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.

 

 

 

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.

Multicultural Teaching: from Bias to Responsiveness

Teachers must prepare students to be responsible citizens in an environmentally sustainable, globally interconnected, and diverse society; without such preparation the teacher is negating one of the prime directives of education, preparing students to be the future citizens.

When it comes to the social environment there is a vast amount of diversity to consider. To prepare students for a sustainable future, with a diversity of people that must interact through an increasingly interconnected world, the teacher must acknowledge and prepare students for the broader world outside of the classroom. To do this the teacher must be both self-aware and culturally responsive to the students in their classroom.

Through my coursework in diversity I have examined both my own history with diversity, my relationship with culturally responsive teaching, and the issue of diversity as it pertains to my content area.

In a set of blog posts I reflected on both personal narrative and academic research to examine both my personal biases and my desire to be culturally responsive to my students. It was not until I went through this process that I understood how little I like the idea of a melting pot. It is in the melting pot that we all start to look and sound like each other. I much prefer a world where everyone is proud of their cultural identity. Learning to differentiate between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, I wrote:

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Reflecting on my relationship with students, I also examined how I have historically interacted with cultural metanarratives and how I can better integrate student interests into my curriculum. One example of this is the student one-act play project that I have developed over the past several years that asks each student to respond to the project by writing about what they know.

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Further responding to industry trends and the teaching task of casting a play, I examined the relationship I have with casting students through non-traditional means, colorblind casting, and culturally specific casting.

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It is only through this through process that I can better understand who I am as a teacher, respond to my students needs, prepare curriculum that is culturally responsive, and prepare my students for a diverse and multi-cultural world.

When I teach in a diverse classroom (and every classroom is diverse). I must understand both what diversity I bring to the table, how students may initially view me, and what bias I also bring into teaching. By doing this I can respond to the needs of each student and check my bias before it enters my curriculum.

Some of the important lessons that I have learned, going through this coursework, are:

  1. Understanding my cultural identity allows me to talk authentically about culture
  2. Every student, regardless of ethnicity, has belonging to both minority and majority groups (race, gender, ability, economics, education, and more)
  3. Talking about diversity is difficult; acknowledging that I am not perfect at it both gives me permission to make mistakes with my students and gives my students permission to make mistakes as well
  4. There is no clear answer about what “the right” thing to do is when addressing diversity; for me the only thing I must maintain is respect for everyone in the room

It is my hope that students will be able to mirror and advance my understanding of diversity and culturally responsive teaching. While I may never actually teach a unit on diversity and our multicultural world, we must learn to sustainably work with people that are different from our own self.

Students learn from the environment around them. I can be only a part of that environment. I may or may not actually embrace the messages that they receive in their homes. I may create a conative dissonance for them; I may reaffirm what they already know and practice. Regardless, I believe I can and will model a path to a multicultural world where differences are embraced and built upon.

I would like to continually work to reflect upon and refine my personal understanding of both my cultural identity and my culturally responsive teaching. Specifically in my classroom, I will continue to demonstrate respect for and honor the multi cultural environment that we live in, continue to be culturally aware when I cast productions, begin to involve students in the decision of casting when it is culturally specific character, continue to encourage students to write from a place of cultural awareness and personal meaning, and challenge myself to work against my biases in the classroom.

Equal Access to Academic Language and Classroom Content through Flipped Learning

Giving students the opportunity to access classroom content in multiple ways is an essential practice of an effective educator; learning content specific academic language can be difficult for both advanced English language speakers and English speakers that are still acquiring fluency, the effective educator will give students multiple opportunities to learn the same content in different ways so that students of different backgrounds can be served equally.

In theatre arts, learning the academic language associated with blocking (the physical movement on the stage that is comprised of entrances, exits, and moving about the stage) can be difficult to master. In my classroom, students are given multiple opportunities to interact with, process, and perform their understanding of the content. This can be especially effective for students that are English Language Learners, struggling readers, or struggling writers.

A primary strategy to instruction of blocking is through a flipped classroom model. First, blocking can be difficult to understand because it is comprised of a coded language that makes the process simpler if the user understands the code. Consequently, I put together a set of instructional videos that mirrored instructional lessons so that the students can take the time to comprehend the information at a pace that works for them. These videos both teach the code of blocking, the reasons for the codes, and how the student can use the blocking.

Further videos allow the students to document the blocking that will be used in the production. These videos have both auditory instructions and the blocking written out for students to copy down; most importantly, students can pause and rewind the video at any point so that they can catch all the information that they need. Students get to both see the code and listen to the fully spoken explanation of the blocking. Any questions that students have are answered in class.

The second strategy, now that students have a written record of the required blocking for the production is to process that information through performance and rehearsal. Students demonstrate their knowledge by actually doing the blocking on stage. This critical step takes the information away from the abstract representation and transforms it into a physical practice that anyone, regardless or reading or writing level, can perform.

Lastly, students explain in their own words why their character is completing the movement in the blocking. Allowing the student to personalize the information, this step makes the information memorable. Because, blocking is more than the set of codes that represent locations on the stage; blocking is the physical expression of the actor.

These multiple modalities represent three best practices in teaching content area language. Students get to learn through multiple forms of the text (recorded audio, recorded video, in person class time) at an understandable rate; students get to perform and demonstrate their understanding of the academic language; students get to personalize the information to finalize the memorization process and relevance.

This was the first year that I presented theatrical blocking through a flipped classroom. The approach is unconventional. Some of my more experienced theatre students resisted the concept. They wanted to quick coded language (ex. Bob X DSL, R O Sam, EX USR instead of Bob crosses down stage left to the right of Sam and then exits up stage right) that they could pick up on the spot. However, students that took more time to learn this content (my sixth grade class for the most part) really enjoyed the process of learning blocking through the flipped classroom because it gave them time to both understand the blocking and process their understanding in class.

The implications for student learning are significant. Presenting the blocking and academic language associated with it through an online format allows students to go back to the information at any time that they choose. I had many students comment that they enjoyed being able to reference both the primary instructional video and the actual blocking videos.

Further iterations of this project may include multiple videos of the blocking. One video would be the quick coded message version, so that more experienced students could sort through the content quickly and a second version for students that needed a more thorough explanation. This would address the concerns that my more advanced students had with the approach while maintaining the online resource for my students.

How To: Writing Workshop for Performing Arts

Can a writing workshop work for any subject? Yes. Although, this assumes the liberal definition of a text, where anything with meaning, including but not limited to written words, can be composed or written. The “text” in question could be a traditional essay, a painting, or even a performance that eludes a fixed form.

The writer’s workshop allows for students work in relationship to a text by asking a strong question. For example, is Shylock, in Merchant of Venice, a hero or a villain? Students can build buy in by forming their own opinion about that question; they way they perform the text with the acting and character choices that they make will form a unique opinion that is expressed through a performance. The same is true for music. Students may be asked a question about the interpretation of a musical composition, or even be asked to compose an original score in response to an existing piece of music or in response to another piece of art. The performative interpretation becomes the student’s response.

A writing workshop depends on students setting their own goals. With a performance this is simple. The student must select artistic elements and skills that apply to the project. Individual work time is also a critical and simple step. With the given project of creating a performance in response to the question students can work on developing the selected artistic elements in their performance (such as character physicality or musical accent) by performing for each other and reflecting on the performances.

Through focused mini-lessons, derived from teacher observations, the teacher can direct the rehearsal process with a differentiated approach to the content. Further, guiding the meta-learning for the class, the teacher can introduce and model the learning target for the day as it relates to the project of answering the question. As students work, the teacher can provide one-on-one conferences with students by watching their work and asking guiding questions.

While this may not be a traditional writing workshop, it is certainly an effective adaptation for the performing arts. Likely, it would also work for Physical Education or any other skill based content that relies on a demonstration of skill rather than the presentation of knowledge in written form. I have seen it work in my class and can easily see it work in others.