day and the birthday boy had tickets to both the football Giants game and the Yankee game. What choices. (He chose the Yankees and we met up before the game.)

At dinner Monday night, the older brother was saying how proud he was when his younger brother "manned up" over the weekend. Now this is an expression I've been hearing more and more often and seems to be a code for what is considered proper manly behavior in these times. But I'm not always sure of the exact details of what it entails to "man up."

This old dog still has a lot of new tricks to learn and gaining a better understanding of "manning up" is one of them. I just hope my wife won't be too mad when I do. For political commentary on the educational scene, see Norm's blog: http:// ednotesonline. blog - spot.com/

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Now that is what a school scope column should be like. It actually contains school related, teaching related, and lessons learned related items. Well done Mr. Scott.


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