Student Empowerment: Sign Two

Journal Entry from October 12, 2014 for Theatre Methods

When I consider the voices in my classroom – the voices that are shared with the performance space, my first thought is that of the playwright. I believe that the actor, in training or professional, has a duty to the words; the actor must bring the text to life. My second thought, as a teacher, is that the voices of my students must be heard. It is their learning experience; if a student can own the work – put their own name on it, there is an incentive to the student for increased ‘buy-in’ to the process. It is exactly this engagement that brings the words of the playwright to life in new ways. My students have the freedom to approach a text with a fresh and empowered perspective. That is why I am in theatre arts – I relish the empowered perspective of a student that demands full participation of each student. This was certainly true of my education; I received a high school theatre training that emphasized my full participation.

Reflecting, specifically on my high school theater experience, my teacher (much beloved) had a style that emphasized projects – often projects that he did not do much or any teaching for. The teaching in his class came after two weeks of practice. Students would present their scene and he would critique for twenty minutes after each scene. Sitting from the back of the theatre, in his bully pulpit, he lectured on the merits and faults of what we presented. He offered little in the way of technique. What he did offer was a drive for his approval. As far as I was concerned, my theatre teacher was the guru of art. For an angst-ridden teen this was exactly what drove my passion for theatre. Getting the approval of my theatre teacher was more valuable than gold.

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Level 8 (Lazarus, 2012)

Nearly, two decades later, how does this experience reflect and resonate in my classroom? Now that I have been teaching for several years, I have developed a style that is very hands on; my style is almost the opposite of my high school theater teacher. For example, I often base a lesson in a specific learning target that includes a specific acting or performance skill. I demonstrate and model skills. I engage students as they experiment and discover; I challenge their impressions of how to complete the skill best; I want them to apply the technique to their experience of theatre (and not mine). My bully pulpit is ongoing. I am constantly hosting a Socratic seminar on the skills of acting and theatre. My voice is heard in my class. But my voice is a call and response between teacher and student. At its best, this is representative of what Lazarus (2012) identifies as the Eighth Level (the most engaged) in the Ladder of Participation. Students make decisions about their art by answering the questions I pose to them. Students solicit my opinion and I will often tell them, “I do not know what is right or wrong – you need to figure it out – it is a creative choice that needs to work for you.”

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Level 1 (Lazarus, 2012)

On the reverse side of the coin, there are students that do not have their voice heard. Students that choose not to engage in the work fully miss the opportunity to engage at the same level, or depth, as other students. I do everything I can, short of holding their metaphoric hands through the creation process, to engage them. At times, I am able to bring them into the fold. At others, I sink to the lowest level on Lazarus’s (2012) Ladder of Participation: I manipulate my students by telling them exactly what to do to succeed. They may not understand the choices I am making until they find buy-in with the process. This, possibly unflattering trait, has shown up less and less with each year I have taught. Though it becomes most likely to be reborn when there is the pressure of production. In other words, this happens when I no longer seek to be in the process of creation. This could be in either a scene that involves only a few other students or in in the all school play. Regardless, the mechanism here for my direct instruction is the preservation of the education of other students that are by contrast highly engaged. At times it is necessary to bring one student along in the process by telling them what to do so that other students can work, relatively, unimpeded.

I believe in student empowerment. This core tenant of my program is demonstrated best in the One-Act School Play. I promote the production as directed by, acted by, written by, and produced by the students. I try with every ounce of my teacher being to give students the power to make every production decision and acting choice. At its best, rehearsals are student run and I get to support the experience by adding my input. I can be a co-creator and facilitator of the process. When it comes to the final production, the students run the show fully. There is a production team, all on headset and in constant communication. I get to listen in and smile proudly. For four years now, the One-act play festival has been completely student powered and I am proud of that.


Lazarus, J. (2012). Signs of Change New Directions in Theatre Education: Revised and Amplified Edition. Bristol: Intellect.

Author: David Orace Kelly

International Teacher - Arts and Education Leader

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