Using Theater in an English Classroom was taught in the shaded barn basement during a sticky summer in Ripton, Vermont. The professor was a professional actress whose fairy-like mannerisms and boundless energy sparked excitement and anticipation in the teachers that sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor. The promise of the course was that for those of us who saw our subject, not only as a home for bookworms, but as a place to study human interaction – communication, expression, empathy – we could employ the best practices of theatre to enhance our students' experience.
Over an intensive six-week period we learned how to ensemble-build – that is, to cultivate a different kind of camaraderie and accountability than is typical in an academic setting which work wonders for classroom management. We learned to conduct “table reads” in which actors and directors discuss which interpretation of each character best fit the goals of the production – a practice application of close reading.
Even students with solid writing ability often fail to meet the complex standards set by the AP exam prompts. Rather than to simply identify how a protagonist is being characterized, a student might be asked to offer an analysis of this characterization in relation to the story’s major themes. When a student embodies a character, they become aware of the variety of options for interpretation. Suddenly, characterization is visceral and kinesthetic rather than academic or conceptual, because you are going to have to get up and “do” it.
They realize anew that same line might be spoken jovially or with concern and that the manner they choose depends both on preference and what they can support based on textual evidence. The more they analyze characters for performance, the more nuanced their writing on characterization became.
Theatre-integrated literacy curricula is only one of innumerable progressive, student-centred pedagogies that exist and continue to be developed, but I share this anecdote because it displays the three qualities that, to me, define an excellent schooling experience:
#1 School should be useful.
The types of interpersonal, teaming, public-speaking, and analytical skills the students developed from this new approach to a standard literature course were so apparent that students who had long since decided that English “wasn’t for them” understood how it was applicable to work they might engage with in college and career whether or not they chose to major in the subject.
#2 School should be accessible.
A well-developed curriculum is one that engages all types of learners – aural, visual, kinesthetic, etc. This pedagogy brought new levels of comfort and discomfort to all of us, but it offered everyone a chance to shine. Not only did students who struggle with more traditional methods flourish, students who had always excelled in the content were being pushed outside their comfort zones.
#3 School should help you tap into the best version of yourself.
This hands-on pedagogy was not only rigorous, it leveraged the diverse talents in the room. The experience drew abilities out of us that none of us knew we had or that we had never had a chance to share with one another. If an educational experience doesn’t help you realize your potential, what is it worth? If you aren’t having any fun in the classroom, how can you be inspired to learn?
I am drawn to The Harbour School because it is a hub of innovative practice that prioritises the same rigour, relevance, inclusivity, and passion articulated above. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from the faculty as I continue to develop my own practice and to contribute to the process of capturing and build-off of the uniquely innovative work happening here so that some day this kind of educational experience is not the exception, but the norm.
Elizabeth A. Micci recently moved to Hong Kong to join The Harbour School faculty as a High School teacher. A Wallace Fellow, she will be awarded the Doctor of Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2018. During the 2017-18 school year, she will be a THS High School teacher, curriculum innovator and education researcher. Her research in organisational behaviour is focused on how educators assess and take risks and how managers create conditions for people to feel comfortable radically changing practices and behaviour.