Theatre in the Classroom
Who was your favorite teacher growing up? What is it that made them special? Maybe you liked their attitude, or you learned something particularly interesting from them. Maybe they made learning fun. Maybe they made you feel like they truly listened to you. As children, teachers leave lasting impressions. These individuals become part of our daily lives at a time when we’re still discovering the world and ourselves; it’s no wonder many of us can remember the names of outstanding teachers years after we’ve parted ways with the education system.
One such teacher who strives to leave a lasting positive impact on her students is Jasmine Renee Thomas, a 2012 Southwestern University alumna who graduated with a double major in theatre and communications. Thomas, who recently won the Teacher of the Year Award at Spring ISD for her work as a writing teacher and has started her own tutoring business during the pandemic, understands the importance of education not only for children, but for people of all ages throughout their lives. On the surface, her current work may seem unrelated to her theatre degree, but in a recent virtual interview, I had the opportunity to hear Thomas herself explain how her experiences as a theatre-maker have shaped her career and personal development up to the present day.
Educating a future educator
When Thomas first started applying for colleges, she had a very different life path in mind. Her original plan was to major in broadcast journalism with a minor in theatre. It was only when she arrived at SU, which she chose to attend because of the generous scholarship package the school had offered her, that she decided to lean more heavily into theatre. Even then, she had no interest in pursuing a career in education.
Then, while exploring new interests at Southwestern, Thomas decided to join Operation Achievement, the University’s mentorship program that offers assistance to middle school students in Georgetown ISD. This introduced her to a whole new world of opportunities. “I never wanted to be in education, ever,” she recalls. “I always liked working with kids, but I never wanted to be in education, so [Operation Achievement] really opened my eyes to a lot. I wouldn’t even have known of that if I hadn’t reached out and said ‘okay, what are some clubs I want to join? What are some organizations I want to be a part of?’”
It is because of this experience and others like it that Thomas recommends current and future Southwestern students “find as many organizations [as you can] that even possibly spark your interest, because you don’t know what you’ll be interested in.” Thomas says that her experience with various Southwestern clubs and organizations “made everything feel even more like home because I felt very fulfilled outside of the classroom … and when you put all of your identity in the classroom, that can make or break you really quickly. But when you’re allowed to understand who you are and where you are and the context of your own growth … you’re really allowing yourself to just see how you bloom in these different departments.”
When asked about how her time at Southwestern has influenced her as a person, Thomas emphasizes two qualities of the school that had massive impacts. The first is the small campus’s close-knit community. “I will say that just how small Southwestern is really allowed me to be able to focus on my own personal growth throughout college, and I don’t know how many people can say that, when you’re being lost in a sea on larger campuses … and so I think I was able to get so much out of my education because of how close-knit SU made the campus feel,” says Thomas.
The other major way in which Southwestern impacted Thomas’s personal growth was the push for critical thinking skills that comes with a liberal arts education. “I think that especially in this day and age, with how social media is, with how news is, it’s important that one understands that you can’t take everything for face value. The importance of analyzing information, the importance of looking back before you share information and saying, ‘how biased is this? What side am I promoting by this statement? Who could I possibly be offending by this statement?’— having that open mind [is something] I definitely gathered from the high asks of our academics at Southwestern.”
Connections between disciplines, connections between alumni
By the time Thomas graduated from Southwestern, she had already been hired to work for Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that enlists select college graduates to teach in one of 52 low-income communities across the country. This opportunity was made possible through Thomas’s work with Operation Achievement. She moved to Rice University to complete her training for Teach for America, then started her teaching career in a classroom where she “specifically was working with immigrant students, refugees, asylees, [from] 14 different countries, [speaking] 12 different languages.”
After two years of working with Teach for America (TFA), Thomas felt ready to pursue acting in New York. “I was able to do that comfortably because I got a remote job being an English as a Second Language (ESL) consultant for TFA online … the idea of ‘I don’t have to learn this, but I think it would behoove me to learn this,’ … I think I totally got from SU. And so because of that I was able to get this remote job where I was just learning more about being an ESL teacher, and then making online classes and forums for other ESL teachers to come and learn tips and tricks.”
Even when Thomas came back to Houston from New York, the connections and experiences she had cultivated as a theatre student at Southwestern continued to follow her. “I meet this lady,” she says in reference to fellow alumna Cathy Bencivenga ’04, “and she’s asking me all of these questions about my experiences, and I’m just answering them like it’s a lunch alumni meetup,” Thomas explains. “Then she ends up saying ‘I think I’m going to offer you a job. Come down to the Alley Theatre.’ And I’m like, whoa! I was not there to get a job; I was coming here for free food … It just works out that way.”
Bencivenga, to whom I reached out for comment, also recalls this moment fondly. “As we casually got to know each other over lunch, I became more and more interested in [Thomas’s] unique and balanced background in both education and theatre,” Bencivenga says. “At the time, the Alley’s Education and Community Engagement department was doing a lot of Arts Integration work … and instantly I knew Jasmine would make an incredible Teaching Artist.” She also points out what made Thomas a great part of the team: “Jasmine has never met a challenge she didn’t throw her whole self into solving … She is one of the most dedicated teachers, artists, and humans I have ever had the pleasure of working with.”
It was through this connection with Bencivenga that Thomas was introduced to the Alley Theatre, where her dual passions for theatre and education united. Thomas notes that “a big thing that SU taught me in my theatre training is just how much of it is in your brain, and I think that I use that — and the ideas of critical thinking and responsible decision-making — to really influence not just what I’m doing on-stage … but also how I interact with the students and how I make this arts integration teaching worthwhile.” This enhanced Thomas’s work as a manager of arts integration programming for the Alley Theatre, where she oversaw four different programs. These programs involved teaching artists who would go into classrooms and teach core concepts to students “not using paper and pencil, not using books, but just using their actor’s toolbox: their body, their voice, and their imagination.” Aside from directly teaching students, Thomas trained several teaching artists to engage and educate students through this theatrical style of learning.
At the Alley Theatre, Thomas took a particular interest in teaching social and emotional learning, or SEL. SEL encompasses a number of life skills, including the ability to communicate empathy, manage one’s emotions, form and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. It’s easy to see how SEL and theatre go hand-in-hand. “My ability to think so critically about the theatre side of things allows me to more fully explain how it involves the social and emotional learning,” says Thomas. “When we’re talking about being an actor, the first thing we have to do is be present; we have to be aware that we are in this space and time. Well, that’s self-awareness, which is one of the basic foundations of social and emotional learning, and it just grows from there.”
Today, Thomas works as a fourth grade writing teacher at Booker Elementary School. Although her subject is not strictly theatre-based, she still uses her theatre training both in her classroom and as a way to help other teachers introduce new learning strategies to their students. Thomas states that theatre training “has allowed me to tap into that world more, which allowed me to be better at my job and getting teachers to do the strategies that the Alley [Theatre] was teaching them to do, and now that I’m in the classroom, I just get to see all that play. Even if I was introduced to these strategies, I don’t think I would be able to fully implement them with purpose if I had not had my educational background as I got it in theatre from Southwestern, for sure.”
Thomas has also recently started her own tutoring and consulting company, which can be found @tutortime_missj on Instagram. Her subjects for tutoring include Preschool Skills, Academic Remediation and Homework Help, and of course, Theatre and SEL. Thomas finds particular value in one-on-one teaching, and even in her current class of 22 kids, she makes time to connect with them individually so that she can better understand their educational needs.
When asked about the most rewarding part of being a teacher, Thomas had this to say: “I think it is building connections with students … seeing their confidence because of having a more catered educational experience is probably one of the most rewarding things for me.” She is also highly aware of the impact that a teacher can have on a student’s life for years to come. “When you make connections with students, it sticks. What you teach them sticks; they remember it, and not just ‘two plus two is four,’” she says. “They remember that confidence is an important factor in their lives. That’s beautiful.”
Lessons from a lifelong learner
Nearly a decade after her journey with Southwestern, Thomas’s “lifelong learner” mindset—a phrase she uses to describe herself as someone who strives to continue her personal development and education outside of a classroom setting—has allowed her to reflect on what advice she might give to her past undergrad self. “I wish I had learned playing piano, or just any instrument,” she considers. “Just because, as a singer … I wish that I had more knowledge just on the music side of things. What’s amazing is that SU allows you to do that. It’s so easy; I’m not a music major, music minor, music education, none of that, but I could have very easily picked up one of the studio times or something to get better for myself.”
“How am I developing my individual skills? I wish that I had that mindset going into SU and during my time there. How am I developing what I bring to the table?” With these questions in mind, Thomas recommends that current and future students take on a mindset of continual growth and reach for any opportunities that are available to them at Southwestern.
Finally, Thomas reflects on what her hopes are for the future of Southwestern. “I hope that SU continues to ignite a passion in future students, current students, and alumni in making connections with people … with similar ideologies, different ideologies, and finding where those common grounds lie,” she says. “I think that we’re in a really weird place as a country, and a school like Southwestern can be a beautiful experience in reminding people that we have so much more in common than we do otherwise, and [asking the question] ‘how do we reach goals to the best of all of our abilities?’ I appreciate that SU instilled that in me, and I just hope that we can continue to say that.”