LITTLE VILLAGE — When Maya Ortiz was a freshman, she was so shy that she ate lunch alone in a bathroom to avoid talking to people.
But within months, the Little Village high-schooler would find herself performing Shakespeare for hundreds. Now 17, Ortiz hopes to study theater in college and pursue an acting career.
She credits the shift to Edward Cisneros or "Mr. C," a beloved drama teacher at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School, 3120 S. Kostner Ave.
"He sees things in students — and even in teachers — that other people don't," Ortiz said. "He sees the qualities that people are dying to drag out of themselves, and he helps them do that."
Cisneros was recently named one of 30 finalists for the Golden Apple Award, which honors excellence in teaching.
With a background in theater and acting, Cisneros began his stint at the Little Village school in 2007. With just 270 students, it's one of the smaller high schools in the city and is part of four separate schools that make up the campus of Little Village Lawndale High School. It draws students from Little Village, Lawndale and other surrounding neighborhoods.
Cisneros said he can't imagine teaching anywhere else.
"Most of my students are kids who have never performed before," he said. "I don't want to teach professional theater artists. If that happens, great. But I believe there's so much more about the process, working together as a group, that I hope students can take with them."
Theater classes teach "life skills incredibly well," Cisneros continued. "How to listen, how to speak. Being alert, learning empathy. These are things people maybe take for granted."
Edward Cisneros teaches at the Multicultural Academy of Scholarship in Little Village. [Photos by Jared Bellot]
Cisneros has a master's degree in directing and theatrical production. The Dallas native previously worked at the Victory Gardens Theater, but grew tired of "doing a show and never really knowing who's in the audience."
He had studied secondary education in college, he said, and craved more meaningful, one-on-one interactions. A CPS job fair sealed the deal.
Cisneros first began working with Ortiz during a 2014 Shakespeare production as part of the citywide CPS "Shakespeare!" program. Her parents couldn't take her to rehearsals, Ortiz said, so Cisneros insisted on giving her rides.
"He cares more than a normal teacher would," she said. "He doesn't just care about you on an educational level, he cares about you on a personal level. He's honestly a teacher that you only meet once in a lifetime."
Ortiz described Cisneros as someone who's kind and understanding, but won't hesitate to dole out "tough love" when necessary. When she recently missed some school due to personal problems, Cisneros was the first teacher to ask, "'How can I help you get through this? How can I help you catch up?'" she said.
That extra effort is why Ortiz nominated Cisneros for the Golden Apple.
Though he didn't win, Cisneros was named one of 30 finalists out of more than 400 applications.
Principal James Clarke wasn't surprised. When he first joined Multicultural Academy of Scholarship a few years ago, "the very first question everyone asked me was, 'What are you going to do with Mr. Cisneros? What are you going to with the theater program?' " he said.
Cisneros called the attention "humbling" and "strange." But for him, it's an affirmation that pursuing a teaching career at a small community school was the right choice.
"I've had students say, 'You shouldn't be here [because you're such a good teacher]. You should be teaching at a magnet or in the suburbs,'" Cisneros said. "And that's infuriating. I don't know why my students think they don't deserve great teachers. ... All students do, regardless of where they live."
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