Episode 107: Cross-Curricular in the Drama Classroom
Teacher Jeff Pinsky will embark on a new cross-curricular journey with his drama curriculum this year. He’ll be incorporating the holocaust into drama exercises, reflections, projects, and more. How do you include such an intense subject into today’s classroom? How do you get students to connect to cross-curricular? What if the exercises fail?
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
So during the month of December we’re looking back on some of our past podcast episodes. Episodes that will get you thinking toward the new year. I know, I know, how can you think about January when the holidays haven’t even happened yet? But I know teachers and teachers always have something percolating in the back of their brains. And at the end of this interview there are some great resources and classroom links.
This is a replay of Episode 107 and you can find all the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/107.
Back in August I talked to teacher Jeff Pinksy about cross-curricular material he was about to take into the drama classroom. So let’s dive into the interview!
Lindsay: Okay. So, I am really thrilled for today’s conversation. I am talking to Jeff Pinsky.
Jeff: Hi, Lindsay!
Lindsay: How’s it going?
Jeff: I am doing very, very well this summer. How are you?
Lindsay: Ah, pretty good, pretty busy. But, you know, it’s better to be busy than not, I think.
Jeff: It is, what with Drama Teacher Academy launching as of Wednesday and everything.
Lindsay: Aww! Nice plug there! I love it. I love it. I didn’t even say that.
Jeff: Happy to shell for you!
Lindsay: Jeff, tell everybody where in the world you are.
Jeff: Right now, I’m in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and I teach at Beaconsfield High School which is about ten minutes from where I live right now.
Lindsay: Ah, nice close commute.
So, how long have you been a Drama teacher?
Jeff: I’ve been teaching Drama exclusively for about eight years now, and this year coming out would be my tenth in the business, but I’ve been involved in Drama teaching – in one way, shape, or form – for the last, I’d say, maybe fifteen years or so. Since Summer Camp, I started up a program at one of my old Summer Camps.
Lindsay: Ah, awesome, and what drives you specifically to teaching Drama? You know, as opposed to performing or backstage or what.
Jeff: Because I get to go to work every single day and it doesn’t even feel like work. I mean, one of the best advice I ever got is that, if you truly have a job that you love, then you never have to work a single day in your life. And so, I loved the fact that I’m surrounded by creativity and my job is to teach kids how to channel that creativity and to turn all these crazy ideas bouncing around their head and funnel it into stories and characters and moments and scenes and plays and the works, and I love it. No two days are alike and that’s probably the best part of my job; I really don’t fall into any kind of routine as far as that goes.
Lindsay: Well, that enthusiasm must help when you have students in your class who maybe aren’t so engaged with Drama. Because we all have those classes, right? Where you’ve got the students who love and then the students who aren’t so excited. How do you deal with those kids?
Jeff: With those kids, it’s just Drama is, you know, very personal and I love getting to know my students and just trying to find in talking to them just that one thing that they’re interested in or something that they can hold on to – anything that they like – and just try to glom onto that and encourage them to use that as far as telling a story or creating a character or a moment – anything from which you can develop any kind of foundation and then using that as a Launchpad and, as you know, it’s really rewarding to see when a kid who never thought that they’d be able to get it to a performance scene, let alone stand in front of an audience, in front of a group of people, and just tell a story or memorize a monologue or anything like that is really incredible.
Lindsay: I agree. You know, it’s not about whether they’re going to perform on Broadway or not but whether or not they could go to a job interview and just be confident.
Lindsay: Ah, love it.
Jeff: I mean, part of what I tell the kids, especially when they get older and older, I say, you know, as we’re doing this Drama, “Yes, it’s about performing arts, it’s about writing, it’s about creating characters and doing plays, but it is really life skills that we’re learning about. It’s learning about how to talk to someone. It’s learning about how to conduct yourself, how to organize yourself,” and all the little things that they wouldn’t normally associate with Drama that they end up learning just through osmosis.
Okay. Now, the reason that we’re talking today – aside from, you know, this love fest about Drama which I’m always happy to talk about and I know that our audience is always happy to listen to, but – you participated in a very unique program.
Lindsay: So, give us some background about what it is you did and where you went.
Jeff: Okay. The program that I participated in is called International School of Holocaust Studies and I just got back from Jerusalem in Israel and what it was is that it’s a scholarship program that I had to apply for through local sponsors in association with the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem is the world Holocaust memorial site, right in the heart of Jerusalem, and they have an education center, they have an incredible museum, they partner with other Holocaust associations from around the world to share information about that. And what it was, it was three weeks in the desert, in the extreme heat.
Lindsay: In the summer.
Jeff: In the summer and it’s very different from Canadian humidity heat. Theirs is just odd. You pant like a dog while you’re there. And what it was it was nineteen days for the seminar and about 85 percent of time spent in classes with world-renowned professors and lecturers and doing sessions – everything related to the Holocaust meaning learning about its historical roots, life in the ghettos, kids during the Holocaust, other countries’ reactions to it, trying Nazi war criminals today, Holocaust denial – you name it, it was part of the program.
We also met with several Holocaust survivors in special sessions. One of the first ones we met was actually, her name was Hannah Pick and she was a childhood friend of Anne Frank. She told us about those experiences.
We also traveled around and saw different parts of the country as well.
Lindsay: So, no fun time for you this summer. A very intense subject matter, huh?
Jeff: It was. It was emotionally draining. It was also physically draining just because of the number of classes. I had to remind myself what it was like to be a student and, you know, sit in class and listen and take notes. But we had downtime, too, to meet with all of the other delegates. We were the largest group they ever had there. There were 45 people involved in education – one way, shape, or form – about half of which were teachers. Some of them actually worked at Holocaust museums in the United States. Others were PhD candidates and, you know, using this material to write their papers and what-not.
Lindsay: But, for you, this wasn’t just about going to learn something. You were going to bring this back to your Drama classroom and apply it. So, that’s the reason we’re all here. So, not only has Jeff went and learned a subject, you know, he’s going to come with the most amazing cross-curricular project ever to kind of apply this learning in the Drama classroom. So, I think that’s what I want to know. How are you going to do that?
Jeff: I’ve got a bunch of ideas. As I was listening and taking notes, I’m jotting down side ideas in a separate notebook about how, you know, some ideas and what can I do here and there. I’m still disseminating all the notes. There was so much material that they presented. They gave us CD-ROMs and I bought some books and they gave us some textbooks as gifts and what-not.
So, what I’m going to take apart is, the first thing I have to decide on is which parts of my curriculum do I want to replace this new Holocaust study with because I have a set five-year plan because I am the only Drama teacher in my school and so I have to decide which units are going to go out, which ones I’m going to put in, and which grade levels would be appropriate, and also look at the big picture. What kind of unit do I want to create in terms of do I want this to come in a play? An installation piece? Just in-class stuff? Invite the class C? Just invite parents? Or how big do I want this to grow?
Some of the introductory lessons I’m going to look at would be focusing on looking at the Holocaust from their perspective – from a teenager’s perspective – because, you know, you talk about the Holocaust and, you know, one of the most tragic events in all of history and how could it have all happened and everything. But some of our classes that really interested me were the ones that dealt with the kids, and we’re asking a kid in Canada today, you know, first-world country, you know, I can’t go out and say, “Put yourself in their shoes.” They absolutely cannot.
Lindsay: They have no idea.
Jeff: Exactly. It’s building this understanding of what would it be like. So, you know, starting off with a simple thing about looking at, for example, Warsaw in Poland which had 30 percent of its population were Jewish, and you take 30 percent of the population and now you’ve put them in a ghetto which represented 2.4 percent of the entire city space.
So, that would be one of the first things to get them used to. “Everyone stand in the classroom. Now, I’m going to take away all that spot and now you’re all going to cram into exactly 2.4 percent of the space in the classroom,” and that’s the first thing right there, just to give a sense. “Okay. Now, how do you feel? You had all this room to sit. You could put your chair any way you want. You know, you can spread yourselves out. Now, you’re all cramped in here. Now, how do you feel?” Now, we’re talking about other things like that.
Then, you have the power of the Nazis in the ghettos actually limited their food rations to exactly 184 calories per day.
Lindsay: Oh, my god, really?
Jeff: Yes. So, now I’m developing a lesson. “Okay, guys. You have to create now a meal plan for yourself where you cannot go over 184 calories and now I want you to look at these things.”
So, it’s really cross-curricular. We’re not even into the dramatic parts yet. We’re just developing this understanding. So, now they have to bring in food labels. “Okay. I want to eat this apple.” “All right, that’s fine. Eat this apple. How many calories is that?” “How about this one piece of bread?”
Lindsay: And yet, you know, I think I had a discussion with another teacher quite recently about how Drama is really about the exploration of the human experience.
Lindsay: You know? I can’t think in our – well, no, you know what, that’s totally not true – this is one of the examples of very extreme human experience.
Lindsay: And to get our modern 21st century students just on the whole notion, I think that whole calorie thing, I think that would hit home. Think of a sixteen-year-old boy who’s on a sports team, you know, who eats 3,000 calories a day. Just giving them another perspective, and the whole notion of reflection, what a wonderful…
Jeff: Oh, we have to reflect and talk about everything.
Jeff: One of the most striking things that I found that actually will become the basis of a lesson and a writing unit was actually inside the historical museum which is one of the most incredible museums I’ve ever been into in my life. It was structured in such a way, chronologically and thematically.
We got to one room that was devoted to the Concentration Camps and we walk in and, as soon as we looked down, the floor was a glass floor and, underneath the floor, they assembled just hundreds of shoes – actual shoes that they were made to take off as soon as they get there and, you know, whatever season it might be. And so, all you’re looking at are shoes and shoes, and I thought to myself, “That tells a story in itself – just this entire floor full of shoes.”
And so, I asked, “What does this shoe mean to this person? Was it handmade? What it a hand-me-down? Did they spend their life’s, you know, things that they’d been saving up for years and years and years just to buy these shoes. Look at your shoes. What do these shoes mean to you? Are they athletic shoes? Are they just flip-flops? Do you wear them for comfort? Do you wear them for style? Now, take that away.”
Lindsay: Yeah. I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC and one of the things you walk by are, like, a mountain of shoes and, actually, it’s so funny because it made me cry a little because it’s just like, “What a waste,” you know? And I’m sure that, in 1939 or 1940 or whatever, they felt about their shoes, you know, some of them the same way that our students do, you know? It’s just something that goes on your feet. But, if it’s taken away from you, or if that’s the only thing that’s left of you, what do you do, right?
Jeff: That’s it. Exactly, and that tells a story in itself. And the shoes were actually near a collection of personal possessions. I mean, we saw things like, you know, a child’s doll, a pocket watch, and from that alone, I’ve got hundreds of ideas for lesson plans, for stories, and things that they can write. You know, asking the students now, “What are things that are precious to you?” because, as they were evacuated and made to put on these cattle cars or into the ghetto, it was said you can only pack one suitcase weighing 50 kilograms. So, think like a carry-on luggage onto an airplane. And so, there’s an idea, too. If you were asked to pack your entire life away into one suitcase, what would you put in there? Tell me a story.
Lindsay: It’s all about getting them to relate, isn’t it? And just these little things like, you know, the first thing that comes to my mind with those objects or the shoes is like, object monologue, right? Like, just who is the person who belongs to this object? The whole notion of your whole life in a carry-on. Like, this is taking things that they can relate to, in an exercise that they can relate to, and then bringing in the history. And I think that’s where Drama is so important – it’s an important avenue for cross-curricular, isn’t it? Because it’s not “I’m sitting down learning facts.” It’s a human experience of a piece of history. What do you think?
Jeff: I completely agree, absolutely, and we talked at length about the importance of Drama within these ghettos – that they kept theatre going because the people needed it. It was an escape. It was a connection to their past lives.
Lindsay: I just knew this would be such an interesting topic, and one of my favorite aspects of Drama is to take something that isn’t normally dramatized and find a way to bring it to life, and just the whole notion. I mean, there’s so many Holocaust plays out there that just don’t do it, you know? Like, it’s about the over-rottenness of the emotion and everyone gets caught up in the emotion and it’s like it’s the humanity that I want to see staged.
Jeff: I actually managed to take in a one-woman play my first week that I was out there and they said it’s optional – you know, everyone’s free to go. I was one of five people in my class that actually wanted to see it because my students would have my head if, as a Drama teacher, I had the option to see a play while I was there and didn’t do it as I’m always preaching for them, you know, support the performing arts. It was a one-woman play called “Etty” and it was based on journal entries by a woman named Etty Hillesum and it was in a little black box theatre about two blocks away from my hotel and, just what you said, it wasn’t about the over-rottenness, it wasn’t meant to be depressing. It was just her looking at her life and this woman had attitude, she was talking about love affairs, she was talking about, you know, she missed that she was, you know, “…and I won’t be able to play the violin anymore,” things like that.
Lindsay: Well, I think that’s why Anne Frank’s story exists today and people are still reading it today. It’s because she was a human being in those pages. What else have you got? Is that sort of like it’s still all jumbled in your head?
Jeff: It’s still jumbled. I still have to find time to sit down and disseminate it all. You know, after 24 hours of traveling, the jetlag can be pretty hard on the weekend and catching with friends and trying to have something of a summer for myself. But I got a lot of ideas bouncing around.
But one of the things that they actually said is that, as far as writing and activities like that, they said, “Don’t have the students write in role.”
Lindsay: How come?
Jeff: They said, like, it’d be too hard and they wouldn’t be able to place themselves in there. I thought, “You know what? Maybe they might if we give them the proper background.” As you and I have been talking, just develop the framework for it. They can’t understand at the beginning – of course not – but then it’s a process. You get them to understand. You get them to image what life might be like then. And so, I’m toying with some ideas.
Lindsay: I think that students always work best in steps. So, I think they’re totally right. If you just, as your very first exercise, you know, threw them into the pit as it were and said, “Okay, you’re going to write a play or write a monologue about such and such a person’s life,” they would resist because they would be like, “Well, I don’t relate. I don’t know anything about this.” But, if you built in steps into the process like the location exercise with the 2 percent and the food exercise and just start reflecting on that and then gradually introduce that, “Oh, yeah, and, by the way, this happened to people.”
Jeff: Exactly, exactly, and what you said was the key word there – it’s the reflection. Get them to talk about it and have this be an open forum where they can discuss their feelings or if they’re nervous about something, if they’re scared, if they’re unsure of themselves. Journaling has got to be a big part of it.
Lindsay: Do you use cross-curriculum often in your curriculum?
Jeff: Sometimes. I mean, any time with my grade ten and eleven class which is my advanced class, I call my Drama studio and we do world styles of theatre with lots of help from the blogs on theatrefolk.com. Things like Commedia and Greek theatre. I want to try the Japanese Noh theatre. But I try to give as much historical context as I possibly can for lots of things.
I guess, as far as cross-curriculum, most of my stuff would be History, Geography, and, of course, some English. We do a lot of plot diagramming for all of our original scripts – all the time, all the time, all the time.
Lindsay: So, as you venture into this new experience for yourself as a teacher, what are you thinking? What are your expectations? What are your fears?
Jeff: One of my fears was that they wouldn’t – not so much a fear as much as an apprehension is that I don’t know how they’re going to react to this. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to treat it with a seriousness that it deserves or if they’re going to take it seriously for the sake of taking it seriously instead of just reacting to it as they naturally would. It’s not my place to say, “Okay, this is a serious topic, take it seriously.” I want to just go with the flow, you know? Just like with all things in a theatre class. It’s being able to improvise and react to the situation in front of you and to roll with the punches.
One of my apprehensions, I’m excited to try things out. I’m always excited to try new things and, fortunately, I’m lucky to have a lot of great students that come back year after year after year that trust me and are willing to go along with something new.
Lindsay: Do your students know this is coming?
Jeff: No. Really, I’ve only told my grads as they graduated that I got this thing and I’m going away, and they follow my Drama class Facebook page where, you know, I just advertise and, you know, put pictures and shows and what-not. So, a lot of them were asking as I was gone, like, “Oh, what’s going on? We really wish we could be part of this.” I said, “Well, come back and check it out. Come and visit.” If I do an installation or I haven’t decided how big this thing is going to get, like I said, I’ve got to sit down and piece this whole thing together and figure out what’s my starting point and what’s, of course, going to be my ultimate goal. What do I want them to get out of this?
Lindsay: Okay. So, we know what your fears are. So, what’s the best case scenario? What is the best case scenario?
Jeff: Best case scenario is that we just continue Holocaust education in my own way. I used to teach it as part of when I taught English alongside Drama, but I haven’t done anything with it in the last seven years or so. So, that’s one of the big things – just to carry on. Holocaust education is important for them to know because the people who survived it and were part of this era, they’re dying off and so we have to continue the memory of this and keep people talking about it.
That’s one of the big things, obviously, is the education that goes with it. And, also, just have them explore different styles of story-telling. Like you said, object monologue. We’re going to try some interesting dialogue things. I want to try some installation piece type of stuff.
Lindsay: So, when you say installation piece, what does that mean to you? Is that, like, visual? Is that, like, abstract? What do you mean?
Jeff: A little bit of everything. I want to try some visual stuff with some of the kids who are artistic. We’ll get the chance to do that. And, you know, just kind of an entire theatre experience from the lobby all the way in to the stage where they can observe some visual stuff they can walk by and, like, someone’s performing a monologue or do a short scripted play on-stage or I don’t know. Like I said, it’s all bubbling around up there. I’m sorry I don’t have, like, more concrete answers for you today.
Lindsay: No, but it’s exciting. I think it’s exciting to talk to you when you’re about to do something new, you know, because it’s one thing to sit down and have a conversation and, like, you know, when I talk to someone, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve been doing this for twenty years.” Well, here’s a situation where it’s like it’s brand new, it’s in your head, you’re about to go do it, and I think that – for those of you listening – that there may be some of you who rely on your curriculum, you do the same things over and over again, would happen if in year eight that you turned your curriculum on its ear and that you took units out and then you put something in that is: a) completely different, b) that the students aren’t going to expect, and c) something you haven’t done before. And that’s what I think you’re doing; I think you would agree.
Jeff: Absolutely, yeah. I’m one of these people, you know the nature of Drama and everything that we do in my program is completely original. It’s very, very rare that I actually hand to them a practice script or an, of course, a Theatrefolk script for our major productions.
Lindsay: You just keep buttering us up. We’re not paying you.
Jeff: I love the company. I’m sorry. Like I said, I’m a fan.
Lindsay: Oh, I’m happy to hear it!
Jeff: Long-time listener, first-time caller.
It’s exciting because, you know, being in charge of my department, I can run it any way that I want and my five-year program – because, in Quebec, the high school is five years – it’s a progression. It’s starting off learning about, you know, the bare basics of Drama and character building and story-telling. And then, by the time they’re in grade eleven, they’re doing, you know, full-on twenty-minute plays that they’re writing themselves and then are big production years.
But it’s really exciting to always try something new. I mean, that’s how I do it every single year. At the end of every year, I have all my grades fill out evaluations. “What did you like? What didn’t you like? What are things you’d like to try?” And I’d look at them, I’d read 240 evaluations at the beginning of the summer, and decide, “Okay, well, they’re all saying that they really didn’t like this one. Okay, that’s out. They’re all saying let’s try something along these lines. Okay, let’s try it.”
Lindsay: I think that’s important. It’s important to listen to your students because, otherwise, it stays static.
Jeff: That’s it. I don’t want to drag them through a six-week unit that they’re absolutely hating and they’re just afraid to tell me.
Lindsay: Yeah, that’s something else, too.
Jeff: Exactly. So, I’m always excited to try new things – always.
Jeff: And it’s amazing when lightning strikes and I’m hoping that lightning strikes twice when I introduce the new units.
Lindsay: You know what? It’s not even a bad thing if it doesn’t work out because, if it fails, you can learn from that, can’t you?
Jeff: Oh, absolutely. I coach improv as well – that’s two after-schools a week every single weekend – so a lot of times they get down on themselves if they don’t do such a great scene. We talk about it. I say, “Okay, why didn’t that scene work out?” and they sometimes become their own worst critics and I’d say, “I’d rather you succeed big time or fail big time. Either way, you’re learning something.”
Jeff: Either way, you know? I tell them all the time myself. Sometimes, I’ll try a brand new game with them or a new activity in class with any one of my grades and sometimes, yeah, they didn’t like it so much. I’d say, “Okay. So, tell me why.” We always have time to reflect – we have to. “Why didn’t that work? Okay. Well, let’s try this differently,” and we’ll come back the next day. I’m happy it failed. I’d say, “Guys, you know, I’m learning alongside with you. I’ve been in this business a long time – this teaching business – and I’m happy just as much as when I succeed as when I fail because, either way, something is being done.”
Lindsay: Thank you so much for taking time out today, Jeff. Not only do I think it’s great to hear the beginning of a project but also to hear what you’re thinking about doing about it and that, if it works, awesome! If it doesn’t work, that’s awesome, too.
Jeff: Well, I’m going to send you all the info.
Lindsay: Oh, please do, please do! I would love to hear about it.
Jeff: You can follow at all my websites for my department.
Lindsay: Awesome. We will put a link to that website in the show notes for this episode.
Lindsay: Thank you so much!
Jeff: My pleasure.
Thank you, Jeff! I love Jeff’s enthusiasm. It is totally infectious.
So, the links for this episode can be found at theatrefolk.com/episode107.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Okay. Have you been to our blog? Have you been to our blog? Have you been to our blog?
We’ve been taking a bit of a break for the summer but, starting next week, we’re going back in depth. We post articles once a week on topics relevant to the theatre classroom and we always include a download or hand-out of some kind.
So, since we’re talking cross-curricular, I thought I would include some cross-curricular links to our blog in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode107. I’ll post three links to blog articles. We have “Writing Your Research,” a “Speeches from History” unit, and an article on verbatim theatre. Go to the show notes. Check them out. Download them. Use them in your classroom. Fly! Be free!
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk, and you can find us on the Stitcher app, and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.