Students on Stage

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We’re in the school auditorium. Before class starts a few boys come in to get a table. They leave with it. Then their teacher comes in to ask the drama teacher if he could have his real table back, not the table the boys found, but the table in the center of the stage. He leaves. His students return with the first table, swap it out for the table on the stage. The type of thing that happens when we share spaces in schools. The drama teacher has a little laugh with the students, all easy going, moving from the table swap into talking about a recent performance. 

There are only four students in this auditorium, which looks to hold nearly 300 people. The students sit in a row across the front, feet up on the seats in front of them, relaxed. They do the talking, the teacher is the listener. He gives feedback with a “right” or a chuckle. He writes a few words on the whiteboard based on what the students say.

I do not follow the discussion about the performance well, I haven’t heard of Things I Know to Be True before. I’m not sure if the play was something specifically for class, I think it probably was. The students are very animated as they describe the relationships between the characters.

Except for one. She sits with two empty seats of space from the others. When I asked her name, before class, she responded so softly that I had to ask again. Now she contributes to the discussion, in that soft voice. The teacher leans in to hear. It is good of her to push herself to contribute, especially when it is difficult. She might be new at the school, she might not be as proficient in English as some of her peers. She is putting herself out there, the teacher gives her space and time.

While the students continue to discuss the play, I scan a quick synopsis on Wikipedia. The play is about the Price family. They did not have an easy time of it, the Prices. I suppose a family without troubles, without secrets, wouldn’t make much of a plot for the stage.

When we give students lots of agency, it sometimes feels like the control they assume pushes us to the side. We teachers are used to being in control, it’s a little uncomfortable being on the side. Yet our job is to put the students in control, to support their own agency. This teacher is giving them that space. He lets them be in charge, he is not hung up about his own power, I admire that. When he thinks it’s time, he pulls them back to where he’d like them to be. If we are going to share ownership with students, we are also going to share the direction of the conversation, the power, the amount of time on task. In fact, we’re going to have to think about what time on task really means. Knowing how much time to talk, and how long a sidebar is acceptable, is part of the learning. We find that balance through trial and error. The teacher lets them practice.

And then says: “OK, let’s get back to the play. Was she a believable character or not?” This is perhaps one of the first questions he has asked. The students start to analyze and the teacher restricts himself to saying “Interesting” and nodding at the student comments. A casual observer might think he doesn’t have a plan, but I think he is a master of letting the students take the stage. Ha! Nice metaphor for a theater class. His agenda has wide parameters, which is allowing the students to have such agency as they critique the play. 

I think about the lesson plans required of adult students in teacher certification programs. They are very detailed. I myself don’t use much of a detailed lesson plan, usually just some bullet points or some notes at the bottom of a slide. I’m pretty sure there is not a written lesson plan here at all. There would be little need. What would it say? 

  • Have a discussion about the play.
  • Remember to give the students the floor 90% of the time.

Thinking back over the first 30 minutes of the class, I guess the teacher might add:

  • Make sure the talkative student doesn’t talk too much, make sure the shy student speaks a little more.

Now the teacher asks all of them to get up. He has spread photographs of people across the front of the stage. The students are told to pick a photograph, think about the character, perhaps become that character just a little bit. He gives them time to choose, they are enthusiastic. The atmosphere remains light and casual.

They sit down with their pictures and he writes a few questions on the board. The students have to create the character they have adopted. Who am I? Why am I here? What has brought the character to this moment? Three of the students use their phones for notes. The teacher then poses a few questions:

What do you want? What will you do to achieve what you want? 

Ah, the power of imagination. I wish I had one of those photos, that I was creating a character. I have to go, but they, after the break the teacher just announced, get to act. How lucky these students are!

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