Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

In Which We Research Tapeworms: A SciPlay Update

Last summer, a teacher friend of mine was trying to decide whether to use a new book in her classroom in the coming school year. We spent a long time weighing the merits: in favor of doing so was the stay against boredom that introducing a new text provides. Against? "I would like to not go entirely insane with work this year," she mentioned. Ah yes. The impossible dream.

If developing a new unit is hard work, it only stands to reason that developing an entirely new curriculum is a LOT of hard work. That's been my lament lately, as my colleague Kelli Buck and I have entered into the most time-consuming part of developing our SciPlay curriculum this month. Truth be told, I'm kind of happy Spring hasn't arrived in anything but name yet here in New York, because I've had to spend a great deal of the month inside, typing and thinking about... tapeworms.

Let me explain. Loyal readers of this column have read about the SciPlay curriculum before in July and November 2010, but briefly, this is a project in which my colleague and I are combining practices from my Beginning Playwriting class with content from her Earth Science class. The culminating project of this curriculum (coming a bit early in the year because of scheduling constraints) is for the class to read and adapt a scientifically-themed play. Jim Wallert, an arts-in-education consultant who worked with us to plan our curriculum, is one of the founders of Epic Theatre Company, and we ended up using some of the ideas from Epic's Citizen Artist curriculum, including some of their process of reading and adapting Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People as our play.

You may not want to combine Science and Playwriting per se, but the process of adapting a work is a valuable one for students (and, for that matter, any practicing writer or artist). It requires a close reading of the text, allows students to explore similarities in theme and plot, and provides opportunities for thoughtful, creative writing and team building as well. Here are some tips I've picked up from our work over the last month.

An Enemy of Exciting Plot Twists

The work you choose itself is quite possibly the most important decision you'll make. To be honest, I fought against using An Enemy of the People. It's not, in my opinion, Ibsen's best work – I'd rank A Doll's House first and several others of his works next – and I have many quibbles with it. It's the story of a Norwegian town that has built its reputation on the curative powers of its springs. The doctor of the town, Thomas Stockmann, finds that the springs are contaminated and deadly; his brother, the Mayor, spends the rest of the play trying to block his brother from closing down the town's main source of income, leading to the eventual near-destruction of Dr. Stockmann by his neighbors. My criticisms? I think the roles for women are dreadfully small and uninteresting; the actions of the townspeople bizarrely over-the-top; the script itself overlong; and the commonly used translation by Arthur Miller to be hampered by a reliance on political statement where characterization should be. I wanted us to use something else, although I didn't know what, exactly.

I was wrong, though. An Enemy turned out to be a great play to use, not only because its main theme of environmental vs. economic health is both science-themed and timely, but because the very blandness and lack of characterization that I note above lend themselves to adaptation. You don't want to try to adapt a work that is so specific and particular that to change it around would end its artistic merit. I wouldn't want to try to adapt, say, Little Women or The Heidi Chronicles, for example (please keep in mind that I mean adaptations of central characters, settings and so on, not adaptation in the sense of changing a novel to a play, etc.), but "un-distinctive" is a good quality for this kind of work.

As we read the play in class, my students would pipe up with complaints: "Why doesn't she ever get to do something?" or "They had this argument already!" It was great to be able to respond, "Well, in our adaptation, we can give the women more to do, if you want" or "You can have them argue only one time, if you like." In fact, I posted large sheets of paper prominently in the room and encouraged the kids to write down ideas that they had for adapting the play. After one particularly upsetting day, I saw that "GIRLS HAVE THINGS TO SAY TOO!!!!" was written on the sheet, with a small, "Say it, sista!" right underneath it. Not only does this give room for venting, it's a good plan to keep a record of ideas you have. They fly away quickly, those ideas.

Reading the Work and Beginning the Long Process of Yelling at Each Other

Reading a work you know you're going to adapt is quite different from reading a work for its own merits. I encourage you to let your class know from the beginning that this is the work they'll be changing up. (A student later wrote that he enjoyed know this from the beginning with An Enemy because "I was glad to be able to change everything that was stupid or boring, and that was a lot of the play.") Now, how kids will look at this work-to-be-adapted is probably a bit more mercenary than English teachers dream of when imagining how kids should approach a work. We'd love for them to fall in love with it for its own merits first, but the kids are already thinking about what shiny stuff they'd like to keep and what's going to be tossed. Ah, well. Remember, you chose a work with some flaws for a reason.

If you've got elements you want to keep in your adaptation, I strongly suggest you keep them in the forefront of the class's mind (relentlessly bringing them up at every opportunity was my method), or you risk losing sight of them. It hurt my heart a bit to nix creativity in the bud, but I did stomp down any ideas that changed the poison water to something non-environmentally related (my apologies, Brilliant Idea of Changing the Polluted Water to Disneyland). I justified my action not only with my own knowledge that the final idea needed to be connected to the curriculum, but also well aware that most writers work best when given some kind of constraints.

After reading the play, we spend about a week narrowing down our adaptation ideas. We started big, with the class split into groups that came up with workable ideas for a setting, time period, problem (the water) and conflict (the power struggle between the two brothers). It quickly became apparent that at least half the class was interested in setting their adaptation in a New York City high school, and, despite my repeated statements that "We can use any time period, guys, even pirate or Vikings times!," modern-day was going to be their choice. An intra-school loathing of the school lunch program lead to a fairly easily-won decision to make the problem that something was wrong with the food of our play's school. And then the yelling began.

Let me say this: the class involved is large (over 30 kids), bright, and hugely opinionated, so the fact that we made it this far without much dissention was impressive. Frankly, I was not very surprised when the exact nature of the scientific problem with the food created factions of vehement supporters, unwilling to bend. Kelli used several science classes to give fascinating/disgusting information about ways food can be spoiled, and soon the Botulism Boosters were near fisticuffs with Team Mold. I was beginning to despair – and we were running out of time – when a presentation from a girl I'll call Princess Tapeworm stopped the class in its tracks. Using regrettably large black and white photos found online, Princess Tapeworm argued succinctly and convincingly that tapeworms in the hamburger meat were the plot problem we needed.

Writing in Groups (or, Ms. Reed Holds Her Breath for Five Days)

Then we hammered out the specifics of plot and character, a process that can most likely be done in many ways, but in this case mostly consisted of me standing in the middle of the classroom forcing votes as if I was Speaker of the House in a pre-CSPAN Congress. We collected slates of candidates (for character occupations and names, etc.) and voted them up or down.

I found that this was the time in which my students most clung to the text. The very kids who had decried the weak female roles just the week before were suggesting we use two brothers as the main characters again. It occurred to me that they were a little scared – what if their ideas didn't work? – and so they wanted to go with what was already known to be successful (the same method that Bon Jovi uses in songwriting, bless them). Be on the alert for this, and prod your class. Referring back to those big sheets of paper helps!

The last step before actually writing was a very minutely plotted breakdown of the plot itself. For simplicity's sake, I handed every child a plot summary of An Enemy of the People broken into scenes and asked them to plot out how they'd like An Enemy of the School to go, scene by scene. This was a very nice idea, and the kids enjoyed it, but looking at 30 almost entirely different plots on a Saturday afternoon was not only a humbling lesson in the amazing uniqueness of each human mind, but an opportunity for me to very nearly lose mine.

Reader, this is what I did: I read all of them, and then I sat down and wrote out the plot as I thought would be best, hewing as closely as I could to their generally shared ideas. In class the next day, I was sure this would lead to insurrection and cries that I was an enemy of self-expression, but no one said a word about it. Instead, they chose which of the five scenes they wanted to work on, formed groups, and began writing.

And writing. And writing. I found their willingness to keep at it deeply impressive. I was skeptical. I kept waiting for something to go wrong. But by Day 2, I found myself sitting quietly to one side of the room, murmuring, "Let me know if you need help" to groups of intently working teenagers. I think they were able to keep going because they knew what they wanted to achieve, and because they felt beholden to do so. I mean that in a good way: Act II, Scene 1's group understood that unless we went all Ionesco in performance, they had to finish their scene, or mess things up royally for everyone.

And Then We Were Tired

Because of how this unit fell across the school year, I kept us on a very tight schedule, and we went immediately from reading the play into planning the adaptation, and then into writing, and then into revising. Retrospectively, I realized that a bit of a break would have been good – something I should have realized from my own playwriting practice! – because one gets tired of the play and frustrated with working on it. This also would have saved me from having to type up the entire play on one grueling Sunday night.

When we revised last week, enthusiasm was not high. Revising is tricky for teenagers (perhaps for people in general) because of the implicit "This was not good enough" behind the request to do so. Here, I tried to emphasize that revising was the nature of the game with group playwriting – pointing out, for example, that both the Act I, Scene 2 and the Act II, Scene 1 groups had written excellent debate between two main characters that was, unfortunately, almost entirely identical. Most of the kids were mollified by this, and understood implicitly that you cannot write a perfect play in one go, especially when the bulk of your writing happens at 8:45 AM. However, I did lose some of the kids in this stage.

Before our second (and last) round of revisions, our wonderful teaching artist, JM, came in and directed a reading of the draft – it was great to have a new face in to work with the kids (who, I'm quite sure, dreaded me, their playwriting notebooks, and the words "enemy" and "tapeworm" in equal measure by that time). If you want to do similar work with your class, I highly suggest having an adult from outside your process stop by, preferably one who will have some expertise to lend and will lavish praise on your kids.

And then we did a final round of revisions. There were a lot of things to fix, and we didn't have much time, so I rounded up each group and gave them one specific thing to fix, then let them have at it. For the most part, they were able to do so, and I was especially grateful that the group given the task "Please finish writing the end of the play" did it. And the smaller mistakes? I fixed them when I typed the final draft.  

Live! From New York! An Enemy of the School!

And now, we wait. JM has a complete copy of the script (all 34 pages, thank you very much, Mr. Ibsen) and Kelli and I are collecting permission slips for the show this week. We'll take all the kids to our partner theatre to see professional actors, and two of their classmates, perform the play. The kids are super-excited about it, and I can't wait to watch them watch their play and then discuss it with them afterwards. I hope it will be empowering and memorable for them.

For me, as much as I'm looking forward to the show, what I'm most impressed by is that we pulled this off. It never seemed unlikely, exactly, as much as it seemed...unimaginable. Thinking back to my friend's pondering about whether to add a new book to her curriculum, I have to laugh at myself. I discouraged that (hey, it was July, it seemed like a lot of work in the summer heat) but willingly took on a massive six-week-long project full of specifics that were almost entirely new to me.

Sometimes teaching is the same old, same old every day. But then, occasionally, teaching is being brave and daring. This was one of those times, and, as proud as I am of all of us in succeeding, I'm even prouder of the fact that we tried.

I'll let you know how the show was in next month's column!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

SciPlay, So Far