Introduction / 2.) Idea / 3.)
Preparation / 4.) Playwriting / 5.)
Rehearsal / 6.) Performance / 7.)
Post Mortem / Appendix 1--Brainstorms
/ Appendix 2--The Play
How the Fourth Grade and I Wrote
I recently had an experience with my students that I think is worth sharing
with other teachers. If, like me, you often think elementary school
"class plays" are of questionable value, our project may change your mind.
What follows is a description of the process by which my drama students,
their classroom teachers, and I created a play about the Oregon Trail that
was both informative and entertaining for its audience and enriching and
personal for its creators. This project was an experiment, and it often
seemed likely to fail, but the result was ultimately so successful that
I though it would be useful for other teachers to see how we did it.
I am not suggesting that you necessarily try to imitate our project exactly,
but I think that there is much of value to be found in this account.
Rather than setting forth a series of instructions for other teachers to
follow, I will try to describe both the successes and the failures we encountered
along the way. Every teacher has a personal style, and will adapt
the project to suit that style. I'll narrate the process from idea
through the preparation, writing, rehearsing, performance and "post mortem."
I hope in this way to provide an understanding of the project from which
other teachers can take what will work for them and leave what won't.
I am a drama teacher in a private boys school. I teach primarily
in our Lower School, which consists of pre-Kindergarten (Jr. K) through
fifth grade. I teach one period per week of creative drama with each
class in the school (20 in all). In addition, I assist with classroom
projects that have elements of drama or theatre in them, coordinate the
Lower School boys' participation in pep rallies and the like, and generally
serve as a resource for anyone and everyone. (I also direct plays
in Upper School.) The Lower School Drama program in place is my creation--the
school had never had a drama teacher or any dramatic arts curriculum at
the elementary level until I was hired to create it. It has not always
been easy to win acceptance for drama in a school whose teachers, to a
limited extent, and whose parents, to a much greater extent, tend towards
the conservative and the "3 Rs." However, I now feel that drama is
an accepted part of the school week, and it is clear that it is a favorite
subject for many boys. Except in grade 5, the school day is divided
between classroom teachers, who teach language arts, math, and social studies,
along with related subjects to one homeroom, and "special teachers," who
teach a single subject to multiple homerooms and grade levels, who come
to them one or more times a week. The "special subjects" at our school
are Science, Gym, Music, Art, and Drama. I am the only drama teacher,
so I see every child in the school.
Every year at my school, each grade level (pre-K through 5) is assigned
an "assembly" date. This "assembly" is in essence a class play.
This tradition dates from long before drama was introduced as a curricular
subject at the Lower School level, and the "plays" have traditionally been
put together by the three classroom teachers at each grade level.
Those of you who are practicing drama teachers will understand that this
tradition rather dismayed me when I arrived here. Such "class plays,"
as traditionally handled, exist almost entirely for the gratification of
parents, and are of little educational value. Depending on the degree
of polish the teachers demand, they can be unduly stressful, and can even,
in extreme cases, instill an early fear or hatred of the theatre in children.
I must insist that I saw no signs of such extremes at this school when
I arrived, and concluded that the "assemblies" were at worst neutral in
impact, and sometimes educational. Even the Jr. K plays seem to be
a largely pleasant experience for the boys. Still, I have tried,
as my position here has become more accepted, to influence these programs
in a positive way--to make them more process-centered, to include the children
in the creative process, and to generally provide an experience of positive
value for the students' education. Although my first few such attempts
were met with skepticism, I have found that the classroom teachers have
been very supportive overall, and the results have been gratifying.
For the most part the "assembly" dates for each grade are about the same
every year. Since the subject matter for the plays is generally pulled
from the social studies curriculum, which also stays pretty constant from
year to year, each grade generally presents a play on the same topic each
year. (Indeed, some of the grades present the same play every year!)
Since I have been here, the first grade has done a Thanksgiving play, the
second a "Native American Pow Wow" (I've tried to do something about that,
but so far with no success), the third grade a play about ancient Egypt,
the fourth grade a play about ancient Greece or Rome, and the fifth grade
a "Medieval Feast." (The pre-K and Kindergarten classes do something
different each year, but at that level the "plays" are really just recited
poems.) The first grade level to embrace the change in approach I began
advocating the day I arrived here was the third. A few years ago
the third-grade teachers handed their "assembly" over to me almost completely.
(I don't want to imply that the teachers had no role in the process--only
that the roles were reversed, and I became the one ultimately responsible
for putting the project together, rather than just an expert who came and
coached the children on diction and projection.) I hit upon the idea
of having the students write their own plays, based on ancient Egyptian
folktales, the results were very well received, and that's what we do every
year now. For me, the main point is that the students (in group sessions
with me) write the plays themselves, which gives them ownership in the
project, and shifts the focus from rote repetition and product to creativity
and process. For the teachers and parents it doesn't hurt that our
final product is usually up at least as good as the pre-written scripts
traditionally used. Still, these plays are very simple structurally--each
of the three classes presents its own story--and they depend heavily on
narration. (Convention dictates that each student must have at least
one line, and in the third grade plays, most of them have lines of narration.)
When, this year, the fourth-grade teachers indicated an interest in collaborating
on their assembly play, I wanted to try something a little more difficult
(and more theatrical).
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