Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Never Prouder: The Culmination of a Cross-Curricular Project

As chronicled in this space over the last year, one of my 11th grade classes has been the chief guinea pig — um, I mean, main lucky participants! — in a curriculum one of my colleagues and I have been developing. Since I've covered our goals in-depth before (here, here, and here), suffice it to say that we're taking her core Earth Science content and combining it with my Beginning Playwriting practice.

We're interested in seeing if this will increase students' interest in science as well as boost their test scores. (In New York State the vast majority of high school students must pass a series of State Regents tests in order to graduate from high school, for those of you blessed enough never to have heard the word "Regents.") At my school, the advanced students seek to pass both Earth Space Science and Living Environment.

At the end of last month, the culmination of this curriculum blossomed into existence. You can read about the initial stages of this work in last month's column here. The kids' adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (renamed An Enemy of the School) was presented in a staged reading at Vital Theatre Company in Manhattan (Vital is our school's partner). What was it like for our class to see their words come to live? In the spirit of the Visual Thesaurus, I'm going to sum up the experience using a few choice vocabulary words.

Engagement: Engaging students with the curriculum (i.e., getting the kids to take an interest) is a major challenge for my school's teachers. The reasons are so varied that it would be difficult to sum them up, so I won't try here, but it's something we teachers struggle with on a daily, nay, hourly, basis. My Science-teaching colleague ends up deploying everything from cupcakes to Play-Doh to get some conversation flowing. Yet the presentation was very engaging for them. Trust me, I know — I've spent entire Broadway performances shushing my uninterested kids; here, you could have heard a pin drop. In fact, if you had dropped a pin, my students would have shushed you.

Is this a reflection of the power of ego, the delight that only a playwright can feel in hearing his or her words brought to life? Yes, of course! As a playwright myself, I know that you get to hear your words brought to life for the first time only once, but it's a really magical experience. There's something about seeing the circle completed — you wrote those words to be said, and now they're being said — that's a unique high. That wasn't the only reason our budding Ibsens were interested, but it was a chief one.

For teachers, the lesson for us is, perhaps, to consider engagement less as a task that we must constantly accomplish ("I'll try to engage the kids by playing this Jay-Z song to help them understand hyperbole!") and more as an opportunity for our students to become involved ("I'll put out a bunch of paper and crayons and we'll see where that leads...").  I'm finally realizing that we're not helping our students if we constantly put the need to engage on ourselves, not them.

Bravery: It was only after reading their post-show reflections that I realized that some of my kids were quite nervous about the show. We had noticed that their enthusiasm for the event seemed a little dampened — not even the usual thrill of getting to leave school early seemed to register — but I didn't think much of it. Only later, reading sentences like, "It was SO MUCH BETTER than I was expecting!" and "We didn't look mad stupid after all!," did I get it. You'd think I'd remember that terror myself, as the lights dim, best summed up as "Good Lord, make these people laugh at least once, PLEASE." Why would I expect a pack of 16-year-olds to be perfectly confident?

Therefore, I'm left a little speechless (yet not quite, as you can see, wordless) at my students' bravery. Not only did they allow their words to be whisked away from them and presented, they didn't seek the traditional bucking up beforehand. This project, with its intense group work in a very short time frame, didn't have a precedent for me, my colleague, or the students, and I'm a little embarrassed to say that my concern fell to myself, and my own needs (chiefly, a floating worry that there was no way I was going to be able to type up the entire script in time). Thank goodness, my students were brave. But, should I continue to do this kind of work in the future, I'll definitely budget in time for a discussion about fears, expectations and concerns.

Do you sense your class is off somehow, lately? Could they be anxious about something? Maybe a similar discussion would help. I usually begin by asking them to write anonymously about their concerns and then I share them aloud. We go from there.

Empathy: The class that wrote the play were not the only students to attend the show. We brought along another of our 11th grade classes, who had also read An Enemy of the People in English class. In the spirit of truth, I should tell you that this class had also attempted to write an adaptation of the play, an attempt that ended when I pulled the plug after a week of bickering over the setting for their adaptation (other factors came into play, chiefly that the majority of that class is part of my Beginning Playwriting class and it seemed cruel to force them to write plays for two periods a day). They carry a chip on their collective shoulder, nurturing the idea that the other class (the playwrights) get all the rewards granted to the 11th grade. In short, I was not expecting much from them at the show. Silence was my hope.

But, in fact, they were deeply empathetic both in how their viewed the show (quietly, intently, responsively) and also in the talkback we held afterwards. Every adult in the room later remarked on the care members of that class took with their comments, praising their classmates, remarking on the difficult of what they had done, and praising the skill deployed. Perhaps the most memorable, and empathetic, response came from a student who said, "You guys did a really good job, and it was really difficult to do that, and I can tell because we couldn't get there in my class."

Empathy is a trait I most miss in my students, and most wish I could help them develop. Yet it was not a goal of this particular project — just a happy outcome. I've come to see that empathy and bravery go hand-in-hand. When students see one, or some, of their own being brave, they're more likely to feel empathy towards them.

Discernment: In both the talkback and their own written reflections, I saw discernment from my students. While there were the expected "This show was the most amazing thing I ever seen!!!!!" comments, the majority of students, especially when asked specifically what needed work, were able to state flaws and weaknesses in the performance. Of course, I've yet to go to a student-written event that did not include a student's stated belief that more elaborate costumes would have fixed up a badly written section for the better,  my students were able to express some particular (and, in my opinion, correct) suggestions for improvement. They felt the exposition went on too long (yes), and that one of the characters has been given far too little to do (yep). As befits a theatrical project done by theatrical arts students at a theatrical arts high school, the criticism deployed theatrical vocabulary, which is fantastic (and gratifying to the good folks of Vital who've worked so hard to make their theatre a home for our students).    

Moreover, though, I'm just happy that they were critical of their own work. Far too often, I find that teenagers give themselves a free pass on revising written work, and that "good enough" becomes "good." It was fantastic to see them engage more deeply in the writing process, and I wish we had the time and resources to go back into the text and work on it for another presentation.

I'll definitely explore ways to let my kids hear their work aloud, so that they can form a reasonable opinion about whether it really is good — and not just "good enough" — when appropriate. And I'll seek to find ways to sometimes just let work be good enough. You can't hit it out of the park every time you're at bat.

Those four words, engagement, bravery, empathy, and discernment, are only four of the qualities I saw my students display during and after the presentation of this project. I could also include fortitude for example, or possibly egoism if I was feeling less kind (and had just read the reflection that ended with, "I am a STAR!!!!"). But I'll stop with what I've got, and say that I'm proud of my kids, my colleagues, and myself. The achievement of the culmination of a difficult project is always worth celebrating, and deriving the lessons learned from it is worthwhile too. I hope that if you are a teacher, and you've felt intimidated by a big project you'd like to take on with your kids, that this one has been inspiring to you. Trust me, if we could do it, you can too, and your students will greatly benefit — as will you.

What's Next?

Bravery and discernment stay particularly on my mind in closing this column, because they are two qualities I hope to find within myself over the next few months. Careful readers of this column will not be surprised by my noting that it has been a difficult year for me as a teacher, and that this is the third difficult year in a row. Using my discernment, I've come to the realization that it is time for me to leave Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School. Leaving a school has never been a simple decision for me; I agonize over "abandoning" my kids in a way that gives Mother Courage a run for her money. (Or, wait, did Mother Courage just sell off her kids to save herself? Am I confusing her with Medea now? Maybe I need to re-read...). Still, when the timing is clear, it's crystal, as my student say.

I don't know what's next for me, whether I'll be in another classroom, take on an administrative role in another school, or leave teaching, perhaps even education, all together. I'll keep you up to date, and in the meantime, I hope you'll continue to be interested in the exploits of my students, colleagues and me. So, until next time, I'll say adieu, with grateful thanks, as always, for your comments and readership!

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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.