Dr. Diane's Adventures in Learning

Keeping Imagination Alive: Adventures in Learning with Selah Theatre's LaTasha Do'zia

August 31, 2022 Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor Episode 5
Dr. Diane's Adventures in Learning
Keeping Imagination Alive: Adventures in Learning with Selah Theatre's LaTasha Do'zia
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What makes theatre such an important part of building connections -- both in school and out of school? And how can theatre help foster imagination and self-awareness as part of a strong STEM/STEAM program? Meet Selah Theatre Project's Founding Artistic Director, LaTasha Do'zia. Latasha is a visionary artist and entrepreneur who uses the arts to help build a stronger, kinder, and more creative community. As a teaching artist, LaTasha has used theatre as a tool for teacher development, private business communication, counselor training, mental health intervention, and social justice movements.  In 2021, LaTasha was appointed by the Governor to serve on the Virginia Commission for the Arts,.  It has been my privilege to lead professional development workshops on multicultural picture books and STEAM connections with LaTasha. We are co-teaching at Shenandoah University, where we explore bringing multicultural picture books to life. Full show notes.

[02:07] We talk about LaTasha's personal adventure in learning and how she reached a place where she owns and operates her own theatre company. "I discovered theater when I was six years old," LaTasha says. "My mother said that I was too dramatic and I needed to put that energy somewhere." 

We've said this before on the podcast, but books have an amazing power to provide windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors for children (and adults) as they navigate establishing their identities and figuring out who they are in the world. If you haven't read it yet, I strongly encourage you to check out Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's seminal work on the subject. At [04:27], we learn that LaTasha's favorite book from her childhood that also served as a mirror was John Steptoe's Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters.

We delve deeper into the creation of LaTasha's Selah Theatre Project, which she started 11 years ago. LaTasha offers a sneak peek at the new season, which includes What the Consitution Means to Me, Trouble In Mind, Macbeth, Akeelah and the Bee, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?   [06:51]  "We do 8 productions a year and it's a mixture of youth theater, teen theater, and community theater," she says. "We focus on diverse voices as much as possible. And diversity comes in so many ways. It's not just racial, it's also socioeconomic, it's also learning based. There's so much diversity in our group and we're very proud of that. We're small but mighty."

[16:58] I have been fortunate enough to work with LaTasha to help teachers and librarians unlock strategies for connecting multicultural picture books with STEAM for more engaged learning. We  incorporate drama into these wo

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[00:01] Dr Diane: Wonder, curiosity, connection. Where will your adventures take you? I'm Dr. Diane and thank you for joining me on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. On this edition of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we welcome a superwoman whom I happen to admire greatly. LaTasha Do'zia is the founding artistic director of Selah Theater Project, which works to enlighten, empower and unite people through the theatrical arts in order to build a stronger, kinder and more creative community. LaTasha is not a stranger to the stage. She's an accomplished performer with many credits in both regional and community theater. As a teaching artist, LaTasha has used theater as a tool for teacher development, private business, communication, counselor training, mental health intervention, and social justice movements. She has taught over 1000 students ranging in age from three to 18 during her career as a dramatic arts educator in the Shenandoah Valley. It has been my great privilege to co teach with LaTasha, both at Shenandoah University where we have taught a couple of college level courses together, and also working together in summer camps and in professional development for teachers and educators. So, without further ado, let's welcome LaTasha to the show. 

So, welcome to this edition of Adventures in Learning, LaTasha. I am thrilled to have you on the show today. You are truly a Renaissance woman. You're a small business owner and amazing teacher. I have been so fortunate to get to work with you in the arts and as a fellow presenter and now teaching a college class together this semester. And I'm just thrilled to have you on the show.

[01:52] LaTasha: Well, thanks for having me.

[01:54] Dr Diane: So LaTasha, I'm going to start with a question that I think everybody will be interested in. Can you describe your adventure in learning? What do you do now and how did you get there?

[02:07] LaTasha: My adventure in learning. Well, it started off kind of rocky. I was this very open and aggressive kiddo that was eager to learn, especially history was my biggest thing. And I really didn't grasp the importance of learning until, believe it or not, my junior year of high school. And I was always an honor roll student, that wasn’t an issue. But the power of knowledge did not come until the junior year of high school. And that's because I had a teacher that said, you know what, you have such a big mouth, we're going to make you earn some college money by putting you in oratorical competition. And I discovered these peers that were just as smart and talented as I was, and they have this ambition and this strive to constantly learn. And so I am in the space now where I use the arts as a way to filter education. I work a lot with younger kiddos that have learning delays or kiddos that have dyslexia because I'm dyslexic myself. And I had to learn how to travel educational world through that and also working with reading comprehension. So all of that is kind of a plus and benefit of being a theater kid.

[03:42] Dr Diane: And when did you discover theater?

[03:45] LaTasha: I discovered theater when I was six years old. My mother said that I was too dramatic and I needed to put that energy somewhere. So I started doing little shows, community theater shows, and really got more aggressive. In high school, I was part of the Governor's School for the Arts in Norfolk, which is a performing arts high school, and then went off to Shannon Door Conservatory. And now I have Selah Theater Project.

[04:13] Dr Diane: Awesome. And we're going to talk more deeply about Selah in a few minutes because I want everybody to understand how amazing your organization is. So we're going to get there, but we're going to continue back here at the beginning for just a few more minutes. What was your favorite book when you were a kid?

[04:27] LaTasha: My favorite book when I was a kid was Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters. It was probably my favorite book. It was the first book in elementary school that was introduced to me where characters looked like me and where one of the characters had sort of my name. My name is Tasha, and I think hers is Nyasha. And so I was like, whoa. And I love the story about how you have these two sisters and how they were polar opposites. And the one who led her path of kindness and compassion was the one who garnered the honor of becoming Queen of Village. So I really adored that book. And I found that that was just turned into musical not too long ago.

[05:17] Dr Diane: So does that mean that Selah will be doing that musical at some point?

[05:21] LaTasha: I don't know. The estate still owns it, so only Dallas Children's Theater has been able to perform it. But I was able to connect with the drummer that composed some of the music for it. And him and I are Facebook friends and we've gone back and forth just talking about the beauty of the story and how he was able to get into creating the music for it, which is African drumming and working with the djembe. It's really cool.

[05:50] Dr Diane: What an amazing example of bringing a picture book to life. And that actually gets me excited thinking about the course you and I are teaching this semester because we're both co teaching for Shenandoah University and we're teaching a class for first year students where we're going to be bringing multicultural picture books off the page and onto the stage. And I'm thinking that's such a very cool connection as we're talking to these students.

[06:17] LaTasha: Yeah, it's all about elements, right? How do we bring something that is two dimensional to being basically 4D live on stage? And how do we connect the audience with written word? And that's the beauty of theater, though, right? Because that's what we do. We take written texts and we are able to create and breathe life into it.

[06:41] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And so actually, this is a great place for you to talk a little bit more deeply about Selah Theater. Tell us what it is and what prompted you to start it.

[06:51] LaTasha: Selah Theatre Project is my baby and I started it eleven years ago. I started as a private traveling drama teacher and I worked with different parks and recreation, just trying to bring the artistic opportunities for young people during the course of school year. A lot of theater companies mainly work with youth in the summertime. And I get that the young people are off and they have more time to focus. But I wanted to be able to show that they are capable of doing great theater work during the course of the year and how it boosts their wants and their desire and their need to learn. To grow and to become great human beings. So with that outlet, it kind of connects with learning. All of my students graduated in the top of their class. They've gone off to college or they've developed some kind of trade and it stems from them being able to build up that self confidence during their teen years or middle school teen years with Selah h. And we expanded in 2014 to incorporating adults. So some parents were getting a little jealous of their kids on stage all the time and having this great connection with community. And so we expanded to community theater. So we do eight productions a year and it's a mixture of youth theater, teen theater, and community theater. We focus on diverse voices as much as possible. And diversity comes in so many ways. It's not just racial, it's also socioeconomic, it's also learning basis. There's so much diversity in our group and we're very proud of that. We're small but mighty.

[08:50] Dr Diane: So can you give us a sneak preview of what this season is going to look like?

[08:54] LaTasha: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So our first show is coming up in late September and that's going to be What the Constitution Means to Me, which is a three person cast, and I am super stoked about it. Can't believe we got the rights to it.

[09:10] Dr Diane: That's incredible. For those of you who don't know, that's an award winning play that has just come off a national tour.

[09:17] LaTasha: Yeah, it's just come off a national tour. It's also already streaming online and so I just cannot believe we have the rights to that. But we're going to be able to bring that to our small town. And it's a beautiful, wonderful piece that presents all sides of the purpose of the Constitution, what it means to us as citizens of the US. And it gives a great opportunity for a teenager to debate an older woman on whether to abolish or keep the Constitution. So it's a beautiful, well constructed theatrical piece. From there we're going to do a murder mystery, which is always fun, but that's just the one weekend or special event thing. We have Trouble in Mind that is coming up, which is going to be great in November. Our Christmas show is going to be Seusstacular Christmas Carol, which is a story that I wrote based off of Dr. Seuss rhyming couplets. And then we have Macbeth in the spring. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in honor of Sidney Poitier — we do one classic a year, so that's going to be our classic. The last Days of Judas Iscariot is going to be in April, and our final show is going to be Akeelah and the Bee.

[10:33] Dr Diane: I cannot wait for this season. Sign me up for season tickets now. It sounds amazing, but we're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to explore some of the ways that I've seen you connect children's literature, the arts, and STEAM.

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[11:55] Dr. Diane: All right, so welcome back, LaTasha. I am so excited for this season at Selah . And as somebody who has gotten to teach with you, I'm so thrilled to be able to continue this conversation. One of the things I've noticed that you do so well with kids and adults is you help them to be able to see beyond what's written on the page. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the mashups that I've seen you do to get kids thinking and to get them creative.

[12:18] LaTasha: So one thing that I love about my work, especially with younger kids, and is being able to keep their imagination alive. They are surrounded by so many world issues and problems that when I was younger, I was completely unaware of. Right. But this generation is fully aware of what's happening around them. So the imagination can die sometimes. And so to keep the imagination alive, they created fairy tale mashups. And what that is is taking two familiar stories that the kiddos know. So, for example, we've done the Wizard of Oz and Brave and we've done the Wizard of Oz a lot with Peter Pan and we've done Peter Pan and Dr. Seuss. We've combined all of these great stories. So we take two or three stories and we create a brand new problem. And we have to create a brand new problem because we have to figure out how to bring all of these characters from these three different worlds together. And so the kids really get excited about when we finally finalize our laundry list of stories and books and movies. They get really excited about creating a new problem and how to make sure that each of them has time and space on stage. I usually take the fairy tale mashup idea. I take one night, I write it, and I come back and I give it to the kids the next time I see them. And then we put it up and put it on. In the summertime, it's a one week intensive. And during the school year, though, it's a whole class. Nine weeks is what we do. So it's a really cool concept to get the kids excited. They love choosing their characters. They love telling their parents what the story is going to be. Sometimes the parents are confused right off the bat, but when they see it and they're like, oh, wow, this is unique, and I've done it with the adults as well.

[14:21] Dr Diane: That's awesome. One of the things you and I have done is we train teachers and librarians on how to use STEAM and multicultural picture books as a way to get kids hooked and engaged.

[14:34] LaTasha: Right.

[14:35] Dr Diane: Why are the arts so important in STEAM? Why is it important that drama is part of that process?

[14:41] LaTasha: It's problem solving, STEAM, really if you think about STEAM. STEAM is about being innovative, right? Being innovative and creating a solution for a standing problem or creating a solution for a possible way to alleviate stress or inconvenience or anything like that. And with the arts, we have a way of creating critical thinkers and problem solvers. And I think of my daughter immediately. She's six, and she loves both the world of science and the world of theater, which is why I call you a lot when she has science questions, because I don't know.

[15:24] Dr Diane: Well, that's what I love. She and I could both go to the zoo and look at all the animals all day long.

[15:29] LaTasha: Yes. And she is now into robots and coding. She wants to learn how to code.

[15:36] Dr Diane: Oh, that's fabulous.

[15:37] LaTasha: Yeah. And so she wants to be able to bring the world of robots to theater in her little mind, trying to figure out how that would work and what that looks like. So we're just starting with the basics of building robots at this point. And she can still have her love of theater. And as she continues to grow and develop, she'll be able to figure out because Mama's brain can't do it, but she'll be able to figure out how she wants to bring the world of AI to theater. And I think that's pretty unique and significant to such a budding member of generation Alpha.

[16:17] Dr Diane: Absolutely. Well, I've got a couple of books for Juju right now. Have her check out How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster. They're both by Josh Funk and Sara Palacios, and they're picture books that you would be able to adapt immediately for Miss Drama Queen.

[16:32] LaTasha: That's awesome.

[16:34] Dr Diane: There's also The Wild Robot (Peter Brown) and A Rover’s Story (Jasmine Warga), and I think Juju would absolutely love both of those books.

[16:42] LaTasha: That's awesome. Yeah, she will love it. For her birthday, we got her a solar operating robot.

[16:58] Dr Diane: That's fabulous. And I love it when they can make those connections. And so that's exactly what we do. We build the STEAM challenges with the books, with the arts, and it makes them so much stronger, both as students and also as teachers. I mean, that's the fun part.

[17:14] LaTasha: The fun part is giving teachers elements to think outside of the norm, to think outside of the box of how can I get my kiddos excited about what they are about to learn and encounter? And so even with just a one day or two day training that we do with these teachers or even librarians, they are able to think bigger and broader than just sit down and do this worksheet. It's hands on and interactive.

[17:42] Dr Diane: And I've always called that showtime. Like, if you can hook the kids and you can get them engaged with you, then you can go so much deeper into all of the content. And so that's one of the joys of getting to teach with you for me.

[17:57] Dr Diane: So we're going to take another break, and when we come back, we're going to look at Adventures in Learning for the future. 

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[19:05] Welcome back. So, LaTasha, before we move into the future, I want to sort of draw on your experience. When you're working with children and you're mentoring them, what's the best advice you would give to a kid who's trying to figure out their place in the world?

[19:34] LaTasha: My teens like to warn my upcoming teens that if Tasha comes to you and says, I see you, as horrifying as that may sound to some teenagers, because sometimes they want to not be seen, but be seen at the same time. I think the best advice I could ever give is to listen. And by listen, I don't mean listen to their words, only listen by looking at their body language, hearing, listening to the side conversations that they have. Not to be nosy or anything, but just to engage who they are as people when they are around other people or other peers, listen to what their parents are saying or how they are redirected, or even I had to listen to other teachers. And what other teachers have labeled a kid is usually the polar opposite of what that kid actually is. With that, you are able to see the kid for who they are, the human being that they are, the potential that they have. And then you have to go in with the frame of mind of, how do I shape mold that to the best of my ability and pushing them out of their comfort zone as much as possible. So I try my best to see every single child that walks across my threshold.

[21:08] Dr Diane: And I've seen you do it. I know that that is the case. How many thousands of kids have you worked with since Selah?

[21:19] LaTasha: Thousands. I've honestly I think before the pandemic, we were up to, like 1,200 kids that we had been in contact or had taught, and even then, I think that's inaccurate considering all the different development classes and different workshops I've done here and there. And it's incredible. It's incredible to have kids come up to you and go, oh, I remember you.

[21:48] Dr Diane: And they're all grown up now.

[21:52] LaTasha: Most of them are grown up. My first class I started with have graduated from college.

[21:58] Dr Diane: That's such a crazy feeling when that happens. My first class of preschoolers, they're now all in college. So, yeah, it's a strange sensation.

[22:09] LaTasha: It is a strange sensation, and they're adults, and they're growing into who they are going to become. And I think the most beautiful moment in my life is when a kiddo I haven't spoken to in a really long time reaches out, just says, I miss you, I love you, or, I need a Tasha hug, whatever it may be. And you're like, yeah, okay, I did my job exactly.

[22:36] Dr Diane: Oh, that's wonderful. So what currently brings you joy?

[22:43] LaTasha: Theater. All things theater.

[22:49] Dr Diane: That's a good thing. What does the world need more of?

[22:53] LaTasha: Theater.

[22:58] Dr Diane: All right.

[22:59] LaTasha: Theater. Accessible and affordable. Theater. Theater.

[23:04] Dr Diane: And I have a feeling I know the answer to this question. What makes you hopeful?

[23:12] LaTasha: Theatre as a voice. I don't think we use it enough to be a voice for either the voiceless or those that may feel powerless. And it is a great medium to connect with people, to ask the question of why without actually offering a solution, but to get people to engage in conversations and get them to shift or change within their local community or their government, it's powerful and it's important. I'm watching students now band together on how they can appropriately go to their school boards or go to their local government and say, we need more arts programming and we need it because this is how we survive middle school or high school or whatever it may be. So giving them that voice and that tool to be able to use theater as a medium is incredible.

[24:11] Dr Diane: Absolutely. So, last question. Based on your own Adventures in Learning, what would you say are like the top two or three strategies for success that you've discovered so far in your life?

[24:29] LaTasha: Being aware of needs, that there are different needs, and being flexible, I think those are the two biggest things. Because if there's a need that maybe you're not used to being able to shift and accommodate accordingly, or if there's a need that maybe someone hasn't even noticed is a need. So, for example, my teacher that noticed that I had a big mouth and using that skill to being able to apply it accordingly and help in a healthy manner. So I think those are the two big things.

[25:04] Dr Diane: Great. Well, LaTasha, thank you so much for joining us on Adventures in Learning today. If people would like to reach out to you to learn more about Selah or about the various programs and workshops you offer, how should they contact you?

[25:14] LaTasha: They can contact me through our website. Or they can also email me at latasha@selahtheatreproject.org

[25:27] Dr Diane: Wonderful. Thank you so much and I look forward to getting to work with you soon. You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you love the Adventures in Learning podcast, we'd love for you to subscribe, rate and give us a review. We can't wait to see you for our next Adventure in Learning.

Meet LaTasha Do'zia
Connections: using children's literature to create theatre mash-up experiences for young people
Importance of the arts in STEAM experiences
Advice for working with teens -- lots of listening involved
Joy, Hope, and Theatre -- accessible, affordable, and providing a voice
Success Strategies

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