Category Archives: Class Culture

Look Around: Mindful Moments in the Drama Classroom

A few years ago, my theatre teaching practice was transformed by a conscious decision to begin class in a circle every day.

It’s not a perfect ritual, but it’s comfortable, a good way to get a headcount and a pulsecheck on the room, and it mostly builds energy for the students. It is easy to see the difference on days when we have to move class to a different location such as to the theatre for a presentation, how the students handle their confusion and bristle a bit before settling into their typical class personas, closed, individual, side to side. Shadows of the students I see in circle, bolder, able to grab a room, able to make a false step and bounce back in front of an audience of their peers.

Beginning every class with a grand opening has its disadvantages, mostly in the guise of teacher stress. On a human day, an off day, if you start class with a projection on the board or handing something out, you can hide behind those activities a little bit. If you’re working sick or tired or angry in a circle, there is no mercy. You gotta fake it so you can make it, so about a year ago, I started meditating in the mornings to see if I could fake it better, bringing myself into better regulation and form to deal with the 30 plus needy and disregulated young geniuses around me every hour.

It really worked. I still got cranky and frustrated at times with innattentive or disruptive kids, but I had way more energy and stamina overall, and simply enjoyed being with them more. When life got very strange and sad at the end of last semester with the impending loss of our classroom, I was able to mostly just be there for how sad it was, which helped my students step up and be there too. Looking back on this, I credit my practice with helping me make it through.

Last year, I dabbled a bit in doing some mindfulness work with students, mostly at the advanced level. This year I decided to formally bring the work into my curriculum,  in a way that would be appropriate for them and hopefully serve as an extra tool in their self- discovery toolkits.  I took an online course over the summer, Mindfulness for Educators, and started incorporating lessons into my classroom practice every week.

If you haven’t heard of mindfulness, it’s just, well, the practice of being for a moment.

Google defines mindfulness as the following: ” 1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something, or 2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” It describes it as a “therapeutic technique”, but that’s not really the focus I try to bring across in my classroom.

Basically, we sit down, get comfortable, talk about what is essentially the practice of “noting” or identifying thoughts without judging them in various capacities (good/bad, past/present, etc) and then focus on watching our breath for a minute to two, depending on the class. Nobody has to participate, as long as they don’t disturb others, and the discussion surrounding it is extremely clinical and non-sectarian. My students are invited to be curious about their minds, and ok with their feelings, for a minute or two at a time.  If there is an implicit goal being expressed about the work, it is for us to know ourselves better so that we can have an easier time going about the business of the day.

The concept of “noticing” is a big one in my classes, as it invites students to respond to the work of others and their own work with honest reflection, an eye towards detail, and a way to discuss aesthetics of performance without labeling positive or negative. Some things we do in performance are effective, others are not. It takes the evaluation process away from personality and that silly word ‘talent” and moves it into achievable outcomes such as enough rehearsal and maintaining effective working relationships while practicing skills.

This language is very important to my highly analytical, sometimes socially cautious crowd, and when we “note” our feelings and reactions in mindful practice, it reinforces the idea that creativity and community are also practices which can be developed.

In order to maintain a very secular approach to the work, I use a Vibra-Tone, rather than a singing bowl. This is an instrument available on amazon or through music shops, which allows you to create a beautiful tone when you strike it with a mallet. It’s not a necessity, but it’s cool, and it helps students build on a foundation for settling down for an inclusive class ritual.

So what have I “noticed” while implementing mindfulness in my class?

  • It’s easier to bring my class to focus at other times. Since we’re all calmer, I don’t have to escalate, vocally or emotionally,  to get them back to attention paying mode from, say, simultaneous group work.
  • Students appreciate the break. It goes without saying that our students are stressed by factors beyond their control, socioeconomic, societal, parental, media generated, personal, you name it. Most of my students actively look forward to a few moments away from these pressures, and the chance to be in their own moment.
  • Students have better vocabulary to describe what they’re hearing, seeing and feeling. Because the discussion of feelings, of noticing is normal in my room, this extends to their feedback for each other’s work and reflection on their own.
  • Students are incrementally able to focus a bit longer on rehearsing, relating, and watching. It’s a subtle shift, but one which is noticeable. We recently had one of the most delightful and distractible weeks at our school, Homecoming Week, where there’s a huge class rally every day with dances and  a skit, and we still practiced. We had a room full of silent students with their eyes closed mere moments after a high energy rally, while the school was still exploding with excitement outdoors. It didn’t take away from students’ enjoyment of their week, but it gave them a moment to really notice how it was affecting them.

I hope as always you found some ideas here that could be helpful in your rooms. Happy Fall Shows to you!

Tired of the Old Song And Dance Routine? Surviving Yet Another Ensemble Casting

Dear Drama Student:

There are a few things you need to know about your most recent audition, and frankly, all auditions.

Yes, auditions are grueling. No, there’s really no other way to cast shows.

I met with you today, on the Monday after the cast list went up Friday. I saw the tears, the frustration, even the anger, and I saw you search for encouragement and some sort of guarantee of future success in our conversation, that if you took the feedback I gave you, it would somehow magically make the next time easier.  I know too that because you’re a teenager, this doesn’t just feel disappointing, it feels unfair.

Because you were cast in the ensemble again when you “should” have gotten a lead. 

First of all, what you need to know is that everyone behind that table has been where you are. Every member of the artistic staff has auditioned for shows and not even gotten cast, not gotten a callback. We’ve been cut off less than a minute into our monologues, we’ve been sent home early from dance calls. We get it. You don’t believe that, but we do.

The second thing it might be important for you to realize is that we worked for those auditions too, the ones we got cut from. We worked on our monologue or song, we took the dance classes, we lost the weight, learned the skill, we shmoozed with the directors, and sometimes that didn’t work. Sometimes somebody’s friend got the part, sometimes we had the same hair color as the lead, sometimes somebody had heard something about us, sometimes we just weren’t what they were looking for.

Sometimes we didn’t get cast at all. 

But that was different. Those were community or professional auditions. The people who didn’t cast us had no obligation to us. We, your teachers, do, you think. We have an obligation to see you, to see how hard you’re working, to give you opportunities.

That is totally true, kids.

But we have another obligation, and that is to help you create your best work and grow as a performer, while honoring the mandate of theatre, that we must serve the story. We are not doing you a favor by casting you in a role you cannot sing. We are not doing you a favor by casting you in a part we can’t believe you in. We are not doing you a favor by setting you up to be mediocre or overwhelmed.

And you made a good point.  We don’t always know your potential. We don’t always know what you could do if we just gave you a shot. But we do. It’s called the audition.

Kids, most of you don’t get what you want out of auditions for a few of the same reasons.

You don’t do your research and you don’t prepare. You have the opportunity to research the show, find an appropriate song or pick the character you might get and really go for it. Do those things. Get comfortable with the script if you can get it. Impress us with your readiness.

You’re in your own way.  It has taken me a long time to realize that 80 percent of high school auditioners are unbelievably nervous, and the callback process exacerbates this. You can’t get away from the callback process, so you gotta learn to game it, kids. You need to know what you want going in and give it your best shot.  And you gotta keep a clear head. I don’t want to go all Abby Lee Miller on you, but those tears may need to be saved for the pillow.

You throw auditions for small or “unglamorous” roles you don’t want.  I have never seen this happen anywhere except high school, where the entire subtext of someone’s audition is “how dare you call me back for this role that I didn’t want?’ I have seen it done deliberately,  I have seen it done subconsciously.  It is incredibly frustrating to witness, it doesn’t work in the real world, and it makes it difficult to have empathy with you and want to cast you when we have the opportunity. You aren’t fooling us.

You don’t size up the competition and make different choices. Callbacks are conveniently held in groups so directors can see combinations. This is also a convenient time to watch your competition and do something else, or steal what they are doing and do it bigger.

You reject gifts. Left out of a callback for a role and get called in at the last minute? Asked to read with another actor?  Do it up. We’re not playing headgames, we’re trying to give you another shot. Take advantage of it.

So what if you do everything right and you still don’t get what you want?  You’re back in ensemble.

Well, you have options.

You can choose to not do the show. This is a dumb move if you are in this for the long haul, because you’re depriving yourself of a free opportunity to build skills and be in community, which is supposedly why you are doing this. If you’re a senior, you’re still depriving yourself of a fun thing, and you’ll probably look back and be annoyed with yourself, unless you realize this is not what you want, which is perfectly ok too.

You can choose to step into a different path. Tired of the old song and dance routine? Try crew, design, publicity, stage management. These are where the jobs are anyway.

You can choose to take what you got and slay it. I can’t count the number of high school shows I’ve directed where I needed an ensemble member moment and that incredibly reliable, unresentful chorus member stepped up and did an amazing job, which led to great things down the road. It happens constantly.

Whatever you choose to do, know this. No director worthy of your respect is in this to mess with you. We are here and you are there because we want it that way and we believe in your contribution to the story we are telling.  If you want to work with us, we want to make you part of the best experience we can. If what you care about is playing a lead, though, you may want to think about why you’re doing this in the first place.

To sum it up, there are a lot of factors that don’t seem important to getting a lead but are actually incredibly important. Are you reliable? Are you an independent learner? Were you undeniably the most capable performer in the callback? Can you handle the vocal demands? Have you demonstrated that you can handle the pressure of a role? Does your physicality match the other performers?

Ask yourself these questions and see where they take you. You may be surprised at what you discover, which may prove very useful in your next audition.

As Ever,

Your Drama Teacher

 

 

 

 

Tech, Please: Creating a Thriving Technical Theatre Community At Your School

A few days ago, my ASM (assistant stage manager) started posting rehearsal reports to the department’s tech group on social media. Rehearsal reports. Like the kind you see in a real theatre.  I am thrilled beyond measure. I had vaguely asked for this for years, and it is awesome, because it means that we are all on the same page.  It made me realize how far tech has come at my school. It then occured to me that at Monday’s first listenthrough of our Spring Musical, my stage managers, rather than I, had opened the meeting and run it.

I don’t teach in my performance space. Like many theatre teachers, I work out of a classroom, and load shows in and out between two weeks and four days before something goes up. This means that my technicians could be at a severe disadvantage when learning and having the time to practice the necessary skills of tech theatre. However, I am blessed with a huge and active tech theatre community, who run everything for the department, from auditions to strike.  Sometimes they begin as technicians as a pathway to performance, other times they leave the stage to become technicians.  I credit department practices evolved through trial and error, rather than circumstances, for this happiest of situations.

Things my student technicians do:

  • Create an entire rehearsal schedule from scratch
  • Worry about student rehearsal conflicts (I am informed of absences by stage managers when class begins)
  • Design the set
  • Singlehandedly pull and coordinate costumes for an entire ensemble
  • Hire someone to make posters or a program
  • Count and track rented scripts for musicals
  • Run sound for rehearsal
  • Schedule  auditions
  • Recruit technicians
  • Hand build props
  • Design makeup
  • Manage ticket sales
  • Maintain all backstage discipline
  • Maintain call times, time rehearsals or breaks
  • Run fight calls or dance calls
  • Handle interpersonal disputes between crew members
  • Run strike
  • Organize the official cast party
  • Maintain a cleaning and racking schedule for the costume and prop shop

Not having to do these things leaves me a bit freer to do what directors are supposed to do, create and maintain the artistic vision of a show.

WHAT TO DO TO MAKE IT EVENTUALLY POSSIBLE

1. Teach the value of technical theatre.  Reflect on anything that’s glorifying “Broadway” and “Hollywood” and sending the message to students that if they’re not onstage, they are less-than, and maybe stop doing that. Teach the principles of design in your intro classes.  You can build white models with index cards and tape, you can create costume design projects for any play you want to teach, you can teach students to create a poster by showing them pictures of professional posters, you can build puppets from newspaper and paper bags. Google now has a set design program. Allow students in classes to direct or design as part of a project, and give them credit. Insisting that everyone act in everything all the time is not a realistic mirror of the business you are trying to teach. 

2. If you see something, say something.  Your leaders in Beginning Drama are often your future leaders for mainstage shows. Allow them to know they’re doing good work. Observe and tease out the guardians, too, the students who are constantly searching for order or asking how they can help. Giving these students tools to be effective, and not taking them for granted early on, is key to building your group.  If someone shows promise in design or organization, TELL THEM. Invite them to observe after school rehearsals. High school theatre is an interesting beast. Many students think they’re interested in it, but lose that interest when they see the reality. Open your doors, allow visitors and tourists, and you will often find that you will turn around to see that you have an entire crew in place, composed of those who stayed.

3.  Maintain hierarchy, with you at the top of the Great Chain of Being.  Explicitly show the hierarchy of the production process to your beginning classes and  cast and crew using a flow chart.  For every project, put a team of stage managers in place and teach them how to score a script, write down blocking, make prop lists, create costume and shift plots, draft rehearsal reports, and run auditions. You can practice these skills by doing a festival of one acts, rehearsed in class. There are always one or two students in every class who live for this. Give them credit for it, and allow them to do it in lieu of performing, and most importantly, empower them.  Empower them to ask for order, empower them to correct misbehavior, empower them to strive for excellence, and most importantly, TO TEACH NEW PEOPLE WHAT THEY HAVE LEARNED.  Then get mostly out of the way.

3. Insist on regular meetings.  My group meets once a week at lunch, whether there’s anything impending or not. Because I’m there, it’s a great time to be able to give students information and dispel any myths that may be building about how something is going to look or go.  But because I don’t run it, it makes my job easier. Stage managers run the meetings, listen to every department, and give me my two cents.

4. Pay them.  Credits? Activity Points? Thespian points? Pizza and t-shirts? Do not EVER, EVER take these kids for granted.  It took me years to get this, and every show I had to learn it on suffered. They need recognition. Some teachers have a tech curtain call.  I think that’s weird, but do what you have to do to make them understand how valuable they are.

5. Focus on the future.  My students created and maintain an online SOP (Standard Operating Procedures Manual) to describe and document best tech practices in the department and help new hires learn to do their work.  Having students document and set the standards for what they do in writing is a powerful tool. While we’re on the subject, students need to know that there is a huge industry for this thing called technical theatre, and that it can lead to bigger and better things. As often as possible, Call in those favors, your former students who are working in the industry, your friends and colleagues from the theatre world who are managers and designers. Have them come talk to students, and accord them the same flair and excitement you do when you bring back that one kid who’s an actor now.

It will take time, but paying attention to your technicians early and often will yield powerful results beyond your wildest expectations.

Family Dinners: Reflecting Home

I’ve written before about the power of vacation stories, about the value of taking some time on the back end of vacation to process the experience of being away from class. A great type of vacation scene to use this time of year in some classes is the family dinner.

You can set this up by talking about the pros and cons of eating with your family, of having everyone together. Even brainstorm things that typically happen.

MAKING THIS YOURS

You know your students. If you live in a situation where there is a great deal of food instability and family discord, maybe best to modify this. Let students do frozen tableaus of family dinners as they are, and then have people step in to create them as they should be. Bring some social justice to the table.

THE FULL VERSION

You need index cards, each with a family type written on it,  and some students.  Groups of 4 to 6 work best.

Give groups a choice of two cards, ideally. As with small children, students having the choice of two options allows them to “own” the scene a lot more.

Some possible family types:

  • The Overachievers
  • The Athletes
  • The Social Media Enthusiasts
  • The Hippies
  • The Introverts
  • The Artists
  • The Perfectionists
  • The Competitors
  • The Health Nuts
  • The Carnivores
  • The Rich Wierdos
  • The Penny Pinchers
  • The Ungrateful

You know your community, so add to this list or subtract to it. What you want to avoid is anything which places a family particularly within a culture ( to avoid students doing bizarre stereotype homages) or begs politics, which end up showing up anyway.

Then tell them one thing. 4 minutes or less, any combination of family members, the family has to eat something during the scene.

Advanced Modification: Give the family a secret.

Give them about 10 or 15 minutes to work on these scenes, set up a table, and let them roll.

DEBRIEF

Praise specific character choices, attempts at relationship based plot or conflict, good food miming. Ask them what they noticed.

These scenes tend to set off a great deal of laughter, a lot of camaraderie, and are just in general a great affirmation of the theatre family in your classroom.  Enjoy.

 

Shaping Space: Lessons from Presenting at CETA Conference 2015

We know, as performing arts teachers, that space matters. Space wars and space envy are real things on campus.  We’ve all been to each other’s classrooms or schools and silently, internally shaken our heads with envy or empathy about what another colleague gets to work with. You’re doing a play in the cafeteria with the ripped curtains where you have to rehearse around the show choir and your dear friend down the road gets the multimillion dollar “performing arts facility” with the flyspace and the inflexible theatre manager. Everybody’s situation is different and rarely ideal. Some of us have to share space and resources to the point of chaos, some of us are geographically isolated or scattered all over campus, and we all know there is never enough time with students or without, a kind of space itself.

I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently. This past Saturday, I presented some of my work on Rasaboxes, a space based practice,  at the California Educational Theatre Association Conference , a  great organization for theatre educators,  at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, which is a beautiful space to work in.

When I present or teach adults or adolescents, I try to get there early enough to customize the space.  All of the fears inherent in teaching, that we will be unable to run our rooms, or discovered as a fraud, are wrapped up for me in preparing the room ahead of time. At the beginning of a school year, I often dance in my empty classroom before the first bell rings, a way of calling it all in. Teaching adults is tremendously satisfying and more nerve wracking, so I am careful to make very conscious choices about where and how I want people to be.

When you present work at a conference, all of the mechanisms of teaching out of a designated space, your classroom, must be replicated in a strange and neutral location. This is what often bewildered me about my college and graduate school classes, where my professors seemed to be able to teach wonderful things in strangely shaped, poorly lit rooms, without even the benefit of a personal item or desk drawer for backup.  I learned from watching them that if they didn’t like the way a room was laid out, they took a few moments to unapologetically adjust it- the seating, the windows, the temperature.

The last two times I have presented, my rooms have been long, empty, bowling alley like affairs that I must somehow curtail for an unknown group of participants a half hour before in order to create the space I like to work in. This, of course is the exact opposite situation from what a mired classroom teacher with a set number of students faces. We’re usually trying to make more space, and at a conference, I often find I am trying to make less.

What I did before and during my presentation to shape the room got me thinking about the importance of designating space for our work. Here are a few takeaways from what worked for me and what I need to work on.

1. Enclose and define your space to create emotional and physical safety.  This particular room was set up for a lot of open play space, because active, ensemble work is what drama teachers love the best about conferences. New games and warmup are what we live for, because they engage, exhaust, and focus our students. I love those workshops, but I needed a tighter space because I was teaching a multi day process that involved working on a taped floor grid. I still wanted a circle though, so I moved chairs in.  I wanted the focus on the grid, on the lesson. I wanted people about one step away from the grid, so that anyone could enter it.  And I wanted them close to each other.  Every class has its own story. The safer the space, the more possibilities for students to participate in telling that story.  The shorter the distance to “onstage”, the more likely it will be that students will travel that distance.

2. Create open space within your classroom practice.  Allow students to “act” without consequence by creating space for emotional risk and decision making.  I asked my colleagues to place the butcher paper with the different emotions of the rasas on the floor  in one of eight squares, avoiding the middle, as they came into the room, thus utilizing those first often awkward few minutes to our advantage.  This meant that eight individual “students” had already gone into the boxes on a neutral errand before we started working with it, owning the choices they’d made. There were 23 students in the workshop, so that created a curiosity and openness right off, a kind of moving anticipatory set.  Later, I set five  students up for one of the activities, which was simply to read a letter and move to a box showing how the letter made them feel, while other students were finishing up with the activity I’ll describe next, graffiti.

3. Allow and require students to own the space. Having laid down the rasas in a way that was particular to this exact group,  the architecture of the session was laid out by the students themselves, part of the story. Next, students to go around and “graffiti”  the various emotions- I like to use crayons, inspired by the work of Comedy Sportz LA’s  James Bailey, who was actually in the session! This action gets students collaborating, taking turns, engaged in self-expression, and supporting each other in creative action, all before they’ve made any theatre together.  This is vital, particularly as a way to cultivate the community and emotional honesty that theatre demands.  Activities like this are great icebreakers when the group doesn’t know each other, but are particularly important to continue to revive as the group knows each other more, because it keeps the space democratic, rather than full of territoriality.

4. Music equalizes, neutralizes and energizes the space. I thought ahead and brought my laptop to play music, as I usually do before class. I play music, my music and theirs, with teenagers because music is their language.  I feel all groups respond well to it. When CETA luminary Amanda Swann introduced me, the music wonderfully and randomly switched to a circus calliope verson of “Be A Clown”, which made everyone laugh as I rushed over to switch it off. For some reason, this made me feel better, because this inadvertent toppling of my status allowed me to feel, well, less burdened by the need to “teach” and more in the space I wanted my participants to be in, that “sharing”  space which is necessary for the emotional connection that I find happens with Rasaboxes.

5. Time is space.  As we shape space in our classrooms, it’s also important to manage time.  As usual, I overplanned activities for this workshop, which could have gone far more deeply into text. I did, however, make the necessary space for discussion of each exercise I presented, which is what I noticed my colleagues needing, as I was giving them a lot to process.  I underplanned materials (ran out of handouts, left key contact info off my worksheet) as well. I laughed that off, but in general, we all know that overplanning trumps underplanning. One of the advantages we have as mostly solo practitioners, except for when dealing with productions, is that it’s ok for units to run over, to spill out into the next day.  That frustrates those of us who like a calendar and have a set agenda of skills we’re trying to get through, but it shouldn’t. Running a good room means that the needs that the people in it are met. Consider that you, as the teacher, can shape your 55 to 80 minute block in any way that you wish, but that the constraints of time are a powerful teaching tool.

I had a great time presenting at CETA and enjoyed learning from my colleagues as I hope they did from me.  Our spaces matter, and as performing arts teachers, we have the power to define them in the way that works best for ourselves and our students. With some planning, experimentation and reflection, we can improve our own relationships to space, allowing our students to experience our curriculum more deeply.

 

 

 

 

 

Bard To Go: Takeaways from Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays 2015

I just got back from a great conference.  The best part was that I had a bunch of English teachers with me who are now excited about using theatre strategies to deepen their students understanding of literature, particularly scary, tough classical literature. I’m so lucky to get to work across the curriculum with these terrific colleagues, and so excited for what the future holds for our shared students!

The Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays conference has been hosted by the University of California at Davis’s School of Education at the gorgeous Mondavi Center annually for the past five years. It’s a brilliant conference that brings practitioners from the Shakespeare theatre community who have adapted their educational outreach strategies to help classroom teachers teach Shakespeare the way that we think Shakespeare would have wanted himself taught, on our feet, through play.

I am a conference fangirl. I have been to every single one in Davis, I think, and now that they’re trying to hold it next July at the Globe I’m scheming to find a way to get there, despite limited resources to do so. The powerful work they do at this conference seeks to undo our deepest fears about teaching Shakespeare  to our students what Ralph Alan Cohen calls:

Shakesfear. That he’s boring, that the language is old, that it is therefore too difficult, and thus why even try teaching it in today’s soundbyte world?

Mostly tailored to English teachers who must combat the biggest hurdles in this regard, as many of them are directed to teach entire Shakespeare plays, the conference gets its participants up on our feet, moving and speaking Shakespeare’s language in ways that allow students of all ages to access the text, plot, and characters. But it has a lot to remind drama teachers about as well.

Here are some takeaways from the excellent teaching at the conference. In the coming weeks, I will attempt to synthesize and scaffold some of the games and activities as I move forward with new ideas for the drama classroom, but I want t to revisit some pedagogical truths at work in this approach, particularly as I hear from new teacher after new teacher concerned about discipline and accountability in the classroom. Rules. Our own accountability.  Students being focused. Following the rules. Not disrupting.

The act of teaching is disruptive. The most powerful things any of us ever learned in life were disruptive to us. Teaching Shakespeare and other texts on our feet is extraordinarily disruptive, and I would argue, necessary.

Here are three key takeaways that I saw emphasized across the conference, practices which can assist you in the eventual transformation of your classroom into a heaven for the adolescent scholar/practitioner.

1. WARM UP. Every single one of these great Shakespeare teachers started with a warmup. To paraphrase the wonderful Kevin Costa, the Education Director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company who is also a full time classroom teacher, student need time in between classes to transition and refocus.

“If you don’t give it to them,” he says with a smile, they will take it.” 

Kevin keeps three beanbags in his pocket. He is known to start class by gently tossing the beanbags around the room in a circle, urging students to slow down and synchronize their throwing with their breath, then adding our names, so we gently lob the beanbag across the circle in a smooth and beautiful underhanded motion. Eye Contact-Breathe-Swoop-Arcadia. 

The best part of Kevin’s signature warmup is his evident joy in presenting it. He is relaxed, gentle, and delighted by the efforts of his students to move this object through space. It’s his warmup. It makes the class  and the space his, while bringing each student into their own body and into the present moment. It’s ritual, which our students thrive on, and if practiced regularly, with tolerance in the beginning for our students who seem hellbent on target practice, I can see it being a transformative classroom practice.

In order to do Kevin’s warmup, you need to not have students sitting in desks in rows. If you teach English, or  teach other classes that are row bound, one idea would be to teach students to quickly alter the space as part of the warmup. Pretty much any classroom that is configured in rows can also be configured in an O or a U without much trouble.  If you already have open space, you are ready to go.

If you need to keep students in their seats, consider playing music, batting around a balloon,  call and response, rhythm, or snapping warmups. The don’t have to be long.  But the long term power of allowing for transition, focusing students on themselves, and connecting them to the community has major effects outside of simply a nicer working environment.

Takeaway: SAFE, FOCUSED KIDS WHO ARE IN THE MOMENT WITH EACH OTHER CAN TAKE  GREATER ACADEMIC RISKS. Think about it.

2. WHOLE GROUP WORK. Another takeaway from the conference. We are concerned about students “performing.” We want them to present and to perform, and we’re disappointed, secretly or overtly, by their awkwardness and reluctance to do so. The teachers at the Shakespeare Works Conference were masterful at providing opportunities for whole group work. Kirsten Giroux and Joan Langley of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had us turn outward and step forward and back in order to make vowel sounds and attach them to subtext, such as “You see a yucky thing on the floor” or “You’re trying to get a friend’s attention.” By the end of this brief activity, they had effectively tricked us into a vocal warmup of vowel sounds, and gotten us to explore the sounds, without being concerned about looking stupid.  

Beru Tessema of Globe Education had us work simultaneously on the same scene from Othello, switching partners and using new focuses, in order to teach the methodology of exploring a scene, by repeating key words of each other’s dialogue, hitting the paper to emphasize certain words, moving towards and away from our partners, and choosing when to use eye contact. These are techniques one could use prior to assigning individual scenes to groups, or they  could be used  to work students simultaneously   on different scenes.  This family of strategies effectively tricks the students into a bout of close reading, requiring them to have read the scene out loud on its feet multiple times before settling down to think about “staging the scene.”

Takeaway: STUDENTS WILL SHUT THEMSELVES DOWN IN ORDER TO AVOID LOOKING STUPID. Free them, at first, from the spotlight, and they will gladly take it later.

3. SCAFFOLD DIFFICULT TEXTS. No teacher at the Shakespeare Works conference began anything by handing us a scene and telling us to go rehearse it for the rest of class, something I  have been guilty of and see over and over among my wonderful and well meaning colleagues who then wonder why they get a limp and unconnected product. Perhaps one percent of any given group of students are natural wordsmiths, bookworms who love reading long and complicated things out loud just for fun. Perhaps one percent are natural actors, who enjoy and instantly empathize with the character’s struggle, and want to find ways to portray it instantly. The rest of our students are people who have a typical relationship with the written word. People who didn’t grow up reading iambic pentameter, who did not grow up speaking English, who read at a slower pace, who have trouble comprehending what they read, who have been bred by the Internet.

You can start out with ONE WORD AT A TIME or work on A LINE as a group. Mary Hartman from Bard on the Beach handed out disambiguated Shakespeare lines and had us rearrange them while trying to keep the meaning.  Michael Bahr from Utah Shakespeare Festival had us turn a line from Macbeth, “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3:2) into a moving picture.  I just Googled the line to check it and the first two entries are from No Fear Shakespeare, and the next six are from students posting on platforms like eNotes and Yahoo answers attempting to figure out what the line means. Now multiply that, and you’ve got a student’s desperate reading strategy for the scenes you are assigning.

I point this out because  the internet is where your students go when you hand them large chunks of “boring” text that they don’t understand and abandon them to wander in the wilds interpreting it. Start with a word, move to a line, move to half a page of text. Be as explicit as you can in class and insist on whole group think as an imperfect practice to decode text.  Particularly with a tough work, like a Shakespeare play, figure out ahead of time what in a text needs to be dealt with explicitly, physicalized,  or played with and presented, and what can be summarized, read aloud in groups, or shown during movie day.

Takeaway: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TEACH EVERY WORD OF THE TEXT in order for your students to experience, understand, and write about Shakespeare.  You will again reap the rewards, and so will your students.

METHOD TO THE MADNESS

Many teachers are concerned about “personal accountability” among students when rearranging the teaching of the texts to incorporate so much ungraded group work. I respectfully submit that  this approach involves a shift in thinking as well as a shift in practice.

I recently pointed out on social media to a newer teacher who was concerned about discipline that  having a billion specific rules with consequences to follow in a classroom causes students to tally your infractions the way you’re tallying theirs.Similarly,  grading everything leads students to value the grade over the process, whereas multiple whole group strategies used to teach something will yield better individual comprehension on quizzes and papers by sheer value of repetition.

The educational world is currently exploding with wonderful techniques and strategies to facilitate close reading through active learning. I hope you can find something that works for you and your students. Honor your own ideas, play around and let yourself and your students have some fun.

For more information about Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays, visit http://education.ucdavis.edu/shakespeare-works-when-shakespeare-plays.

 

 

 

 

God, I Hope I Get It: Strategies in Casting Youth Theatre

I just finished the annual task of placing students in their roles for our Fall Play. It was an extremely quick task this time, which may be because all of the students in my company are playing teenagers in this one (a rare occurence), but I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks that make it work for me on a yearly basis.

WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

First of all, it’s important to note based on some of these strategies that I run the mainstage arm of my department as an audition/interview only ensemble. This means that most of the students who will be participating in both mainstage shows have been prescreened by audition and have made a year commitment to the program, which they are receiving honors credit for. Advanced Honor students participate in two shows, competitions, and department one acts, as well as educational outreach for English classes. Advanced students participate in one or two shows and can audition for the musical, and Beginning students participate in department one acts. A student’s participation level increases with their learning.  There are myriad advantages to setting up your department that way:

1. If you can get your advanced or advanced class scheduled for the end of the school day, you can start rehearsing at 2 pm and be home by 4 or 5 instead of 6 in the early stages of production, like other teachers. I’m not saying it won’t get strange later, but being able to strategically front load quality of life gives you a significant advantage as tech week approaches.

2. Keeping roughly the same group (with a few guests added as musical season comes around) enables you to create a serious culture which is enforced by students. They get a built in “family” and you get boots on the ground and role models for new performers in such areas as early memorization, silence backstage, the how can I help approach, and student ownership of design and stage management. You no longer have to be the enforcer, your seasoned vets take care of some problems before they arise.

3. Asking students to stay in a company environment where they regularly audition for opportunities makes the audition process a lot less painful for you and for them. They get practice and eventually get good at winning roles, and the same peer ethic gets passed down to the younger generation.

4. It makes certain standard drama teacher problems (hunting for male performers, sports conflicts) simply disappear. If you’re doing a sport while a show is rehearsing, you work crew. Otherwise, choose. I don’t work around anyone’s schedule, and therefore I don’t have problems securing anchor performers. The students are there because they are serious. Less serious students can pursue less serious opportunities.

5. Choosing shows becomes infinitely easier when you have some sense of who will be involved in a cast. A disadvantage, of course, is that if you’re going to give this opportunity to students, you must reward them by doing shows that cast as many of them as possible, so remember that when auditioning a group for the upcoming year. Most of my shows have to be in that magic 23 to 40 character range. This cuts out a lot of major playwrights, who get relegated to competition cuts.

DECISIONS/DECISIONS

I came in this year without a game plan. What I had was about five potential scripts that kind of spoke to me. Nothing was awake and alive in my brain. I was, frankly, terrified. So with the help of my assistant director, we did this:

1. Volunteer student readers went through the scripts and selected 5 minute sections of them for staged readings.

2.  On the first day of school, the students were artfully divided into mixed casts designed to break up cliques as well as place more experienced ensemble members with our new performers.

3. Groups had two in class rehearsal days to stage their section.

4. The entire company, my assistant, and I watched all performances.

5. We held a talkback where the company gave feedback on what they think the best choices were for our group, based on marketability, technical demands, and quality of writing. We made our decision based on both the performances we had seen and this student feedback.

The result is that the cast already felt good about the project before auditioning for it.

GOD, I HOPE I GET IT

We run auditions for the fall show like this:

1. I xerox short sections of text, 2 to 4 character scenes, and the occasional standout monologue where I’m looking for something specific. I use color coding, xeroxing on different colored paper so that I can tell kids: “Thanks, go pick up a blue side, or look at the green monologue.” This is easier than asking them to actually read things before they grab them.

2. Stage managers work the door in teams of two or 3, collecting audition sheets and sending in groups. This means that STUDENTS are responsible for discipline and order, and you are free to cast.

Audition sheets require that:

  • students list the roles they are interested in, as well as previous roles they’ve played
  • students list special skills
  • students list the classes they are taking (All AP’s? Think before giving them the lead.)
  • students list known, longstanding conflicts
  • students see mandatory tech week and performance dates
  • students understand absence policies

If you have problems with student flakiness or egomania, have parents sign it too.

 

3. Students come in in pairs and are then triaged to new reads. We do this until we’ve heard everybody or until the posted end time for the audition is over. When at all possible, respect students time, and they will respect yours.

4. We then immediately publish the callback list for the next day, on social media in our case and on the door for the musical, because that is more involved and complicated.

5. If a student requests to be called back for a particular role, LET THEM. Callbacks are public, they will then be able to see how they measure up to the other students called back. This is an area in which I diverge from “the professional standard.” These are actors, but they are YOUNG ACTORS. Their sense of themselves is not fully formed. Kill that without good reason, and hell hath no fury. They will take you down. Get them to appreciate what they’re up against, and that will either get them to work harder or fall back, both of which are worthwhile paths.

CALLBACKS

1. A simple way to see all your “Romeos” and “Juliets” is to bring them all into a room together and have them read line by line, alternating lines.

Then pair them up and have them read the same section.

Then repeat any pairs you want to see again or make new mixes. Voila.

Casting considerations to ponder when casting leads:

  • Do you want a short Romeo and a tall Juliet? Is type important to you as a director? I’ve been burned a lot by falling for type.
  • Do you believe them when they talk to each other?
  • Will both of them work hard?
  • Do they have the facility with the text or the genre you are trying to do?
  • Are they vocally and physically ready?
  • Are they easy to work with?  If you have a track record with them, you know. Don’t lie to yourself.
  • Do they take direction?
  • How prepared are they for the audition?
  • Can they psychologically handle being leads? The notes, the isolation? Not every young person can.
  • What’s your backup plan?

THERE ARE NO SMALL PARTS, ONLY SMALL ACTORS

1. Read smaller roles FIRST, and let them go when they’re done. Make leads stay to the bitter end of the callback.

2. Having trouble casting ensemble members, as we were with this play, where it’s full of named, distinct people in large groups? Grab short sections with a lot of characters and cast right off your ensemble list, mixing up those called back for leads into their lead roles in each section. You’ll see and hear a lot that way.

3. Consider concluding a large group audition by having each student get up and do ONE LINE from the script in front of the whole group. Note which line each student picks, they’re not being philosophical, it’s usually the part they want! If given a choice between students who desperately want a particular smaller  role and those who are indifferent or open, if all things are equal, the magical part of being a drama teacher is you can please some of the people some of the time!

POSTING

I post Fridays after school. This gives students two days to hate me if they must, before back to business as usual. I go mute on social media for those two days, and I expect professional behavior when we all get back.

If a student comes to you to question their role, congratulate them on having guts. These are kids, again, not grownups. Give them technical feedback about what they can do to improve, which means specific behaviors that they can control. You clearly don’t have to explain to them that a decision was based on their physicality or seniority. They can’t control those things.  They CAN work on:

  • Planting their feet
  • Taking risks
  • Listening to other performers and sharing the stage picture
  • Diction or Articulation
  • Taking dance or working with a vocal coach
  • Focusing their energy on stage
  • Developing their skills as a manager or technician

Ultimately, students do theatre because they want to belong, and be seen and heard. There is a place for most everyone in theatre, it’s just not always on stage. One of the beautiful and heartbreaking things about working in youth theatre is how much we all (teachers and students) learn while doing it, sometimes the hard way.

But hey, there’s a barn. Let’s put on a show.

 

 

 

Object Permanence: Small Items That Make a Huge Difference in The Drama Classroom

Welcome to a new  school year.  We never know where summer went, but once more into the breach we go.

While you’re doing your back to school shopping to trick out your classroom or mobile room to room cart, may I suggest laying in a stock of some of my favorite tried and true drama teacher essentials. Having these on hand will keep your creative juices flowing and your students on their toes.

  • Golf pencils. Great for when you expect your students to rehearse with a pencil in their hand.  These little workhorses are cheap enough to keep a supply of, small enough to not take up a lot of room, and strangely proportioned enough that your students may actually remember to return them. Supplying your own materials cuts down on boring conversations about students remembering materials, and allows everyone to get to the task at hand.
  • Sharpies and Highlighters. You need the clear “write on anything” power of the sharpie and your students need a few loaner highlighters around so they can count lines and drive their peers mad.
  • Rubber Balls. The kitschier the better. You’d be surprised at how much your students will enjoy tossing around a Frozen or Ant Man ball during warmup. Get at least three, I recommend five. On days when you can’t think of a warmup, nothing says instant fun like dumping a bunch of rubber balls in the center of the circle and letting students toss or gently kick them to each other. The possibilities are endless.
  • Squeaky toys, Koosh balls, Beanbags.  Important for gentle tossing games and much of Spolin’s whole group work.  Great to hand to a squirrelly kid as a fidget in a pinch.
  • Playing Cards. I use these to sort students for quick, random heterogenous grouping, one deck per class. I use them for quick oral quizzes- if four out of five students randomly called upon get the answers right, the whole class avoids a written quiz.  I use them to call on volunteers to get up in front of class, or make a comment on others’ work. I also use them for status exercises and occasionally as props. Teach middle school? Nothing is more of a crowd pleaser than handing out decks and getting students to play “I doubt it” in order to work on their poker faces. “I doubt it” is a game known in adult circles as “BS”, it is easy to teach and a great deal of fun to play.
  • Scarves. Instant props and costume accessories.  Groups of three students can use one to augment Boal’s “Columbian Hypnosis”, where one student moves the scarf and the others mimic the movements with their bodies. Scarves can be used as teacher attention getters while students are doing group work. They can be used as blindfolds for Dog and Bone or Hunter Hunted, and trust walks.
  • Dowels. Available at your local hardware store, these wooden babies are worth stocking up on. They can be used for group movement, used in sets of two to create dance movement before students are comfortable dancing, as swords for armed combat, to build squares on the floor. In a pinch, they are  canes for old characters or soft shoe. Students can work on balancing them on a finger.  Buy the half inch and have them cut to about three feet. Save the one foot pieces for rehearsal daggers and wands.
  • Index cards.  Write scene suggestions on them. Give them to groups to fill out as grade cards when starting a project. Use them to build white models (they are very easy to teach scale with and hold up well on a cardboard stage floor with nothing more than clear tape. Students can put their info on them for auditions.
  • Cups. Not environmental, so you may want to go dollar store permanent here, but the red cups that people give out at barbecues are great props, place holders, and amplify the sound of a cell phone’s speaker when placed inside it.
  • Corks.  A dying breed, but when cut into small discs, wine corks (or the type you can buy clean and unadulterated from a craft store) work wonders as diction exercisers for your mushmouthed students. Small enough to be carried in the pocket, a cork held between the teeth is a long time favorite trick of voice teachers to assist a student in popping those plosives.
  • Blue Painter’s Tape.  Make a grid on the floor. Create seating spots in a room with no furniture.  Put up cast lists, project groups,  poster or fliers. Allow students to create a temporary gallery for their designs. Create independence for your technicians, and save the wall from further paint peels.

As always, feel free to contact me with questions about how to use any of these items. Happy shopping, and have a tremendous beginning to your school year!

 

 

Write Now: Creating a festival of student-written One Acts

Having students create their own work is a wonderful way to immerse them in the production process.  Creating a system with enough structure to give students writing, directing, performance and management opportunities is the key to a successful show. I’m going to talk about ideas for evolving that structure.

We recently created and produced an evening of One Acts at my school called THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE with over 130 students participating from three levels of theatre over the course of three nights. It was a great experience, and I believe this was due to the following factors:

Create a dominant theme.Some of our past have included Once Upon A Time, where each piece had to have an element of a fairytale, The Fortune Cookie, where students wrote plays based on fortunes they received on a massive cookie distribution day which involved the entire department, and this year’s Restaurant. The possibilities are limitless. Paint swatches? Tabloid headlines? Street names from their town?

The Restaurant had a menu of items. The students plays had to be titled one of those items, things like “The Cheese Stands Alone” and “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”.

Place time limits on the plays.We also place character limits on them. Beginning students have a 5 minute limit, Advanced a 7 minute limit, and Advanced Honors a 10 minute limit. This allows reasonably timed evenings with many featured performances. Placing character limits on them, 3-5 for Beginning, 5-7 for advanced and 7-10 for Honors also makes it so plays can be about conflict and not feature a bunch of deus ex machina where one person rushes in with one line and solves a problem.

Consider having your most advanced students host each night in teams of two to four. This cuts down on having to do programs, because the advanced kids can simply announce the acts and it’s great practice for them in working in the variety show genre. You might have two or  four students who are up to the task. We had twelve, four for every night of One Acts.  Another wonderful side effect of this is that you can create stock characters that are available to be used in plays, played by the SAME ACTOR any given night. 

With Restaurant, we gave students four options for SERVERS. If they wrote a server, it was understood the server would be played by an advanced student who was hosting that night.  Since we had teams of four, there were four waiters, who had gender neutral names.

  • Logan, the world’s worst server
  • Pat, the longtime manager of the restaurant
  • Riley, the world’s best server
  • Casey, first day on the job

The hosts got the scripts ahead of time, were memorized, and it gave a cohesive and wonderful thread to the evening as beginning projects were elevated by the more advanced students’ performances. Since every project had been assigned an assistant, the assistants played the waiters throughout the process, giving these less experienced and less confident performers plenty of time to play and experiment without the pressure to have to go onstage.

 Create a set, or limit what sets they can use.  This cuts down on chaos, as inexperienced performers try to navigate the stage for the first time. This year we had a simple restaurant set with three tables, two screens, a “bar” and an offstage kitchen. If any patron  from any play walked into the kitchen, “Italian waiters” would make a great deal of noise (in fauxItalian)  and the patron would rush back onstage embarrassed. This running gag was maintained all three nights and delighted audiences. HAVE THE SET DESIGN AVAILABLE TO STUDENTS FROM THE BEGINNING, AND MAKE STUDENTS REHEARSE WITH IT, particularly if you don’t rehearse in the theatre.

Give a reasonable, but short block of time to produce this project across your classes. We usually do it in three weeks and it’s not enough. I would go for five, especially if you’ve never done it before.

Timeline is as follows: Introduce the project all at once to all classes. Consider teaching standard professional playwriting format,  easily Googleable, which will make it easier to organize scripts, as it is the industry standard and more importantly requires a title and character page, which will help figure out what night things are going if there’s more than one night, and who the waiters are.

  1. Give students at least a week to turn in scripts. Give ALL students credit for turning in a script. But then cull the pile. Get the most interesting ones, and make multiple copies of those, a couple of class sets. If you’re working with multiple levels of students, decide whether or not you’re going to mix levels. I recommend it.
  2. Have students read scripts, identify the ones they are interested in, and then what they are interested in doing.  Listen to their preferences, but ASSIGN.  Each student must be assigned to act, direct, write (which means rewriting their particular script at the behest of its team) or assist. Try to have an assistant for every director. They can run production meetings and handle paperwork. If you have multiple class periods, have someone in charge of that class. A TA or your most organized student who enjoys that type of thing. Your next stage manager.
  3. When directors have been assigned, have a director’s meeting where you go over basic responsibilities as well as ethics. In my department, the buck stops with me. If a director has a conflict with a cast member, they can bring it to me, and vice versa. Actors can be “fired” by me, as can directors.
  4. Casting. Require actors to read for everyone, and directors to read everyone. Your class assistants can keep a record of that. After this is complete, have another directors meeting where directors choose cast members. They need to go in order, negotiating, until all eligible people are cast. This prevents cliques, cronyism, and divas from taking over the whole thing.
  5. Announce and or post cast lists. Make adjustments as necessary.
  6. Have readthroughs. In front of you. To make sure the plays are appropriate and you didn’t miss any really wierd lines. My students have a habit of trying to hide crotch jokes and swear words in shows. The more advanced they get, the worse it is. Kids will be kids, but remember people are harder on original work. On the flip side, If a student is doing a challenging script that has integrity, you can now defend it, because you know it well.
  7. Have roughblocks.  In front of you. Don’t assume that because you’ve been teaching theatre skills all year long that the students will apply them. Live performance is when my students start forgetting the basics. Fear is a paralyzer.
  8. Hold them accountable for a production meeting and a memorization test. Make these small grades where you know that they know what they need to be doing to be ready.
  9. Have dress rehearsals in class if time permits. In my system, the class itself doesn’t all perform the same night, because we have three nights. But it’s still possible to have isolated dress rehearsals day of.
  10. Empower your technicians and managers.  The week of One Acts, my stage managers call 15 minute meetings with each cast in the theatre where they test volume, get specifics, and design sound to make it flow. Encourage your techs to use googledocs, spreadsheets, and calendars to organize a real production here.

One Week Before and the Nights of the Show…

Unless you have a publicity team in place, have a simple black and white poster that can go up around. Put the show in the announcements like any other show. Use social media. Charge a little.  Have a simple plan for concessions.  We sold popcorn this year and it was cost effective and well received by our audience.

Double check that each play knows what night they’re coming, and reinforce calltime. Make the call on the night of early enough that they can rehearse with stock character hosts if they need to, and that any last minute prop or costume things can be solved.  Since you have a theme, if you have stock, pull pieces or props that could easily work in the associated one acts. We had a table of just restaurant props.  We also managed to costume an apocalyptic Western out of items we had lying around.

Be hard on technique, easy on feelings.  For many of your students, this might be their first real time onstage. Be aware of that, but reinforce being seen and heard.  I have found, for instance, that students who don’t know they’re not projecting can be enlightened by going into the audience and having you or an advanced student say their line exactly as they are saying it.

Plan time each night before the show to gather as an entire group and do a warmup.  If you have multiple levels of drama performing, it’s neat to see them all together. This is also where you can identify the students who are running the show that evening, hosts and backstage tech, who should be easily identifiable via dresscode.  At our school, this is the first time beginners participate in some of the sacred “break a leg” rituals we do before shows for luck. Really affirming.

Have a system where performers can watch from the house before and after they go on. One Acts is a great opportunity for people to learn from each other! We ask performers to leave the audience two acts before theirs. Show order is posted on spreadsheets backstage.  A student manager meets them in the green room, holds them there for one, transfers them backstage to another manager, and then on, and quickly gets them out of the backstage when done. It’s like a dip in the pool.

After the show….

Debrief and celebrate. In our department we have the ice cream sandwich tradition, where each student must award an ice cream sandwich and say why they deserve it to another student. A great way to wrap up a season.

Ice Cream Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

Waving from the Edge of the Pit: How To Get Over Your Obsession with “Teaching Them A Lesson”

Is being able to fail students one of the perks of the job? Is it really teaching students the “consequences of their actions”, or is a lazy way we have of making ourselves feel better about what we’re not doing to help them learn the material?

Why do we believe so much in our points systems? When we were learning the fine art of setting up a gradebook, which many of us were never actually formerly taught,  how did we decide what was worth what? How many points should be assigned? Now that standards based grading is a thing, how do we decide how to weight the rubric? If we grade on a curve, why? If we grade on “participation”, if we give students points for study guides, if every last thing in our classroom is worth points or it doesn’t happen, if we use points as punishment, as motivation, how is that working for us? Is it really possible for us to create an assessment, any assessment, that demonstrates without fail that our students have learned everything we were trying to teach them? I feel like we need to check ourselves on that one.

Are our systems working? Are we using failure, the fear of failure, the fear of “working at McDonalds”, to motivate our students? Have we ever actually questioned why we do that?  Why we set up a system which thrives on the certainty of failure, and the equal certainty that students will get in a hole they can’t crawl out of?

Why do we wait for them to fail and then wave at them from the edge of the pit?  

I didn’t coin that awesome phrase. I heard it in a staff development workshop a few years back. But it stuck. Along with the following question.

WHY IS ZERO SUCH A HERO?

Why is a zero a zero? Now bear in mind I teach drama, not math, which is all the more reason for me to question the numerical value I assign to tasks I expect my students to complete. I struggle with how many “points” something is worth in the grand scheme of a course. I adjust every year. But one thing I have come to embrace is that I no longer give zeros.

A zero means nothing was done, and it can never be done.

Now imagine that instead of zero, you put the same grade in at 50 percent. 50 percent means you expect it to be done. 50 percent is an insurance policy, where you grant students the trust that they will get it done in order to master what they need to know in your class.  Again, not my idea. I learned it in a training. But a really good one to think about.

A zero stops dialogue. Do it by my deadline, or else fail.  No late work. No excuses.  No bathroom passes. No excuses. Points off. Points off. Points off. 

Do we actually hear that every day at work in these “non McDonalds jobs” we want our students to aspire to? How long would anyone, all other things being possible, happily work for a boss who conveyed that message to us day in and day out?

Most of us would not.  And yet this is how some of us are conducting our rooms. We are using arbitrary numbers as weapons in what we are depicting as some sort of  giant battle to ensure student compliance. Without reflecting on the why or how, we are depending on numbers to do our communication for us.  And then we wonder “why we can’t reach them.” Why they aren’t more understanding of the fact that we are human. Why they are rude, and off-task.  Why they are disorganized and confused.

But if they aren’t there, how can I give them a grade? It’s not fair to the others. Reader, we all know that a student who does not show up and do their work will eventually fail. They will fail, without intervention, whether or not you’ve given a zero or 50 percent. But what about the day they walk back into class after whatever it was as they sometimes do? What then? They screwed up a semester. They didn’t commit unspeakable crimes against humanity. Why are we so attached to the power to “teach them a lesson” ? If they can’t come to our class, it’s pretty likely that they have a lot more on their plate than what we’re trying to pass along.

This doesn’t mean I don’t fail students. I am reduced to that occasionally. What it means is is that my class is not based around failure as a constant threat,  and my belief is that this makes my students feel safer to take risks, more creative, and more likely to work harder.

Instead of constantly threatening our students with failure, what if we set up another structure, where we meet them halfway? What if we set up checkpoints along the way, so that before they fail, there is a net to catch them?  When I talk about that, I am talking about ungraded tasks and practices whose chief purpose is to monitor information about how students are doing. Today’s buzzword for these is formative assessments, which provide us with the feedback about student performance we need to rescaffold so that we aren’t just failing people willy-nilly, trusting the points over our professional judgement.

Teachers new to teaching drama may wonder what that looks like.

FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT IN DRAMA CLASS

  • Mini lessons for scene work, focussing on just one skill to practice (today, let’s make sure everyone in the scene is projecting. Here’s how. Let’s practice acknowledging unseen offstage events. Here’s how. )
  • Readthroughs of proposed material, making sure it fits the performer in both ability and interest. If you hear a mismatch, you have time to make a change before it counts.
  • Watchits, where groups perform for a small audience of peers and receive informal feedback before performance
  • Memorization “quizzes” halfway through the scenework process, focusing on the first 10 lines or half the scene. Have students score them, but don’t put them into the gradebook, instead use the data to identify those kids who are struggling with memorization BEFORE the public shaming of getting onstage and blowing it for a grade
  • Do-overs- No penalty phase where the unready must actually get onstage, demonstrate unreadiness, and receive more time to prepare.
  • Interviews and Self-Assessments. Grading these assignments defeats the purpose of them.
  • Production Meetings- Either whole group or small, time for a group to formally confirm where they are in a process involving a larger product, such as a festival of one acts.

TOO EASY FOR THE “REAL WORLD”?

In the “real world” of work, it’s common to meet to discuss ideas before implementing them and assign tasks to stakeholders that then need to be completed. In the “real world”, while being unprepared for a presentation may eventually lead to being fired, it does not lead immediately to being cast out of the office and being forced to work in the boiler room.  In the “real world”, actions have natural consequences. I am in no way saying that our role as teachers is to coddle and hand hold students, or that students should never fail,  but I think we need to get over our fear that if nobody fails our class, nobody learned anything. This idea that you need losers to make winners, that the way to success is to master an arbitrary system,  is ill-conceived, particularly, for the following reasons:

It fosters the kind of sociopathic competition among students that we’re always shocked by. We say we want our students to be “good people” first. We’re in it for the “outcome, not the income”, we say. If that’s true, why do we leave it to a gradebook to decide what our room looks like?  We need to examine whether we’re in it to ensure that high achieving students maintain their status and low achievers make them look better by comparison, or whether we’re really in it to create individual growth and learning in all students.

It ignores the contributions of many gifted students and maintains an intellectual status quo. Earning points doesn’t actually motivate some of the brightest kids. They have different needs. They are motivated by being able to develop ideas or pursue their own interests. Some of them are motivated by a desire to lead or stand apart. How are we articulating the purpose of assignments for these students and connecting them to the material?

It presents as an irrelevant, hopeless game for our lowest achieving students. If you know you can’t win, you won’t play. These kids won’t grub for points, because they don’t translate into power for them. Community will. Responsibility will. Connection will. But those things need safety to function and I would argue that by creating a competitive, points driven climate in the classroom you are destabilizing safety as a curriculum. How do you grade someone’s ability to care? To self-advocate? How do you grade empathy? Passion? Those things have to be in place in order to create an person who wants to achieve. The most beautiful thing about teaching theatre is that it contains a story for everyone.

We have the power to fail students, but we also have the power to ensure that they don’t. We have the power to decide what lessons to teach.