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.

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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.

Modeling Digital-Age Learning in a Participation Arts Based Classroom (ISTE 3)

ISTE Standard 3 states that teachers should exhibit knowledge, skills, and work processes that are representative of an innovative professional. My content area, theatre arts, is based in human interaction; these interactions must occur in the moment and in person. An actor must learn to act and re-act. Taking the content of theatre arts into the technological realm is equivalent to making painting class into a digital photography class. However, there is a great deal of content that can be delivered in a flipped classroom format; there are digital tools for teachers, students, and actors that are becoming increasingly common place.

Because the world is increasingly tech-enabled and tech-enhanced, how can I as a teacher of theatre arts, demonstrate technological processes that both enhance my curriculum, increase productivity, and build technological capacity in my students?

Kennedy (2009) speaks to the need for educators to rethink education and align learning environments with real world demands so that learning is flexible and can be utilized anytime and anywhere. One of the most tedious tasks of the actor is to memorize lines. One digital innovation seeks to change that. ScenePartnerApp (https://www.scenepartnerapp.com/) is one of many emerging tools for actors to use when the need to memorize their lines. Any student with an iDevice can download existing scripts or upload their own. This makes the program highly adaptable to any classroom, especially mine because much of the theatre work that my students engage with is written by the students in my classes. However, when we do get to the published works (such as Shakespeare), we can simply download the text.

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One of the greatest highlights of this app is that it allows the user to hear only their lines or only the lines of their scene partner. This ability to repeat the text and use a digital scene partner is invaluable. Without this, the technique of memorization with a partner would need to happen in class. By using this app many of my students, those with iPods and iPads, have a highly effective solution that not only saves time for my classroom, it adds digital flexibility for my students. This app is one clear example of how I can integrate emerging digital technology into a classroom based on human interaction. In fact, because of the time I save (due to students memorizing their lines outside of class) I can increase the amount of human interaction in my class.

Theatre arts is not alone when it comes to time saving digital tools. Now because of the Google Institute (shared by Lida Enche in Google+) students can save travel time and virtually visit art across the world. This too increases the human interaction because in the classroom, teachers and students can talk as much as they want. Google Institute can be found at, https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. I encourage everyone to check out both of these new digital tools that help arts classes.

References:

Kennedy, K. (2009). Volume 7, Issue 2 Distance Learning 21 Cross-Reference of Online Teaching Standards and the Development of Quality Teachers for 21st Century Learning Environments. Distance Learning, 7(2), 21-28.

Socially Responsible Practices of Theatre Education: Sign Three

David Orace Kelly, MFA, MAT

Journal Entry from October 20, 2014 for Theatre Methods

 What is…

At this point I have a decade of experience under my belt in youth theatre. I have a firm grasp on “what is” in my program. This grasp has been continually transforming over the years and has certainly shifted from a more idealistic to a more realistic perspective on what is possible and achievable. Some of the most cumbersome constraints include administrative oversight and school policy, student interests, and limited instructional time.

In my class, as I often describe, I try to create an atmosphere of respect. One benefit of this is that it serves as a backbone for socially responsible actions. We, society, must respect the identities of the people we interact with. We, each individual, must also respect our own history and identity. Too often in theatre, we take licenses to transgress boundaries that are present…

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Comprehensive Theatre: Sign Four

Journal Entry from October 27, 2014 for Theatre Methods

What is…

Lazarus (2012) describes a model of Comprehensive Theatre Education. I strive to create this model in my classroom. I strive to have all students experience all aspects of theatre education. It is through the common experience of acting that I have each of my students also act, direct, design, manage, and research their productions. I also integrate other subjects into my classroom; most recently I have had collaborations with English (in the study of Shakespeare), Art (in the creation of puppets for puppet theatre), Physical Education/Health (in improvisation with Health Topics), and in Music (with creating sound scores for the annual school show). I have Comprehensive Arts Education program. The challenge is, of course, finding the curricular time to accomplish all the goals of a comprehensive program.

Comprehensive Arts Education is defined by three central ideas: a holistic arts education, an interdisciplinary education, and an integrated program. Really, this encapsulates the idea that theatre is every subject. I have told my students for years that they must be scholars if they want to be great actors. It is only through an understanding of academic knowledge of multiple fields that they can bring life to a wide range of characters.

What does this mean for the teacher of theatre arts? Does this mean that I must be an expert in every subject? I do not believe Continue reading “Comprehensive Theatre: Sign Four”

Socially Responsible Practices of Theatre Education: Sign Three

Journal Entry from October 20, 2014 for Theatre Methods

 What is…

At this point I have a decade of experience under my belt in youth theatre. I have a firm grasp on “what is” in my program. This grasp has been continually transforming over the years and has certainly shifted from a more idealistic to a more realistic perspective on what is possible and achievable. Some of the most cumbersome constraints include administrative oversight and school policy, student interests, and limited instructional time.

In my class, as I often describe, I try to create an atmosphere of respect. One benefit of this is that it serves as a backbone for socially responsible actions. We, society, must respect the identities of the people we interact with. We, each individual, must also respect our own history and identity. Too often in theatre, we take licenses to transgress boundaries that are present in society. Sometimes it is very appropriate; it can provoke discussions that allow society to progress. Sometimes, in middle school, the students are not ready to take on those discussions; to cast Romeo and Juliet with two boys, for example, may provoke content that students are not comfortable discussing.

IMG_2248 Continue reading “Socially Responsible Practices of Theatre Education: Sign Three”

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 Continue reading “Student Empowerment: Sign Two”

Theatre Changes: Sign One

Journal Entry from October 5, 2014 for Theatre Methods

IMG_2406On the theme of reflection and change, Lazarus (2012) proposes a series of questions to engage with Appreciative Inquiry. The first question: what is it that has changed in the last year of my teaching; what has stayed the same? The simplest of my answers, I have enrolled in graduate school, MAT and certification. After seven years of developing my middle school drama program and ten years of teaching youth theatre, I have chosen to take this climactic step so that I can change my practice of teaching: in doing so it is my hope to become a better teacher with increased efficacy, increased student impact, and increased knowledge regarding the implementation of best practices.

This does not mean that I have lacked impact over my teaching career. I have had Continue reading “Theatre Changes: Sign One”

Essential Theatre Standards in Washington State

Context: In 2002, the arts were identified as a core academic subject in the State of Washington by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); this act defined the arts as consisting of four distinct disciplines: dance, music, theatre, and visual arts (Dorn, Joseph, Vavrus, 2011). ESEA essentially established that the arts were equally important to all other subjects because only a well-rounded education can increase the academic development of every student. Because of this, standards were created for each of the arts (O1).

The learning standards for the arts, including Theatre, can be found on the website for Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). They can be viewed online or downloaded as a PDF or Word document.

Searching for standards is easy, providing that there is an existing knowledge of the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) for the arts. The first EALR is centered on student understanding of arts knowledge, the second focuses on the student artistic process of creation, the third emphasizes student communication through the arts, and the fourth demands that students make connections across the arts and other disciplines (Dorn, et. al, 2011). A comprehensive chart of the four EALR can be found at the conclusion of this document (see Figure One). Continue reading “Essential Theatre Standards in Washington State”