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(photo credit: Aimee Neistat)
On any other night the courtyard outside the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa would only be crossed by a modest number of fringe theater-goers and tourists exploring the ancient city. But on a warm spring night during Pessah, a theater carnival had the stone-paved square packed solid.
The creative minds behind these shows were first-year acting, dance, design and directing students at the Kibbutzim College of Education, who were participating in the school's fringe theater initiative Artistic Hyde Park.
According to Frida Shohan, artistic coordinator of AHP, the project aims to harness the stage's potential for making condensed political, social and contemporary statements. Each year students are provided with a topic on life in Israel, from which they create short theatrical pieces that express their opinions. Past themes have included "Walls and Barriers," "Foreign Workers" and "Wedding Ceremonies and Jewish Nuptials." In 2009, the project's sixth year, the theme was "Education."
Acting and dance students dramatized political statements about the failings of the education system in Israel, while the design students created displays that acknowledge educators and educational approaches that influence Israeli schooling.
"We aren't critiquing the education system as though it were something outside of ourselves. We're critiquing it while keeping in mind that we are part of it," said Shohan.
"All of us share a feeling that the education system has turned into a type of jail for teachers, who cannot express their own personalities and creativity in the face of their students, their meager salaries or the set syllabi that may not suit them... [The system] demands change from all directions," she said.
Acting student Elad Aharon, 29, played the role of a pupil doped up on Ritalin, a psychostimulant indicated in the treatment for attention deficit, hyperactivity and narcolepsy. Drowsy, semi-unconscious and drooling in his sleep, Aharon sat by the staff room door and by the end of the teacher's desk, while four teachers garbed in trench coats raved about his exemplary behavior. The teachers made their way through audience members exposing oversized boxes of Ritalin tucked within the folds of their coats like black market watch salesmen, offering the drug as the solution to all classroom behavioral problems.
"Today, the fastest and easiest solution to classroom interruptions is Ritalin," said Aharon. He claims that teachers encourage the use of the drug because they find it difficult to control their classrooms and deal with difficult students.
"The impact is that children who didn't need [Ritalin] from the start take it and become victims to its terrible side effects," argued Aharon, adding that another impact is that some parents are so repelled by the overuse of the drug that they refuse to give it to their children, even when it is needed.
Aharon does not believe the Ritalin phenomenon is specific to Israel. He said Israel simply followed in the footsteps of the Western world.
Miki Maor, a school principal, thought the display was thought-provoking but took such an extreme stance that it presented teachers' motives inaccurately. "In fact, the teachers and the principals are the victims. I invite people to come to my school and see what really happens [in the classroom]," she stated.
Maor's friend said that she was opposed to prescribing Ritalin. "[Teachers] wanted to give my son Ritalin and I wouldn't agree under any circumstances because he's simply a wonderful child," she said. She recognized the characters in the display, who made comments like, 'He's such a wonderful student, he's quiet, he does exactly what we say' and sympathized with the unfortunate boy sitting by the table in a trance. "I think it's a fantastic display," she said.
"[The display] is intended to be extreme in order to cause people to hesitate or take precautions. We are not saying that nobody needs [Ritalin]... we need to find a golden [middle] path... where children who really need it will receive it and those who do not need it and who can find alternative solutions to their problems and disturbances will find them. At this point in time we are situated on two extremes," responded Aharon.
A thick sea of audience members moves freely from display to display, catching short glimpses or staying for an extended viewing of each act, according to their interest or attention span. Through this sea roams a red-suited young woman with a key stuck in her back. Her face is white, make up is perfect and her eyes are glazed over as though her soul was snatched out of her body, leaving only a shell. As she wanders through audience members with sharp, jolting movements she recites sentences all too familiar to anyone who remembers their schoolteachers, including "I have eyes in the back of my head," and "The bell is for me, not for you."
Every so often the Doll Teacher stops talking and moving with a sudden halt. Audience members must now wind her key in order for her to operate.
Mai Sella, who created and performs the role of the Doll Teacher, says her display is a criticism of how the Education Ministry limits teachers to such an extent that they become toys of the ministry. On the key in the Doll Teacher's back are the words 'Property of the Education Ministry,' which Sella says stresses that teachers rely on the ministry to "activate" them and that they may only act according to the ministry's instructions.
"[The education system] is very limiting and does not allow teachers to teach as they really would like to," said Sella. In her opinion, the learning material, pressure of the bagrut (high school matriculation exams) and the entire structure of the school system limit teachers from expressing their creativity and teaching in a way that would really interest them. At the end of the day, according to Sella, students get hard-to-relate-to robots as teachers.
Sella argues that the pressure on teachers embitters them and at the end of the day, nobody is satisfied. "It's problematic and needs to be changed. A syllabus is necessary but it needs to be [flexible] and teachers should be able to express their creativity," she said.
Twenty-nine-year-old audience member, Illa Ovnat, said Sella's display depicted her personal feelings toward teachers. "When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but I don't anymore. I think it's because teachers fall into those clichÃ©s and don't succeed in maintaining a clear mind. Something got mixed up over time in that profession," she said.
However, Ovnat did continue on to tertiary studies after high school. "I feel that I turned out really fine. So it seems the [education] system does work," she said.
Three girls in sports uniforms warm up at the starting line of a racing track. They move in unison, stretching their quadriceps, biceps and calf muscles. Each one's face is focused, serious and ready for the race. Along the starting line is written, "Hello, First Grade" (Shalom Kita Aleph). When the sports teacher gives the signal, the girls begin running to the finishing line.
But their competition is fixed. The teacher has tied ropes to each of her students and controls the speed at which each one can run, dictating who will win the race. She trips up student A, who falls flat on her face. She holds back student C so that no matter how much energy the student exerts, she can't beat the teacher's resistance. The rope attached to student B lies limp on the ground. She can run free, reach the finish line and win the race.
With a proud smile the teacher approaches the winner, puts a medal around her neck and holds up her hand in victory.
"[Our presentation] talks about the teacher's control over the student's ability to achieve certain grades. The teacher nurtures a student who he or she believes will succeed and doesn't invest a lot of energy in a student that he or she doesn't want to succeed," said Dana Itzhaki, who played the role of the student C, who received the middle grade.
"What happens in the end is that it is very predictable - who will succeed and who will fail," said Itzhaki.
Though the display portrays a physical education class, Itzhaki explained that it addressed all aspects of education: grades, achievement and competition between students, where the question is always asked: "What did you get?"
"The teacher encourages that competition because she is, in fact, the one who starts the race," said Itzhaki. "Instead of supporting and nurturing [a weak student] and trying to encourage him or her to succeed, the teacher encourages the good student to excel and gives up on the weak student, saying 'There's nothing to be done. It's just the way you are.'"
Audience member Cohi Oren-Latan interpreted the message behind this play almost exactly as Itzhaki described it, describing the happening as a "Halo effect."
"If the teacher believes in you, you succeed, and if the teacher thinks you're not worth it and won't succeed, you fail," she said. "Teachers, like all human beings, go where it's easy. If the student is nice and the teacher feels comfortable with them, they nurture them. If the student is a bit 'special,' challenges the teacher and makes [work] hard for the teacher, [the teacher] immediately repels them."
Oren-Latan works in educational coaching, teaching teachers techniques for classroom success. "Teachers must relate to the more difficult students as a challenge and not as a problem. They should not ostracize them, [but rather] create a more advanced [learning] process for them: nurture them more, look for their talents and see that in every one of them there is a special [potential]," she said.
At the beginning of the creative process of AHP 2009, students were presented with two days of lectures on this year's topic. Among the lecturers was 79-year-old author Poochoo (Yisrael Wisler), who has written approximately 40 books and plays, many of which discuss school-related themes.
After the lectures, students were sent home to research the topic individually. Students approached the AHP staff with ideas and received advice and assistance from the staff while developing their displays.
Sella came up with the idea for the Doll Teacher after she dressed up as a doll for Purim. Over the holiday, she began acting like a doll. When the time came to produce ideas and prepare displays, she remembered her costume and felt that the character of a doll suited her feelings about teachers and the social comment she wanted to make.
Two ideas were combined to produce the final "Race to the Grade." One was about a student who doesn't develop and progress in the school system and the other idea discussed competition among students. These ideas came from the participants' personal experiences.
"I remember that when I was young, I was a very good student and learning was easy for me. I got a certificate of excellence once and my father asked me, 'Why did you get the certificate? Why you and not someone who is weak and made an effort?' Our display really reflects this; that the student who [gets better grades] will receive the certificate, not the one who made an effort," said Itzhaki.
According to Shohan, participating in AHP gives students the opportunity to experience freedom of expression, deal with face-to-face confrontations with audiences and learn how to collaborate with fellow artists to create a final theatrical product.
"Theater is a visual and verbal art," said Aharon, "It has the ability to express everything you want. It is enough to just see the student opposite [the boxes of Ritalin] half communicating with the world in order to transfer the message. It shocks people. It causes people to identify with it. From that identification comes the statement, consideration and change."