An Appreciation of Oran Sandel

January 26, 2017

2015 and 2016 Inspired Teaching Fellows sing and sign along to one of the songs written by Oran Sandel and his colleagues at the Living Stage Theater Company.

(Photo credit: Mara Duquette, Center for Inspired Teaching)

This piece was written by Aleta Margolis, Founder & President of Center for Inspired Teaching.

Why walk, when you can fly?
Everyone can touch the sky!
One taste, and you’ll never go back.
Imagination will keep you on track.

Every summer when we launch the year’s Inspired Teaching Institute, teachers learn the beautiful lyrics above, along with many other songs written decades ago by Oran Sandel and his colleagues at the Living Stage Theater Company.

After an extraordinary career as a teaching artist and a creative genius (a phrase he often used in referring to others, but never himself, though it describes him perfectly), Oran died this past October of melanoma at the age of 64.

I met Oran in early 1996, when he was artistic director at Living Stage, having taken over the position from Living Stage’s founder, Robert Alexander. When we first sat down to discuss working together, Oran was wearing a Living Stage t-shirt with bright red letters that said, ‘Art Saves Lives!’ By the summer I had convinced him, to my delight, to co-create the first-ever Workshop in the Art of Teaching (now known as the Inspired Teaching Institute), combining Oran’s extraordinary work in the creative process with my desire to partner with teachers to make school joyful and engaging for students.

For eight years, Oran and I co-facilitated the Institute, along with many other colleagues from Inspired Teaching and Living Stage. If you’re a teacher who took the Institute in the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, you’ll remember Oran, insistent and kind, filled with endless energy, long hair down to his waist, challenging you to, ‘Share your voice!’ ‘Build your imagination muscle!’ and ‘Walk in the shoes of your students.’

When teachers were uncomfortable singing, Oran reminded us, ‘Singing is simply sustained speech. If you can speak, you can sing.’ When we found ourselves drawing or dancing during the Institute, if someone said, ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I don’t dance,’ Oran insisted we were all artists and dancers and it was our right and responsibility to push back against the inner voice trying to tell us our limitations. He was adamant that there was creative genius inside each of us, and challenged us to see it in ourselves, and let others see it as well.

His one and only workshop rule, which has become the rule of the Inspired Teaching Institute, is ‘You cannot be wrong when you create.’

Nearly every day of the Institute, Oran found an opportunity to weave in a story about his extraordinary artist-teacher-director wife Roberta Gasbarre, or share a moment of pride about an accomplishment of one of his children, Caelyn and Jamie. He modeled for us all a passion for social justice and also passion for, and deep devotion to, family.

Oran also modeled a core feature of Inspired Teaching’s approach to teaching: a warm, flexible acceptance of every individual’s contributions. The best teachers are like the best improvisational actors. They have a clear goal, and by saying, “Yes, and,” to the additions of their fellow actors, teachers, or students, they find multiple ways to authentically and effectively reach that goal. At the Institute, we call our lesson plans “lead sheets,” a term that Oran borrowed from the practice of jazz musicians. Lead sheets articulate a clear melody around which the musicians improvise.

After each 7-hour day of our two-week long summer session (which we ran twice or even three times in a row some summers), Oran and I sat down for an extensive debrief, along with our co-facilitators. Though we had crafted exquisitely detailed lead sheets for the entire two-week session, we re-examined every element of the next day’s plan, within the context of what had happened the previous day. We discussed and often debated proposed revisions to the next day’s plan, always with the question in mind, ‘What does the group need now?’

Oran’s influence and his voice not only fueled the creative process among the teachers he taught, it also enabled teachers to see the creative genius in their students. Oran taught teachers to see their students as singers, dancers, and visual artists, and as mathematicians, authors, scientists, and historians.

Oran’s voice continues to fuel the work of Inspired Teaching today, with the Inspired Teaching Institute in its 21st year, as we challenge our teachers to embrace an asset-based view of their students, and to identify and nurture the potential in each and every student. Inspired Teaching has grown greatly in scope and impact since Oran and I first worked together in 1996. Our core mission of transforming the practice of educators, to ensure that young people are prepared to thrive in and contribute to a complex world, has remained – along with the spirit of creativity and joy that Oran embodied.

For the rest of his life Oran continued to teach me, my colleagues at Inspired Teaching, and teachers and young people across the region how to step outside of our comfort zones, engage our empathy, and truly become smarter, more purposeful people.

Inspired Teaching was only one of many organizations that Oran helped to shape. After working full time at Living Stage in a variety of roles for over two decades, Oran became a freelance consultant and taught and performed at Creative Cauldron, Amazing Life Games, Washington Revels, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, Adventure Theatre, and many other places.

Oran’s legacy lives on every time someone sings, ‘Why walk when you can fly?’ ‘Come as You Are,’ ‘King/Queen of Me,’ or one of the many other songs Oran taught so many of us. Thank you, Oran, for being my teacher, and the teacher of so many thousands of other changemakers. I miss you. But I remember you by heart.

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