Teacher Reflection: Why I Put My Students on Stage
Sydney Chaffee, a ninth grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester and the 2017 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, has all of her students participate in the national Poetry Out Loud competition each December and all of them take to the stage the following spring. Here's why:
On September 2, I stood in the middle of a circle of new ninth graders and pretended to wait for a bus. I checked my (imaginary) watch, paced, sighed heavily, and acted like I didn't notice my students' nervous giggles and dramatic eye rolling.
This was just the beginning of a year of "Huntington days," biweekly theater work that is an integral part of my ninth grade humanities course. Over the course of this year, my students will build literacy skills and become more confident public speakers through a unique partnership with amazing educators from Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. In May, every ninth and tenth grader will perform on stage as a capstone project.
Each year, I put my students on stage, because bringing a text to life requires careful analysis and close reading. Theater work helps them practice collaboration and compassion, and, with the right supports, theater is accessible to all kinds of learners. Students confront their own self-doubts and prove to themselves that they can do more than they believed possible; the pride and triumph they feel after performing is authentic and exhilarating. At Codman, theater is a tradition; every year, ninth and tenth graders at our school go through these theatrical rites of passage, and the older students cheer them on, knowing the journey well.
I'm lucky to benefit from my school's partnership with the Huntington, but you don't have to have a formal connection with a local theater company to give your students these kinds of powerful learning experiences. If you're interested in infusing learning with some healthy "drama," you can:
- Sign your class up to participate in the national Poetry Out Loud competition. Students will choose, memorize, and recite great poetry, becoming better readers and speakers along the way.
- Have students mount a mock trial based on a historical controversy, encouraging them to fully inhabit their characters. (See a great example: The People vs. Columbus, et al. Zinn Education Project.) Bringing history to life helps it "stick" and encourages more thorough research.
- Put a novel or short story "on its feet" by using Readers Theater techniques; turn the text into a script that can be read aloud by students (or have students do the work of turning the text into a script).
There are so many more ways to bring theater into our classrooms to maximize student engagement and learning. Share your favorites on Twitter using the hashtag #Top3fromESE.