This episode’s theme is centered around social-emotional learning. So much valuable knowledge was shared in this conversation about how arts education activities support SEL for students. Read on to see what Cesia Roman learned through her performing arts activities, and how she is now paying it forward to the teenagers in her home district.
One of the most satisfying things about being in the teaching profession is when you see your students paying it forward. Cesia Roman graduated from Spring Valley High School in 2017, earned her BS in Special Education at SUNY Cortland (in the middle of the pandemic), and has returned to our district as a social-emotional coach with the NICE team, an incredible organization whose title stands for Nurturing, Inclusive, Community, Environment. Five years after tossing her mortarboard, she is now providing the students in her home community the same safe space and caring support that embraced her when she was growing up.
When she was in high school, I enjoyed teaching Cesia in my dance classes, where she was eager to learn and performed in the yearly dance concerts. She also an important presence in Thespians, participating in all three major facets of theater, taking full advantage of every opportunity to learn more about the performing arts.
She got her feet wet in the spotlight as a fairy in our fall production of Midsummer/Jersey, and in the ensemble of Aida. She also loved working backstage on crew, filling in the space when she was not in rehearsals.
At heart, she was an instrumentalist. Having spent six years playing in the world-famous East Ramapo Marching Band, a great part of her service to Thespians was playing the trumpet for the pit orchestra in some of the most musically challenging shows we did with Thespians: In The Heights, West Side Story, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. In fact, for West Side Story, she sat right next to my husband, who we had brought in as a ringer. Every year, she absorbed more knowledge, got better and better at her craft, and as a senior, became the student pit leader who helped keep my music director, Andres Perez, in check.
Now, Cesia is all grown up and has so much to share about what she learned back then, and how it has impacted her in the transition to the adult she is now.
I would describe my adolescent self as someone who was very inspired by what I saw in my community, very passionate about my community. My cultural identity as a Guatemalan-American was very profound for me…my identity as a Latina in Spring Valley’s suburban community in a school district where I had to really hone in on what I wanted to do. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do everything; very ambitious in the arts and at school.
Early on in high school, Cesia noted that she was reserved and more awkward. Over time, she came out of her shell, developed a greater self-confidence through her involvement in arts and academic activities. The discipline of marching band, Thespians and dance helped her to evolve in to a more self-assured person who was less afraid to put herself out in the forefront.
The arts push you to expose yourself.
We are the sum of our many parts. Cesia reflected how some of her early character traits have been more fully developed. There are others that she doesn’t identify with anymore and have been left in her past. A running theme on this podcast is how adults are, intrinsically, adolescents. We are the more refined version of our teenage selves, and we carry them with us at our core under all the layers of time, relationships, traumas, failures and successes.
In high school, Cesia had a few things in her back pocket that helped her to regulate herself and manage the chaos. Making friends and socializing was an important escape, It was far more meaningful than I could ever put into words. She, like so many kids, wanted to be seen, heard, and appreciated. That manifested most in her performing arts activities, where she was surrounded by peers who shared the same passion in tandem. While she learned time management, discipline, organizing her priorities and developing her craft, she also developed emotionally through cultivating important relationships. I was being heavily influenced by my involvement with Thespians and music.
When kids can walk the hallways with an established identity that they are comfortable with, it makes such a difference in their personal development. I liken it to wearing your favorite cozy sweatshirt every day; you never want to take it off and you want to wear it everywhere you go.
Feeling the fear
Cesia recalls how some of the projects we worked on were quite intimidating to her as a young musician. During her sophomore year, we tackled West Side Story and she was playing trumpet in the pit orchestra. She sat next to my husband, who we recruited as one of many adult ringers to help fill out the instrumentation for Bernstein’s monster score. I remember my husband thinking the score was intimidating – I can only imagine how young Cesia felt at 15. I would look to my side and think ‘oh, one day, I’m going to play just like him! ‘ Through the fear, she was inspired to see all of the adults who came to support the production because they showed the students how you can carry your passion for your craft far beyond high school.
The sum total of all of her performing arts experiences – in the dance studio, in Thespians and in the marching band – provided a wealth of enlightenment opportunities for Cesia.
Dance class helped her to be more comfortable with her body, especially in movement.
There are so many things that we hold on to in our body. In those dance classes, there was healing that was happening. I grew up in a very religious household where dance was only ever [used for] ‘worship.’ I never tapped into some of the cultural dances that a typical Latina might know and I was learning them with you!
Thespians taught her discipline, gave her the ability to be courageous, to be okay with making mistakes, and exposing herself in front of the community. So many lessons – I could write a book! Marching band developed her work ethic and will to persevere.
All these different areas added to this pot: I’m going to be graceful with myself, I’m going to embrace my body, I’m going to be really disciplined and work really hard, allow for mistakes to happen, I’m okay with exposing myself and receiving feedback,
When feedback is given by an adult as a loving gift to an adolescent, it is received and processed in a way that enables the child to take ownership of their own learning process. We talked about the tendency for teenagers to have difficulty with critical feedback, and Cesia brought up a great point:
So much of our personal identity is invested in the craft. That’s why it can be hard to receive criticism. ‘All of me is involved in this. When you judge that, I feel like I am being judged.’
As educators, we must understand not only who we are talking to, but how we are saying anything to children. Though we want to hold them to high standards and expectations, their undercooked brains do not receive critical feedback easily. Our responsibility is remembering to provide it in a loving and caring manner so that they don’t feel “criticized.” Then, we can dig in and get the good work done by peeling protection away, one layer at a time.
How has Cesia changed since high school?
My perception of the world has changed. What I see myself capable of has changed. I also have become guarded; as a teenager I was very willing, eyes-open to experience everything. Now, I’m far more cautious. I try to think about my words a little more; to be more intuitive about what I invest my time in.
The most impactful pieces of Cesia’s school experience was the community and the culture that surrounded her. Spring Valley High School is a unique pocket of diversity within greater community.
The mix of customs, culture, the people, the kind of needs that the students have; coming from this district, I was also empowered by thinking that I could change everything.
As she grew up, she realized that the wide-eyed lens of adolescence provides an incomplete picture of the world. Now, she sees things more realistically, is a better planner and more thorough in her thinking. Setting attainable goals gets her where she wants to go. Now that she is working for the district that molded the wide-eyed girl, the woman that she is becoming sees her original aspiration in a different light.
I think about ‘wins’ as being not these big grand changes, rather wins being my interaction with people one-on-one. How I’m connecting with people on a human level, how I’m listening to other people – those are the life-changing, influential breakthroughs that happen.
This is the heart of educating: changing students from within, proactively. To make larger changes, you have to get to the core of people, to help shape the way they think about themselves and the world around them. We help them to make wise choices by creating an environment where they are safe to explore, expose their vulnerability, and grapple with challenge so they can develop grit in a supportive space.
What Cesia grapples with
Being an adult.
Cesia is relatively new to the world of adulting. In her professional environment, particularly since she is responsible for educating adolescents in the social-emotional realm, she is hyper-aware of the things she says and does and how it all reflects back on her. Technically, at 22, she’s going through her second adolescence, perhaps the final phase of cooking the brain, and she is carefully navigating the world of adult decision-making and how it impacts her mental and emotional health.
Case in point: Cesia’s first teaching job was as a childhood educator in the Bronx in SETTS (Special Education Teacher Support Services) for students in Kindergarten through second grade. After spending the first year in the job, she realized it was not the right position for her. She made the tough decision to veer away from the traditional teaching route, for which she had prepared for her entire college career. The logistics of such a decision weighed heavily on her, especially since she had started her Masters degree for special education when she started the job.
I spent weeks deciding ‘what am I going to do? How am I going to pay the bills?’ I ended up leaving the [Masters} program when I left the school that I was working with.
Thankfully, as she was grappling with her decision, the East Ramapo position opened up to her.
It was heaven-sent. A lot of sacrifice needed to happen in order to feel like a better version of myself. I was very fortunate to find something that aligned with what I wanted to do which was educate and work in the school community, but I’m not focused on standards, academic curriculum, I’m focused on social-emotional wellness.
Imagine having a position with competitive pay, benefits, and a potentially long future, and being completely miserable in that environment. She recognized that despite the monumental shift that she would have to make, it was the right decision. Sometimes, you have to do the scary thing to discover what your soul really wants.
On a more personal level, Cesia is also grappling with figuring out the woman she wants to become and what she wants to be known for; what parts of her childhood does she want to heal and what parts can she leave behind. She calls it a constant existential crisis. In a world that is full of chaos, she wants to stay focused on the important stuff. She wants to know what makes her happy, to be mindful of when she is not happy, and to maintain her resiliency to get through the challenging times.
Like Michaelle Vilsa (episode 26), Cesia misses that wide-eyed childhood innocence, where she could impulsively throw herself into a project. Her more cautious adult nature prevents that from happening now, but the trade-off is a well-developed inner strength and thicker skin. Resilience and grit personify the grown-up she is becoming, and perhaps she is finding a balanced sense of optimistic realism; life can be tough and we can look at how it affects us in a way that serves us rather than undermining our well-being.
If Cesia could sit her teenage self down and give her some advice, she’d say this: Relax. It’s alright. It’s not that serious. Be graceful with yourself. She later added: It’s all worth it.
Social-emotional learning (SEL)
Now more than ever, social-emotional intelligence is being taught in schools. In East Ramapo, we are fortunate to have the NICE (Nurturing. Inclusive. Community. Environment) team. These are educators who focus specifically on teaching students how to identify and express their inner emotional life and how to deal with challenge in appropriate and healthy ways. When Cesia left teaching in the Bronx, she traded standards-based curriculum for a more heart-centered syllabus.
The work that she is doing now is about developing strong relationships with her students so that she can help them to bolster their emotional intelligence. In our conversation, she explained many different techniques that she uses to help them identify and sit with uncomfortable feelings. Many of our students have not developed the emotional vocabulary to adequately express what’s going on inside. They are so used to gritting their teeth and dealing with it, or lashing out in self-destructive ways. Fortunately, in her work, she does see improvements in their willingness to talk about their feelings, becoming more self-aware and more receptive to advice. Big changes happen one step at a time.
Throughout her day, she finds herself saying a few things over and over again:
- What is in your control, what is not in your control?
- Check in with yourself.
- It’s okay to be in solitude.
- Take some time to nurture yourself.
- Figure out what your thoughts and feelings are. Tap in; listen to yourself. Ask yourself, ‘how am I doing?’
Knowing the challenges of the student population in our district, it seem that it is in fact Cesia who is heaven-sent.
Cesia’s self-care strategies
I like to end each episode with revealing my guests’ self-care strategies, because they seem to encapsulate what has become the greatest self-realizations of their journey so far. Many adolescents have a hard time with finding self-care options that best serve them, so when they blossom into healthy, self-possessed adults, I like to share out the things that seem to work to keep people centered and regulated. Here are Cesia’s three big ones.
Purge your feelings. If I’m feeling sad, I’m going to put some Adele on and I’m gonna cry my eyes out. Feel your emotions, allow your feelings to flow through you, sit in your feelings. That discomfort that life’s challenges can bring you, I’m going to be okay with it.
Pick your battles. If it’s an emotion like anger where someone else can be caught up in that anger, what I like to do is stop and think. Not a lot of things are very high-leverage.
Emotional Detox. When she can’t figure out what’s wrong, she finds a quiet space, and says to herself, I feel… and sits with the quiet space. She follows the question with three hums, which acts as a soothing, centering vibration in her head. It’s like the controlled breathing that happens when you play an instrument, dance, or do yoga.
Check out our full interview on YouTube!