How to Evaluate Memorization

Memorization is a key skill in theatre and in life – but some kids need more or less support. Sometimes it even depends on their ability level. In my experience one point for each word becomes tricky – different students have different word counts and different memorization challenges in a particular script. Instead, I look at levels of memorization. It helps me direct student support for follow up.

Here is a general rubric that I like to use:

“Top Marks” – 10 points for being  Word Perfect

“Job Done” – 7-9 points for being basically word perfect. Maybe some transposition of words or dropped words. Perhaps a missed sentence (depending on length).

“Support Needed” 4 – 6 points, student missed more than a sentence, called for line or looked at script (1 – 3 times).

“Significant Revision Required” –  1-3 points for being unable to complete memorization or in need of more than three prompts.

I’ll assign a Student AD or SM to make notes on any missing or incorrect words by highlighting a revision script for the actors or by making line notes specifically for each actor.

Additionally, it is important to:

  • Give students memorization tools before giving them a memorization assignment (or make sure they have experience with memorization).
    • Tools include: writing and re-writing the lines by hand (speaking aloud while re-writing can also be helpful)
    • Writing cue lines on one side of an index card and the full line on the other side. Students can study like flash cards. Again, speaking aloud is preferred.
    • Memorizing line by line or sentence by sentence in what I call the A, AB, BC, CD, method so that what has been memorized gets linked to what will be memorized and the text is evenly memorized throughout.
    • Physical cues within text. Students can connect physical action such as blocking or character gesture to pieces of text. These gestures are fully implemented as part of performance whenever possible.
    • Sound cues in text. It helps students to use auditory clues such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyming, and rhythm to memorize a text. Sometimes it takes a study of these poetic elements to cue into the memorization.
    • Memorization to a song.  Use an established song melody and fit the spoken words to that song. Play the song again and again.
  • Give students ample time to memorize their texts and scaffold the memorization so that it is not all due at one time. I often tie memorization deadlines to the rehearsal following completion of blocking for a scene. (Alternating in sets of four for rehearsal: 1) Table read and discussion of scene; 2) Blocking of scene, on book; 3) run of scene memorized blocking and lines; 4) working of the scene, “stop, work, fix, go”.

 

 

 

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Lesson idea – intro to musical theatre.

What should an interviewing teacher do to show off great teaching for an upper school drama class? My response is as follows: pick one lesson that shows your technical strength as a theatre artist. Perhaps musical theatre. Keep it simple.

1) pre-view and pre-assess (eg. Sing a song about what you are feeling) discuss with the class what they saw. Deploy relevant academic language (Eg. Ballad. Sonnet. Rap.)

2) prep and practice (eg. Give kids an open prompt to sing their feelings/thoughts. They can use an existing song for lyrics or make one up.) let them pair share in rehearsal. Circulate and work one-on-one or in small groups. Give them a simple rubric to follow and peer evaluate. (Eg. Song had emotional content. Enunciation was clear. Voice message was projected.)

3) kids up on stage one by one share 10 seconds of their song. Quick feedback in Oreo style – good performance element – challenge or growth element was – compliment performance. Fill rubric out for student. This should be the third evaluation on the rubric. They did one for themselves. They had a peer do one too.

4) Reflection. On the back of their rubric, students write out one strength of their work and one thing they want to do differently next time. Rubric with reflection becomes exit ticket. Before dismissal establish exit routine. (Eg. Fist bump, bow to rest of class, clap of respect etc.) collect reflections. Be ready to discuss each student’s work with the hiring team.

AUTOMATED or AUTHENTIC ACTING

Does acting in acting class need to be authentic to the student?  I recently came across this question in a professional forum.

Certainly authenticity is good – especially in theatre. It is a creative process; the product is best when it is personal to the actor. However – I contend that this may only be the desired end product.

A novice actor needs skills to build from – guidance even clear direction to develop with. Ready, set, create… GO! Open ended creation can be difficult. Giving a student a framework, blocking, gesture, vocal placement, clear direction is not only good teaching, it is a real-world occurrence. In doing so, the teacher is supporting the skill level of the student and scaffolding from that point forward. Yes in theatre education, there should equally be as many opportunities to collaborate, devise, and create in an open-ended forum. These are key skills that theatre can main-line to the student; these later skills, require a prerequisite of experience to build from.

Consider instruction in English Language Arts. In middle school and high school, writing instruction is often prescribed. A teacher may say, “use these sign post words” or “use a first person voice”; they may further say submit your paper in 12 pt font and MLA format. And in the execution of that prescription, the student learns the structure, the form,  the style required and then can learn to write in that mode authentically. But, their first prescribed may not be authentic to the student.

I contend that the instruction of an acting student does not need to be much different. I am curious to see what other teachers of theatre may think on this point.

This approach of prescribed movements and highly directed or choreographed work could also be described as an “outside-in” style of acting. Physically based styles are widely used around the world. Included in this would be the Lazzo of the Fly from Commedia and the stylized movement and voice of Kabuki. Here are some examples.

You can see in the Lazzo, the movements are very planned, even choreographed in response to the music.

Here you can see an example of a planned combat scene in Kabuki. It has been done in this exact prescribed style for the past 400 years.

 

 

 

Teaching beyond Facts…

What does teaching beyond facts mean? I recently read a fascinating article on soft and hard skills in the 21st century. Here is a summary of the article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

The school system that most adults today grew up with should not be in the classroom of today. The memorization of facts is not the most valuable resource for a student. The analysis and understanding of information – using the information in a way that develops the student and prepares them for the future is more important.

We live in an ever connected world. The future that the children of today face is increasingly changing and complex. To prepare students for the world of tomorrow, a world we cannot fully understand, educators must teach 21st century skills. These skills include Social-emotional learning, Habits of Mind, character strengths and grit. But, these skills are often seen as “soft” or non-cognitive. How does an educator teach them in the classroom. A more interesting question is how does one know when the student has acquired the skill?

Students need to learn literacy and numeracy. These things are still important. Test scores reveal a piece of the puzzle that develops a student. But, teaching a clear skill such as multiplication or letter recognition is not the same as the application of the real-world math problem incorporated with constructing a building or the value that comes with understanding humanity when one interprets and analyzes a poem.

In a 21st century classroom, we distinguish between different types of thinking. We ask questions of varied complexity; from fact to analysis to an application of skills, students must learn to work in a variety of ways: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration. These skills move the student from the foundations of fact into the potential to apply their “soft” skills in a variety of situations.

What is uniquely different about these skills is that they are continually developed. The school can give each student the opportunity to practice critical and creative thinking, communication and collaboration through project based learning that targets these skills.
The full article can be found at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar16/vol73/num06/Hard-Thinking-about-Soft-Skills.aspx

Youth Theater Needs Lessons – not simply games

I’ve been working in the field of youth theater for the past decade. I find that when it comes to training acting skills and getting specific with young actors about the skills they are learning such as voice, speech, physicality, using objectives, and general analysis of a character plot and given circumstances, Drama games do not cut it. Drama or improvisation games are good for general, unspecific, and inferred skills that actors use every day in theater. However, to break through that and actually transfer knowledge in an explicit way, Young actors need formative lessons that are equivalent to a musician playing a piece of music. Similarly, you cannot train a classical musician through jazz improvisation. Drama or improvisation games are good. But, I do not rely on them anyway to actually teach my students. Drama and improvisation games are good for days when I want to depart from a lesson sequence. Yes, fun is essential in learning and especially in a creative discipline such as theater. However, it is difficult to engage student voice and ask students to articulate what they have learned in a drama game. Learning should be based on formative lessons with specific skills that are being practiced in improvisation or a script.

A Case for Playwriting and Supporting Standards in Education

What are standards in education?

Briefly, standards are agreed upon learning points in specific disciplines that are specific to a grade level and the skills that the average student in that grade should acquire. Standards can be found in every content area from English and Math to Physical Education and Theatre Arts. There are different groups that have organized and authored standards. In Washington State there are the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) that are comprehensive for every discipline in Washington State Schools. Nationally, there are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading, writing, and mathematics. These standards have widely been adapted across the states so that the education of one child is (ideally) the same as the education of another child in a different part of the country. In general every public school and many private schools have adapted the use of the CCSS into the regular curriculum. There are also National Standards for the Arts that are comprehensive for all grades, K – 12, and the four major artistic disciplines of Theatre, Dance, Music, and Fine Arts. Given the movement to standardize the content of the classrooms across the country it is a best practice to, at the very least, integrate the national standards into the local standards of the classroom.

How do teachers use standards?

Most importantly, standards do not tell teachers what content to use for their instruction. Standards are simply a list of skills that students should develop. For example, when studying plot structure, the teacher may ask the students to read a grade level appropriate book or craft a narrative that includes essential plot points. The teacher may integrate a historical lesson about the Fraytag Pyramid or use a modern construct such as the five and eight part story structure.

Standards help to measure student performance. They do not need to be summative (resulting in a numerical grade). These measurements can be formative (descriptive of the student’s work) in either a formal or informal application from the student, peers of the student, or the teacher. That is to say, students should be made aware of the standard and be asked to evaluate their work in the context of the standard. They will gain two important things from this. First, the students will be accountable for their own learning. Second, they will not be caught off-guard when that standard reappears in another format or when the instructor discusses their work in the context of the standard.

Using standards is only a small part of being a great teacher. It is still up to the teacher to fill the gaps left in the framework that the standard provides. Standards are benchmarks on the roadmap to learning. There may need to be alterations, backtracking, fast-forwarding, or absolute disregarding of the standards to make sure that the learning of each student is addressed.

Why use standards?

The arts continually fight to be justified in the context of traditional education. By utilizing standards at the state and national levels for both the arts and the areas of overlap in the common core, teachers and artists can justify the existence of arts programing in a school. This is especially important today when arts programing is cut and when often teachers with low qualifications to teach art are at the helm of a dwindling arts program.

Second, standards are used to clarify and support the education of each student. Think of each standard in the same way that you would think of a painter learning the primary colors, or a ballet dancer learning proper alignment, or a drummer learning to count the rhythm, or an actor learning the difference between stage left and stage right. These are all basic standards in the arts. You can think of standards as the building blocks of knowledge, the rules of the art form, that help artists create.

As it is well known, one must learn the rules to break the rules. Artists are no exception. Standards are the rules that the creative spirit can use or break to create new and interesting pieces of art.

How does playwriting fit into all of this?

Writing a play is the ultimate task in writing. It requires the author to be both creative genius and literary technician. The CCSS addresses both aspects of writing, though it does more heavily cover the technical aspects of writing well. The playwright must learn to tell a story, develop a character, use contrasting points of view, follow the syntax and format of a play, use established writing structures, and most importantly follow the arduous process of writing, rewriting, revising, peer editing, critiquing, and then writing again. These are all found in the common core state standards.

Graduation 2015

The following speech was delivered to the class of 2015 on June 9, 2015 in Seattle WA.

1 All students all alike in dignity

2 In dear Seattle where we lay our scene

3 from ancient text to music harmony

4 We study things we know and things unseen

5 From the communal mind of what we know

6 Each student now walks across this great stage

7 To celebrate all that they’ve done to grow

8 and now to walk onto histories page

9 their wondrous passage into their high school

10 is now for everyone to take in stride

11 just please remember Our one golden rule

12 respect is how you live your life with pride

13 and with today as in all of your dates

14 go forth and make us proud dear graduates

My speech tonight is filled with quotes. Words of people I admire. Listen closely for the quotes. There may be hidden wisdom in them. Friends, Romans, Graduates, lend me your ears. It is an honor to have been selected to speak. Thank you. I would like to reflect on the purpose and path of education and why all of you are in an excellent position to succeed beyond your imagination. First, the teachers, faculty and especially your families have helped you to get to this point – please be sure to personally thank them. Then, be sure to thank yourself. Your work, all your efforts, has gotten you here- sitting in the garb of a graduate. Graduates oh graduates, wherefore are thou graduates? That is to say, why are you graduates? Culminating in walking across the stage today your education has been formidable. I know there has been struggle and angst; yes there has been the predictable blood, sweat, and tears of learning in Middle School. But, there has also been great joy that details your memories of EW. I will guess that you will look back on your time here and recognize the achievement of completing middle school at EW. It is an excellent preparation for any of the schools that you are each attending next year. I think that once you get out of the metaphoric woods that EW lives in, and start comparing your experience to other ninth grade students, you will see how vast and deep your education has already been. As you move from middle to high school, remember this, to learn or not to learn that is the question; to tank and fail – perchance to be in the zone and succeed. Ay there is the rub. Yes, the difference between learning and tanking is the task of the student. Ultimately – and I am sure this may spark great debate – it is not about the grade. Your memory of each score will fade, but the lessons learned will last longer and always be there to support your future ambitions. One of my favorite Zen quotes is, “The expert in anything was once a beginner.” I am reminded of the learning process daily. Not only as I watch the students of EW grow, but as I watch my own children grow too. My daughter, almost six months old now, has recently learned how to belly crawl across the floor. She illuminates the idea that learning is failing and then trying again. That is how you stay away from tanking. She, regardless of her failure to get her knees involved in the process of crawling properly, is in the zone and continues to work on the task of moving across the floor. I believe that the EW graduates align with this idea and Bruce Lee when he said, “I either win or I learn.” I hope that each of you can take that mentality with you in your future years as life continues to present the challenges and rewards of being an engaged life long learner. “You don’t always need a plan” I saw this quote recently posted online and read on. “Sometimes you just need to breathe, trust, let go, and see what happens.” The powerful moment here is the potential of each one of you. Through the following years each of you will earn, win, face challenge, experience success. These events will continue to shape who you are: A Nobel Lauriat; A social worker eliminating homelessness; A politician fighting for equal rights; An artist that addresses the concerns of society? Doctors that work across boarders; lawyers that advocate for the rights of everyone; the next inventor of the next tech revolution; Loving Parents; Loyal friends; engaged people that care about the world around them and a sustainable future? I hope so. I have said for a long time, “The essence of life is not about being perfect. In fact, perfection exists so that we have something to strive for.” This is at the heart of education, for me. There will always be someone that knows more than you; someone that can run faster than you; someone that will outperform you in one-way or another. Yet, for every person better than you, there is someone looking at you with the same thoughts. And, today, we are looking at you with pride in our hearts. Your achievement today, makes us proud. Regardless of who is better than whom, what matters is that you each run your own race and “don’t let your perceived limitations ruin your creativity.” Creativity is one of the greatest assets that you all have acquired at EW. From Drama to every other subject, creative thought is required. Every vocation benefits from creativity. It is our imagination that spurs ingenuity. It is one of my favorite parts of this school: creativity is held in the same regard as responsibility, confidence, and integrity. When students arrive here, in my class and every other, one of the other great lessons they learn is self-confidence. And, this is important because self-doubt is one of the most crippling forces. Self-confidence is one of the most empowering. EW Graduates know that have a voice that both matters and will be heard, because they have self-confidence. Education Researchers, Fay and Funk put it this way, “A positive self concept comes from feeling capable.” EW graduates are highly capable: from challenge assignments to an immersive curriculum that spans many of the most essential subjects, EW Students are empowered to take on the world. EW Graduates, you amaze me with your self-confidence. You are empowered to speak you mind, engage in civil debate, solve problems with elegance, change the world and address the problems that have been handed to you. Gandhi was smart and can give us this guide, “You can be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Rumi would add, “You should first change yourself.” I hope that I have not been too dogmatic here. The best teachers show you where to look but not what to see. To turn this idea around here Graduates, I predict that you will be showing the world where to look. In just one short decade, you will be entering the workforce as informed impassioned leaders. I would like to credit you time at EW as partially responsible for that. Regardless of where you end up, no matter where you are, how educated you are, how rich, poor, or cool you are, what matters in the end is how you treat people. Ultimately, this tells everything about you. Act with integrity and respect in all things. I know you graduates will stand up for what matters and for what is right in the world. I know it is in good hands. Vince Lombardi gives me my final words for you, “Every job is a self portrait of the person who did it. Autograph you work with excellence.” Congratulations graduates. I am truly proud of each and every one of you.