By Jeff Ho
Learning how to learn is a life-long pursuit – we all grow up experiencing various teaching methods, tactics and learning strategies as both students and teachers. We all share the experience of working with incredibly brilliant educators in our lives who have left indelible marks. On the other hand, we also remember particular teachers that made learning a disciplinary, rigorous and sometimes terrible routine. Educational methods are as varied as the spectrum of cultures in our city.
When I was still a wee boy in Hong Kong, our teachers would demand that we stand at the top of every class and wish them, “Good morning, sir”, with a bow. I remember the intense pressure as a child to memorize passages of Chinese poetry by rote, the threat of the ruler standing tall over me. I remember my first day of school in Canada when I stood up to bow to my teacher and the rest of my class stared in complete confusion. I remember the adjustments I made as I stepped across cultural boundaries to learn as North Americans do – a culture shock that extends to how I approach teaching and learning as a Torontonian artist today.
I recently spent three weeks as an Apprentice Resident Artist Educator (ARAE) with YPT – a flurry of witnessing master artist educators lead multiple community programs, elementary and high school workshops, and extra-curricular events at the theatre. While working with one of the Resident Artist Educators, Rob Kempson, I thought to myself, “This is SO fun! Where’s the homework?! Why is there so much laughter?!” I had forgotten how much fun pure learning can be – and rightly so, since many of our school workshops focused on such plays as Seussical. It makes so much sense to approach talking/teaching about plays through play. Through the use of imaginative exercises, group poetry writing sessions, and the sharing of imaginative creatures of the students own making, we explored themes of community, friendship and the power of empathy.
Rob had a masterful way of teaching, a sense of dropping in nuggets of gold for the students to pick up and discover themselves. Previously, I was taught that the teacher is the master and, in quiet obedience, you must memorize and repeat the teacher’s lessons until you have assimilated them as your own thoughts; self-discovery and individual ownership of thoughts and lessons were discouraged. Under Rob’s guidance, it was a marvellous experience to witness students discovering how theatre and the arts can speak to their individual lives – and at their own pace and progress! It provides a learning that is communal, a learning that gestures towards ownership, and a learning that asks for deeper engagement cerebrally, kinaesthetically and, most importantly, playfully! When we have fun learning, we approach subjects with an openness, curiosity and whimsy that allows for divergent and tangential ideas that we can juggle like Lego pieces.
As I progressed further into my residency at YPT, I began taking on more responsibility in leading warm ups, theatre exercises and writing sessions – really putting into practice the synthesis of my personal experiences learning in the theatre, as well as unlearning the slightly more strict ways I was brought up to teach and learn. I remember having a difficult time focusing a group of students for a personal letter writing exercise. The group was a tad resistant to share their pieces out of fear of embarrassment. No one wanted to participate. I thought to myself, “My Hong Kong teachers would have given us all detentions by now!” However, I immediately disassembled this train of thought and instead reflected, “How do I ask these students to share their personal truths, with warmth, generosity and completely free of judgment?” “How do I respect their stories and empower these students to share out of playing?” With the help of another wonderful ARAE, Luke Reece, with whom I was co-teaching, we began by sharing our own writing, laughing at ourselves to remove the threat of embarrassment. By doing so, we found a way to ignite the students’ curiosity in stories from the other (simply, stories that exist outside of our lived experiences). Eventually, at least half a dozen letters were shared and at the end of the workshop, one of the students said, “I learned something new about friends I thought I already knew everything about.”
That is the true gem and prize of teaching: to instil a curiosity on subjects we may deem “common knowledge”, to learn how to unlearn what we think we know about anything – that is the biggest take-away from my time as an ARAE.
As I continue my journey as a playwright/performer in Toronto, I intend to stay open, to constantly ask myself, “Yes, but what else? What’s deeper? What else can I learn?” I will strive to share through generosity, to write without self-judgement, to learn to unlearn my artistic habits – my “THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE” mentality – and my self-policing/self-disciplinary process of art-making.
When we say we know something, there is ownership there. There is confidence there. I would argue, however, that when we say we know something, we may have prematurely decided that that’s all we need to know – and the learning may stop right there. Instead, listen more deeply, witness more openly, and learn to unlearn generously. Allow new questions to flow right in, to mull and debate over, but most importantly, to be shared wholeheartedly.
Jeff Ho is a Toronto-based performer, playwright and arts educator from Hong Kong. As a theatre maker, Jeff is developing his first piece, trace, with the support of Factory Theatre, b current theatre and the 2015 Banff Playwrights Colony. Currently, Jeff is a member of the 2016 Stratford Playwright’s Retreat, the Playwright-in-Residence with Nightswimming Theatre 2016-2017, a member of the Cahoots Hot House Writers Unit and is working on a modern adaptation of Antigone for Young People’s Theatre. Jeff is the Apprentice Artistic Director to Nina Lee Aquino at Factory Theatre for their 2016–2017 season. As an emerging arts educator intent on nurturing theatrical voices from diverse perspectives, Jeff has worked as the Writer’s Circle Facilitator for the Paprika Festival and is thrilled to be an Assistant Resident Artist Educator with Young People’s Theatre in 2016! Jeff is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada.