As an instructor of theatre, and specifically theatre education, I prepare students to enter their future classrooms armed with an array of teaching techniques and approaches to studying theatre arts, an understanding of their personal goals for their students’ learning, and an attitude of perpetual exploration. Because theatre is fundamentally an exploration of the human condition, it is both deeply personal and profoundly connected to others. The work of an artist and an educator is ever-evolving, responding to the world around it, adapting to its needs, and learning and applying new strategies to reach both audiences and students. This charge applies to me as much as my students; teaching teachers requires “walking the walk,” the humility to know that one’s own learning is never complete, and a steadfast commitment to examining one’s beliefs and approaches to work in the classroom.
To guide my students on this journey, I balance my classroom between examining a diverse array of resources, and assigning tasks that require practical application of what students discover within them. It is never enough for a student to just read about a particular approach to teaching, or even to participate in a classroom demonstration of said technique. Thus, through both guided discussion and written reflection, I push students to examine what resonates with them within a given text or demonstration, and also what they find themselves resisting. I ask them to articulate how what they’ve read might affect their future practice. The next step is to see this reflection in action, through both written materials and on-one’s-feet facilitation. This creates a laboratory of sorts within the classroom, in which students lead their peers through the activities and lesson plans they devise. Careful consideration is given to structuring the class to build student understanding and confidence, with each step of the course building on the last.
For example, in Creative Dramatics/Drama in the Classroom, students are often thinking about teaching theatre for the first time. Children’s literature provides an accessible springboard for this work, while also presenting the depth and breadth of topics that create space for meaningful analysis. We begin by investigating sample lesson plans, showcasing a variety of approaches to exploring picture books and folktales through drama exercises. They read and analyze these plans, as well as participate in lesson demonstrations led by me. Their next step is to co-lead a lesson plan selected from their textbook with other students in the classroom, focusing on facilitation techniques without the added challenge of devising their own original material. Finally, students create their own, unique lesson plan exploring a story of their choice. This lesson plan is assessed in terms of its written structure and clarity, and students also facilitate the lesson in class for their peers, allowing me to evaluate their skills for leading a group. Each step of this process allows me to observe student progress, showing me gaps in understanding and where students are excelling. In the syllabus, I intentionally leave a bit of flex room in the course schedule, giving space to review confusing topics when additional instruction is needed, or move ahead to more advanced material, based on student progress.
In Secondary Methods of Teaching Theatre, students often express trepidation about how to teach theatrical design. To break the ice, I begin by demonstrating several short, hands-on activities that can be used to introduce the design process. For example, using a poem as a short “script,” students analyze the text for theme and tone. I then bring in an assortment of flashlights and desk lamps to serve as lighting instruments, along with lighting tools that allow students to experiment with what colors, textures, and analysis best support their text analysis. For an introduction to teaching costume design, song lyrics provide the text for character analysis, which springboards into historical research, design choices based on a selection of physical swatches, and simple sketches. Next, students devise and lead their own classroom exercises designed to address both State and National Standards for theatre design at the middle and high school level. When presenting work in class, students receive peer feedback, instructor feedback, and are also asked to reflect on their own assessment of their work. This three-tiered approach provides multiple viewpoints on a student’s work, and helps lay a road map for approaching future assignments.
I consider it my job to meet students where they are, and guide their growth from that place, which means constantly assessing what is working for students and what is not (on both an individual and classroom level). Recently, I have observed a steep rise in student anxiety levels, and in a desire to have a perfectly laid road-map to success; students are fearful about “getting it wrong,” and want a clear check-list that will lead them through each new challenge. To help mitigate this, I provide a detailed syllabus, course schedule, and clear expectations for each assignment. At the same time, I point out to each class where I have left room for their own creativity and problem solving, and celebrate students who take risks and try new things. When students step out of their comfort zone, we celebrate the idea of “productive struggle,” shifting a student’s internal narrative from “failure” to continual and perpetual learning. This process strengthens the tool of learning through missteps. When a risk does not yield desired results, we use that as an opportunity to complete another iteration of that task, or to make strategic changes in planning the next assignment.
This is vulnerable work. Both teaching and the art of theatre itself involve an intimate exploration of one’s identity and our role in the communities around us, large and small. This work requires constant and active learning both about myself and my students. When teaching teachers, it is crucial to instill respect for multiple viewpoints, to explore the diverse range of students they will encounter in their own classrooms, and to model techniques for discourse that is at once civil and courageous. In my classes, this starts with an exploration of the ideas of both “safe spaces” and “brave spaces,” which moves toward the creation of group guidelines we all agree to follow when talking about intricate and challenging topics. I model honesty about my own gaps in knowledge and understanding, and demonstrate willingness to listen, grow, and learn alongside my students.
I believe, down to each tiny cell in my body, that theatre has the power to transform our understanding of ourselves and the world around us in profound ways. Theatre connects us through the most articulate of words, but also reveals gut-level feelings that haven’t found their language yet. Because of this, creating theatre carries great joy and great responsibility for me, and teaching theatre even moreso. I am ever seeking clear and objective evidence of my effectiveness, examining all of the strategies through which I can continue to develop my practice to the benefit of my students. Teaching is my vocation, and one to which I commit my best self.