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Theater in the Classroom

Interview with Kristina Golmohammadi

headshot of Kristina Golmohammadi
Kristina Kristina Golmohammadi: Actor, Education Director for Children’s Theater Company, and Senior Teaching Artist with Center for Arts Education

Kristina is a teaching artist with the Center for Arts Education in New York City. She uses theater to teach creative thinking skills, social studies and even English as a second language. She truly has a gift. She loves her students to their core and she calls forth from them insights and qualities they didn’t know they had. Not only that, she also walks beside them and demands the same thing of herself. Here is her story...


Back home in Sweden I was an actress, working and touring with different theaters. When my children were born, I decided to stay home with them and study pedagogy. Then I was asked to start up the Theater and Drama Department at one of Stockholm’s most progressive and innovative performing arts high schools in Stockholm. This experience really made me think deeply about the educational and aesthetic value of using theater in different parts of education.

Since I had never been to a formal state acting school, I learned my craft in the theaters—I learned by doing. So when I began to teach acting to the graduating students, it really made me think about the processes I used as an actor and then to really accompany the students, explore with them, mirror back to them where they were in their process, and also just learn from them. It was an amazing experience, because it trained me to really sense where they were at in their own developmental process. You sense it. You can feel in your own body where they are at and where they should go. Then I had to find words that would resonate with them so they would understand themselves where they were at and try to inspire them to be courageous enough to take the next step. And to accompany them along this path. So what you actually do is you walk with them. You are asking them to join you, because you believe in them, even if they don’t. And to take a leap of faith. I would say to them, “Jump! You will always land or end up somewhere. Just jump!”  So that’s how I became so enamored with teaching. Because it’s the most amazing, wonderful, humbling, and gratifying thing you could do.

Now I’m the Education Director for the Children’s Theater Company and I’m also a Teaching Artist with the Center for Arts Education in New York, where I teach theater in three different programs:

  • 21st Century Learning Skills is aimed at developing the skills that leaders in education and business have identified as really crucial for the job market of tomorrow: critical thinking skills, reflective thinking, creativity, intrapersonal skills, interpersonal skills, intercultural skills, etc. So by using inquiry-based approaches and the artistic process, we are teaching these skills—skills that are a natural part of learning any art form.

  • Arts Engaged Initiative is a federally-funded three-year research program aimed at integrating theater into the social studies curriculum. So I collaborate and co-plan closely with the social studies teachers and share weekly lessons with them during five months of each school year. Luckily for me, I get to follow the same students for three years, from 6th grade to 8th grade. This is really rare and just a wonderful opportunity.

  • English Language Literacy through the Arts (ELLA) is geared towards teaching English to (mostly) immigrant children using theater. I am really amazed by these students. They come early on Saturday morning when they could have slept in. They come, rain or shine, and they are so open, motivated and just lovely.

Pompeii through Theater

To illustrate what we do, I’ll give you an example of the project I did with the ELLA students this summer, which was very successful.

We worked with the curriculum from the National Geographic Society for 4th graders on natural disasters. For me, what is important is that you have to tell a story. So I decided to work with the story of Pompeii.

First I had the children listen to different sounds of natural disasters: a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake and a volcano eruption. Using different senses stimulates the imagination.

Then I found a painting, called “The Last Day of Pompeii,” which is a very dramatic scene by a 19th century Russian painter. Each student got a copy of the picture and we did a close reading of the painting. I asked them to really look at the painting. Not interpret it, just look closely. What do you see? What is there? Usually this means you can put your finger on something and say, “This is a house.” Then I had them discuss what they saw. After that, I asked them, “Based on what you see, what do you think this is?” This is when they interpret the painting. And they discussed that too. Basically this was a See, Think, Wonder exercise—a thinking skills exercise. Then I asked them, “Based on what you see and what you think it is, what do you wonder about?” And of course they came up with all different kinds of questions. Finally I told them the name of the painting: “The Last Day of Pompeii.”

Karl Briullov's paiting "The Last Day of Pompeii"
Karl Briullov - The Last Day of Pompeii*

Then we went back and I provided a lot of facts about where and when this happened. We have to go back in time. We looked at the map to find Italy. Where is Mount Vesuvius? And I told them the story about what happened in Pompeii.

After that I prepared a gallery walk where I had images of what scientists think Pompeii looked like before the eruption, what it looks like now, images of the eruption—all these fantastic images. Under each picture were printed a lot of facts: about the day, the heat, how much stone was blasted, all these things that actually factual happened. So they walked around and looked at these images, like in a museum.

Then we came to the arts part of it. I asked them to position themselves in a tableau, a frozen scene. I divided them into groups and each group had to come up with an image or tableau of what they think life looked like in Pompeii the day before the eruption. What were people doing? What were they thinking? I’d told them that actually the day before the eruption, the people were holding a feast for the fire god named Vulcan. That’s where the word volcano comes from. Before, the eruption, there was no word for volcano in the Roman language, because they didn’t know what it was.

Then I had them do a tableau of what was happening during the eruption. I told them they could look at the painting we’d been studying or they could use their imagination.

Finally they did a tableau of the day after the eruption. They were really amazing. In this last picture, of course, they all lay down—they were all dead. I’d shown them images of the people of Pompeii, petrified, instantly turned to stone. It’s very famous, if you’ve been there or seen it. They are in these cringed positions because they died in seconds from the blast.

As the children were lying there, I asked them to be completely quiet and still for 15 seconds in these positions. “What do you think goes on in the mind of someone who watches their whole world crumble around them, completely destroyed?” There was such silence, you could hear a pin drop. It was really powerful. Then I had them to slowly sit up and share what they thought.

One of these girls was very quiet. Because they knew that before the eruption, there had been some rumblings in the city. Half of the people thought, “Oh let’s leave the city.” But the other half stayed, for various reasons. And so I asked her “What did you think about?” And she was silent for a couple of seconds. I could just see her inner fires working and she said, “Well, I feel guilty.”

Mind you, this is an ELL child. I said, “What makes you say that?”

She said, “Because if I would have listened to the people who left the city, I would not be responsible for the death of my children.”

Wow. This is a fourth grader. She just stepped completely into that experience. And then she was silent for a couple of seconds and she said, “And now I feel sad.”

I said, “Yes, but that is not a bad thing. Because we don’t know the names of these people. They lived once. But now they are gone. Today you lent them your bodies and your thoughts. If you can do that, if you can step into the life of a person and truly feel what that is, it makes you a better person.”

When something like that happens, it’s worth months of work. That’s your reward. Being in the room with this girl and seeing when it happens. When something is changed for her in her inner self. That change is now there. You can’t retract it. It’s something that she will be able to use and develop from there.

This the power of the arts. You can slow down time. You can look at just one moment in time and look at all the different aspects involved. You cannot do that in real time as you live your life. But with the arts, you can suspend time. You can look at the human experience, at the consequences of their actions and why they made the choices they did.

Knowing how our brains work, besides our hearts and our souls, whatever you do or see is stored in your brain as a possible way to act. Even if you have never done it, or you’ve never been in that situation, now you know a possible way to act and react in a situation like this. The brain has already stored it. That’s why role play is very powerful. You can practice good choices. And it can make things different for you in your real life.

So I think the role of a teacher is to create the space where this can happen. You don’t know in advance who’s going to react to what. So you just have to prepare the possibility for this to happen. And it’s a process, because the students might be really silent. And then one day… Boom! Amazing things come out of them. You have to trust the process. And you have to work really hard to prepare everything so that this can happen.

That’s why I think teachers are so important. If you really understand the impact you have as a human being… Maxine Greene, one of this country’s great educational philosophers, talks about the “awakeness” that each teacher has to acquire. To be fully alive in every moment. To be able to create those environments and to be honest and truthful. Because that’s the only way the students will respond to you.

What is Prosperity?

Usually, we think of prosperity in terms of material things. But I think prosperity is not just that. It’s also about human development. It’s the opportunity to prosper.

I read once that each human being is animated by two forces: the thirst for knowledge and the longing for beauty and harmony. In order for people to prosper, you have to provide them opportunities for both. The thirst for knowledge: children want to learn. If learning is fun and meaningful, they become excited and curious. But unfortunately, in many cases, this excitement and personal engagement gets killed in school Of course there are schools that are different, and teachers who are fantastic. I’ve met some of them and I love them. And I learn from them. And they’re amazing. So there’s hope.

But prosperity, for me, is tied to the ability for everyone to prosper and to grow, as a human being. And I think you cannot do that, if you don’t look at the whole person. To see who they are. Look to nurture their creativity, their ability to imagine and to look at the magic of life. Because life is magical. To be able to see that and to explore it and still be open. I believe that if children are given the chance to develop that sensitivity and awakeness that Maxine Greene talks about, you will impact their lives in ways they cannot even imagine. That’s my connection to prosperity—the ability for every man, woman and child to prosper, as a human being.

I believe in the spiritual reality and I think that on this journey in life, we are actually in the process of becoming human, becoming who we are, who we truly are. In that sense, true education is essential.

Most Valuable Lesson

I have to translate a saying in Swedish into English: it’s about letting yourself go and trust that if you’ve done the work, you will end up somewhere. It’s like I say to my students, “Jump! Be courageous. Jump! You’ll always end up somewhere.” To let yourself go and not to think too much about yourself. To forget myself. Forget me and just try to become an instrument for the process I know and believe in.

Imagine a World

Imagine a world where everyone contributes and everyone benefits. What would it look like?

I think it would be a world where everyone knows his or her true value, is encouraged to grow and develop, to be able to serve their community and the world, and to see that they have something important to contribute to this advancement of a just and prosperous civilization. It’s a world where fear is not a problem. There would be no fear of what I don’t know. Because fear is the foundation of prejudice. Fear and ignorance. And if we could just take away those two things, I think so many things would change. To have courage to explore and to be humble and to learn from others and to be open. What a leap! That is a world I would be honored to help build.

*“Karl Brullov – The Last Day of Pompeii – Google Art Project” by Karl BriullovtAFrCGFUhXM8Jg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level scaled down from second highest. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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