Many of us can attribute our path to the theatre to a dynamic teacher in school: the teacher that inspired us or showed us a new side of ourselves. This series is a snapshot of today's high school theatre educators across the county sharing about what they do and how and why they do this work.
I never really considered becoming a full-time high school theatre teacher. I worked for many years as a teaching artist for several theatre companies and during that time I collaborated with a number of public school teachers, saw what they went through, and decided I was not up to the challenge. The paper work alone was daunting, not to mention the restrictions of content, the long hours, the constant fear of your department being cut.
A few years later, an out of the ordinary offer came my way to teach at The New School of Northern Virginia. The usual enticements came to mind: a regular paycheck, health insurance, but I was worried about being able to do the job and the restrictions of what I would have to teach, and let’s be honest, I didn’t have the slightest idea how to grade students. How do you compare a naturally gifted actor with no work ethic against a hard working but not-so-engaging student on stage? As I considered the offer, however, I realized that as a teaching artist I was assessing all of the time. In order to justify funding from various foundations teaching artists had to develop methods of evaluating the work of our students. Lesson planning became a task of massaging outcomes to look something like the English Common Core standards to give our workshops validity and to give the teachers whose classrooms we were visiting some ammunition to convince the administration to let us be there. The constant struggle for any arts educator is defending the work and assessment is the only way to do it. In addition, there are many pluses to working at a private school: I didn’t have to get certified, I didn’t have to follow the Virginia Standards of Learning (hilariously abbreviated as SOLs) or the core curriculum, my classes would be small, I would have a great deal of autonomy, but the real seller for me to take the job and become of a full-time teacher was the school’s philosophy and their understanding of assessment.
The New School of Northern Virginia is part of the Coalition of Essential Schools started by school reform leader, Theodore Sizer. In a nutshell, Sizer identified key aspects of successful schools and used these as guiding principles for reforming struggling schools. Some of the core principles include using one’s mind well and encouraging depth of discovery instead of breadth. For instance, instead of our students taking a US history class for a year, they may take courses in civil rights, the Supreme Court, and feminist leaders of the twentieth century. The most appealing principle to me is that students should show a demonstration of mastery known as “Exhibitions.” In other words, we don’t have final exams in most classes. Instead, we end each quarter with students sharing their knowledge with other. This is often done through a presentation, but can include a research paper, a museum style installation, a round table discussion, an interactive workshop, or a theatrical production. I knew this was right up my alley. When I have my students design sets and costumes for a Shakespeare play, it’s not a special project that gets them ready for a test later, but the cumulation of their knowledge and understanding and interpretation of the work.
However, I still have to give the students a grade. Of course, I have to give them many grades throughout a term and even with demonstrated learning, my question remains: how do you grade a high school theatre class? I have experimented with a few things and learned how other high school teachers of theatre fill their online gradebooks. Student participation in class each day and how hard the student seem to be trying is weighted heavily. A combination of written work and reading is also assigned to make up the less subjective part of the student’s grade. But what does “trying hard” look like? How do you grade a student who has a crippling fear of opening her mouth in front of a room compared to the class clown who can’t shut up? This is my fourth year at The New School, and I am starting to figure out a system … and of course it was right in front of me the whole time.
Each Essential School is a bit different and interprets the core principles in different ways. In our school we have identified twelve essential skills that we want our students to master in order to graduate, and that ultimately will also contribute to their becoming integral members of their communities. What finally clicked in my brain was that theatre teaches each of these skills pretty directly, and therefore my students can be graded on their success in each skill.
The most obvious set of skills that correlates to theatre classes are about a student’s ability to express him or herself. 1) Communicating Effectively is the first essential skill. The Common Core also requires students be able to stand up and speak clearly in front of a group. Performing as a character on stage requires you to not only understand the words, but to translate them in to your own voice and body. 2) Working Creatively, while often reduced to “being creative,” really focuses your methodology and ability to try out different materials and concepts, than you might normally do. When a theatre student can find a way to represent an entire battle on stage with six actors or makes a puppet out of a trash can and its liner you can see this skill at work. The third skill in this category is possibly the most important, 3) Solving Problems. In a nutshell, it’s applying the scientific method to other subjects. It can be easy for students to assume their answer is a “right” answer to making theatre. I want to encourage them to recognize that there are several “answers” to how a scene can be played out or a costume can be designed, and that the way to see if it works is to try it out. My catch phrase this year with all of my students is “Failure is always an option!” Breaking students out of the habit of believing there is only one way to skin that proverbial cat is my main concern.
The next set of skills reflects a student’s relationship with others, or as we say in the theatre, being a part of an ensemble. 4) Working Collaboratively is the skill my students usually equate with theatre. At the end of their Junior year, students present a portfolio to illustrate their mastery of each essential skill and almost all who have participated use their experience in a play as an example. Being a part of a play is a microcosm of their larger communities and gives them a real opportunity to see how the actions of one can effect the whole group. Of course they understand the negative response when someone misses a rehearsal or doesn’t know their lines, but the positive work is also reinforced when someone really hits their stride on stage. This is how I see the skill of 5) Acting in Benefit of the Community really connect on two levels. They see how something fun can also bring joy to the people observing—their audience. Recognizing an audience as their community is a great step for teens who often are regarded as self-centered or unaware. 6) Thinking and Acting Ethically is the skill students struggle with the most. Students tend to imagine that ethics has to do with big issues on the level of WikiLeaks. Participation in theatre can let a student try on a different persona in a show and inhabit a character that may not make the same choices as the student. In this way they are able to experience how someone comes to a decision and how they deal with consequences. It’s like getting a chance to test-drive ethical questions.
Similar to this is the skill of 7) Appreciating and Understanding Different Perspectives. Mastering this skill asks you to suspend your judgment of a person (or character) and look at the big picture. I can still remember my own epiphany as an actor when playing a villain and discovering how to find things to like about the character. When I teach about dramaturgy in my classes, I often talk about the skill of 8) Making Connections and Being Aware of Context. Investigating the playwright, the time period the play was written, and how theatre was made in that period allows the students to make connections between history, art, politics, and social customs. 9) Working Independently at first seems counterintuitive to working in theatre, but we all know how much outside work goes in to preparing for a show. In fact, one way we explain Working Independently is “Take chances by making choices.” If that’s not a golden rule of theatre, I don’t know what is.
The last set of skills revolve around developing a work ethic, a synthesis of the other skills, and putting skills to work. 10) Applying Effective Research Methods—gathering and organizing information and then making that information meaningful and useful—is the process for any director, designer, dramaturg, playwright, or actor. Of course, the one we all struggle with is 11) Managing Materials and Time to Accomplish Goals. Having a very real deadline like an opening night gets back to this idea of authentic assessment. An arbitrary due date for a paper in a class is easily ignored or excused or moved around, but an audience arriving to see your work is harder to circumvent. Sticking to the plan, or rewriting the plan when things change is played out in real time when you make a show. Finally, my favorite skill, 12) Persisting in Achieving Quality teaches students about the drawing board and how to get back to it. Many students struggle receiving notes about their work let alone figuring out how to integrate that feedback. The act of rehearsal makes you repeat, revisit, and rework. This is not an easy skill to improve. Procrastination and fear of failure keeps many students from reviewing assignments once they have been turned in. Even following a process for writing a paper is often leap-frogged to a final draft. Participation in plays allows students to be guided through the process of multiple drafts and post mortems on final products.
My goal for this year is to directly incorporate these skills into my teaching and my student assessments. While I am still tied to the traditional letter grade scale on report cards, how I determine that grade is more flexible. If we look at grades as a method for students to see their progress and know where they need to improve, how much more information will they get from a detailed assessment of their essential skills? I know many teachers do not have the luxury of revamping their methods of grading, but if nothing else, here is another set of reasons to keep theatre education in our schools. It’s not to train the next generation of actors and directors (that’s a nice byproduct if it happens) but to create strong, empathetic, and thoughtful members of our community.