Reflections by ENACT Teaching Artist Sofiya Cheyenne Perez
As a teaching artist, an educator, and a theater maker, I can’t help but think about how this world is filled with many connections and relationships. As I think of the importance of connection, I think of my everyday experiences in this world we live in. I stand 4 feet 1 inch tall because I have dwarfism. Every day of my life I have a moment with a stranger, and usually this moment is a teaching moment for them. As I reflect on my teaching artist work, I can’t help but think of one of the first classrooms I ever walked into. I had a few students that were surprised and perplexed by my height. They continued to smile at me and flutter me with (what seemed to be) compliments like: “oh you are so cute” and “oh my goodness are you my teacher?” and “wow how small are you?” I hear whispers as the students sit in their chairs, “oh my god, look it’s a midget”. I quickly realized that my dwarfism was something that I could not ignore in the classroom. As much as I wanted to continue with the lesson plan and pretend that the ignorance of my students wasn’t there, I just couldn’t. It was absolutely necessary to hold them accountable for their words and educate them on the responsibilities we all have to think and act with empathy and compassion.
So what did I do? Well, part of ENACT’s method uses something we like to call the “Creative Container.” The container is a safe space that we create in the classroom for the students and teachers to feel like they can share openly without judgment or ridicule. The container is the base of a creative and production work environment for the students where we tackle tough life issues and learn to be in relationship with each other. So as we proceeded with the lesson, I discussed the importance of safety in the classroom, and I started with myself. Without making them feel bad or like they did anything wrong, I brought up the fact that some students had just made me feel somewhat unsafe. I tried to create an open conversation about words; how important words are, and how important it is to speak with intention and empathy. I continued to reflect on the idea that sometimes the words that feel safe to us might not be safe for someone else. And that opened up a conversation about “why?” The students wondered “How can my words not be safe to someone else if they’re safe to me?” And this was the learning curve, just opening the possibility for the students to think of how someone might feel differently than them or how their actions might affect others. THIS is how empathy can help us learn about other people’s perspectives.
Empathy, the ability to understand someone else’s feelings or perspective, is the core of what we need for social and emotional learning. I often tell my friends that what I do when I teach with ENACT is simply teach kids empathy. Empathy can be a tool for us to open our minds and our hearts to experience just for one moment what another human being might be feeling or living. So, as I opened up the conversation about safety I made sure that everyone in the room knew that there were a few things that I needed them to know to feel safe in the classroom.
Here are the few things: “Midget is an offensive word.” All of the students let out a gasp! “But why miss?” “I didn’t know that was a bad word to say!” Once again we dove into the conversation about words. “Midget actually comes from the circus and freakshow days when little people were exploited and thought of as objects to put on display. Midget also drives from the word “midge” which means small annoying insect. This word is a term that many in my community feel very oppressed by, similar to other words that other communities feel oppressed by as well. We all have a list of ‘Words We Do Not Say’ in group, so I simply ask the students to add my word to their list. I also continue to ask the students to address me as an adult. “By telling me how cute or tiny or how adorable I am, you are demeaning me as your teacher. I am most likely 10 or 15 years older than you. I would like to be treated with the respect, as I will also respect you”.
And in that moment all of my students have a sigh of relief. As if they feel equal to me because we’ve agreed on mutual respect in our space. As if the safety in the room has now escalated. My honesty, openness and demand for respect made everyone in the room feel safe. I do believe that initial experience helped me become an even better educator today. Without honesty, we have no trust. If our students don’t trust us, how can we assume that they will feel safe? How will they be able to open up to us? How can we let their strengths shine, if we do not give them a space to be fully themselves? It is up to us, the educators, to show that by example. This is why one of my favorite parts of the ENACT method is the container. Because it allows ALL of us, teachers AND students to feel safe in the classroom.
The classroom is a place of deep critical learning, and we can only learn if we feel free to explore in our most vulnerable place. If we feel safe and trust the people around us, anything is possible. So, as it is Dwarfism Awareness Month, I share my story with you and hopefully a little bit of new knowledge. And I leave you with a promise: That as a teaching artist for ENACT and as an educator here in New York City, I will always be sure that my students feel safe, and I’ll make sure I feel safe too.