Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a student with Down syndrome signed up for her acting class at Lakewood High School in suburban Denver, theater teacher Tami LoSasso was worried. Could the boy succeed in a class focused on duet scenes? Who would she assign as his partner? Was she living her belief that theater is for every kind of student?

With support from another student, the boy completed the class and LoSasso worked with a colleague to create a “unified theater” class that pairs special education and general education students.

LoSasso talked to Chalkbeat about why she aims to reach a diverse set of students through theater, how she builds rapport with students, and what it means to be a student’s “cookie person.”

LoSasso was selected for the 2018 class of the Advocacy Leadership Network, a three-year initiative of the Educational Theatre Association, a professional group for school theater educators.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I don’t know if there was a defining moment. I always loved theater, but mostly storytelling, and the thought of sharing that passion with others was an intriguing idea for me. When I was young I had some teachers who left a mark on my life in unforgettable ways, and I realized the powerful influence a teacher can have. I thought the world needs more of that: positive influences and passionate storytellers. And so I became a teacher.

PHOTO: courtesy of Tami LoSasso

How do you get to know your students?

We do a lot of what I call “ensemble building.” There are the traditional ways of doing that -— through games and getting-to-know you activities — but a lot of times we just spend the first few moments checking in with each other. I ask them about their lives and I try to remember the conversations so I can return to them. I talk to them like they are people, not just people in chairs there to learn, and in so doing I build a rapport with students. I think one of the most important things a teacher can do, besides teach the subject with passion, is to teach students a little bit about who they are as humans. A teacher cannot do that if they don’t know — really know — the people looking back at them everyday from the desks.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I really enjoy teaching the “styles” unit that a student teacher of mine (now my teaching partner) came up with several years ago. In it, students investigate the dramatic stylings of three or four major playwrights and how to best bring their words to life. Students do an investigation and creative presentation on the life of the writer (some create social media pages for their playwright!) to immerse themselves in the world of the writers through music, costumes, and script analysis. They finish by performing a duet scene from one of the playwrights, and they gain a much deeper understanding of the material, the intention behind the material, and the themes of the work.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My ring of keys and a tall glass of iced tea.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

It’s theater so everything going on outside the classroom affects what’s happening inside of it. Theater is the greatest mirror we can hold up to society. When things get too close or too real, theater becomes scary and uncomfortable. And to me, that’s the best kind of storytelling — the kind where we see ourselves and question ourselves and try to make our world a better place.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Every student I come in contact with has changed me in some way. From the student I had early on who forced me to face my unrecognized biases to the student I have now who is redefining how I approach gender identity in the classroom, it seems there is always something to learn — even for the teacher.

One big ah-ha moment for me was my work with a student in my class I’ll call “AJ.” AJ has Down syndrome and he wanted nothing more than to be in a theater class because he wanted to be an actor. He was fine in my introductory class where we could all work together, but when he wanted to take my acting class, I was hesitant. In that class we do a lot of duet scene study, and I wasn’t sure who to pair him with, if he could be successful, who he could work with whose experience in scene study wouldn’t be altered as a result of AJ’s accommodations. But then I had the idea of seeing if there was a student — preferably not a theater student — who would take the class as a teacher’s assistant and work exclusively with AJ.

I found a senior — Olivia — who was interested in working with students with special needs and wanted to go into special education after high school. She agreed to be the teacher’s assistant. She and AJ struck up a wonderful friendship. She was his scene partner, working to enhance AJ’s experience, not her own, and helped him be successful with character work and even script analysis. Olivia and AJ’s partnership gave me the idea for a unified theater class where we have students with special needs paired with general education students who are there as partners and coaches. As arts educators, we always say, “Art is for all,” but AJ made me realize I was talking the talk but not walking the walk. I truly did want arts to be for all, and for one reason or another, traditional theater classes don’t speak to all. He helped me discover ways to make them more accessible and equitable.

Now at Lakewood, we have a unified theater class that does just what AJ helped me realize theater could do. This fall, we’re introducing a slam poetry class designed to reach out to marginalized populations — minorities, women, transgender students — to help them find their voice through the arts. At Lakewood, our team strives to make theater a place where everyone can find their voice. Thanks to AJ and Olivia, we are achieving that goal.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Letting go. I spend four years building up all kinds of love for these amazing young adults. And then I have to let them fly.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I would get more time off! Ha!

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I recently finished “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. It was powerful. My favorite writer is Khaled Hosseini. He opens my mind to worlds I’ve never known and his prose is so poetic, sometimes I forget I’m not actually reading poetry.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Sweat the small stuff and always be kind. My former principal used to say, “Be someone’s cookie person,” meaning the person a student can go to for help, gentle advice, a loving ear, patience, and a push in the right direction.