Episode 214: Theatre as a teaching tool
The drama classroom is not just a place for games and play time. You can use theatre as a teaching tool – perhaps the most important one students will ever receive. That’s the philosophy of long time drama teacher Michelle Huerta and she has grown and changed over the years as her students have grown and changed.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well.
Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 214. You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode214.
Today is a lovely conversation. It’s one of those ones that, you know, it starts in one place and ends up in another. You know, I say that and then, well, I suppose all conversations do that, don’t they?
We don’t just stay in one place. Otherwise, all the words would just dump all on top of each other and you wouldn’t be able to understand anything.
Now, I’m thinking about conversations that tumble on top of each other. This tangent is brought to you by Theatrefolk.com.
Our guest today is a 30-year teacher veteran and, frankly, I love what she has to say about being a long-term teacher. I love what she has to say about 21st century students. I love her advice for new teachers and I know that you are going to love it, too.
Let’s get to it. I’ll see you on the other side.
LINDSAY: Hello everybody!
I am so excited today to be talking to Michelle Huerta.
MICHELLE: Hi Lindsay!
How are you?
First of all, please let everybody know where you are in the world today.
MICHELLE: I am in Austin, Texas – very far southwest part of Austin, Texas.
LINDSAY: Very nice.
How long have you been a teacher?
MICHELLE: I have been teaching for over 30 years.
LINDSAY: I like the laugh before you thought. It was like, “Oh, my goodness, 30 years.”
MICHELLE: Yeah, yeah.
LINDSAY: Let’s talk about that for a second. That’s fantastic.
How do you feel about teaching for 30 years?
MICHELLE: I can’t believe that it’s been that long. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. But, whenever I say it, I realize that means I must be old if I’ve been teaching that long. But I love teaching middle school and I’ve been teaching middle school now for about 25 years.
LINDSAY: Let’s talk about that for a second.
What keeps you teaching?
MICHELLE: The kids. I just love working with the kids.
I think, middle school, a lot of people go, “Oh, you teach middle school? Oh, my gosh!” but I actually love middle school compared to high school because, in high school, they’re getting to that age a lot of times where they’re a little jaded. They think they’re a little bit too cool.
In middle school, there’s still that excitement about learning new things and figuring things out. I really enjoy their enthusiasm and it makes me energized, if that makes any sense.
I know a lot of people would think that’s crazy – that it usually makes you tired – but, their energy, I feed off of it. It’s just great.
LINDSAY: I think that just means that you’ve actually found and lived the thing you were meant to do, right? – when it energizes you instead of exhausts you.
LINDSAY: Here’s a great question. It’s really interesting. I talk to a lot of new teachers in a lot of situations where there’s a lot of turnover of teachers. Since I have a 30-year veteran on the line here, do you think that students have changed in your time of teaching?
MICHELLE: They have. They’ve changed and so has education a little bit.
I know we teachers that have been in the field for a long time say, “Oh, this is the same thing, it’s just a different name.” But, I think, especially in the last few years with the use of technology, I think things are definitely changing.
I think students are different, but they’re really still the same, if that makes any sense. In a real sense, developmentally, they’re the same. What they’re dealing with is very different than when I first started teaching because technology wasn’t what it is. And so, it just brings a whole new set of problems for them. And so, I think, in that way, they’ve changed. I don’t think they’ve changed so much as the problems that they face have changed.
LINDSAY: I think that’s an excellent way of putting it. I get the question a lot. “How can you write for middle school students or high school students when it’s been a long time?” and that’s my impression as well. It’s that the thing that’s going on in the heart of a middle schooler is the exact same thing that was happening to me when I was a middle schooler. Lots of things around them change, but they don’t change.
MICHELLE: That’s true. That is very true.
Think about it. The great stories that were told are still universal today. I think the human experience is still the same. It’s just it may look a little bit different, depending on the neighborhood or the part of the country you live in. But, really, the problems, the issues are all the same.
LINDSAY: I think that probably stands you pretty well that you can see that and that you don’t think that these kids don’t listen like they used to, or they don’t do this like they used to, but just to embrace them for who they are at this exact moment.
MICHELLE: Exactly. I think, if you can embrace them and try to see things the way they see the world, if you can do a little bit of that, I think it helps with your longevity because you have to grow, and you have to change so that you can understand things.
The more they change, the more they’re the same.
You are at the middle school level. You do teach drama full-time? Or is that an add-on?
MICHELLE: Yes, I’m very lucky. I’ve built the program. I opened the school that I teach in right now. In fact, next year will be our tenth year to be open. I’ve built the program enough that there are two of us. There are actually two teachers that teach here.
LINDSAY: That’s amazing!
What is it about being a drama educator that really speaks to you? Maybe instead of performing drama, what is it about the drama education angle?
MICHELLE: I started out as a pre-law major and I was not thinking about teaching at all. I really didn’t have a lot of experience in theatre although I loved theatre. And then, I kind of fell into it in college and got involved in it and then decided that, if I was going to teach something, that I wanted to teach something that I really enjoyed. And so, that’s kind of how I started with it.
And then, when I went back and got my master’s, I saw the importance of creative drama and really using theatre not only as a subject but as a teaching tool to reach students who may be reluctant of learning the traditional way in the classroom. And so, I got really excited about how theatre is not just a subject but actually a tool for learning.
LINDSAY: You have just segued into the thing that we’re going to talk about today – seamlessly, almost like you knew exactly how it all kind of fits in.
I love this idea that theatre is not a subject but a teaching tool. That’s going to be the title of this podcast. I think, if I could put that on a T-shirt, I would because that’s, I think, where people falter, right? They see the games and they see this. They see theatre as a subject and, as a subject, it maybe feels lacking. But a teaching tool? What a great way to approach it!
One of the things we’re here to talk about today is you use a play of ours, a play of mine – School Daze – kind of like a teaching tool. You’ve used it for, I think, this is your fourth year of putting on School Daze, is that right?
MICHELLE: Yes. Yes, I love, love, love that play. Even in these last years, it still is just as fresh and just as perfect for what’s going on in a kid’s world. I use it to help with the transition from fifth grade to sixth grade. It really helps.
The counselors at my school love when I do this because it really helps those fifth-graders to kind of see middle school as something that’s not so scary because they are scared of what it’s going to be like. They’re leaving elementary and they’re going to middle school, so they’re not exactly sure what they’re facing.
And so, as a tool for the students to learn about middle school – and then, for my sixth-grade students to be able to use it as a performance tool – it just fits so nice. It’s such a wonderful little package.
LINDSAY: Oh! There were a couple of things in there!
Let’s just run this a little bit. You have your sixth-graders practice and perform the play for incoming fifth-graders. Do you do that at the beginning? No, it’s the end of the schoolyear. This is, like, fifth-graders who will come to the school in the fall?
We have a transition day where all of the elementary students come over to the middle school and visit so that they can see what it’s like as part of their transition.
The counselors asked me to perform something several years ago and I’d already read School Daze and so I knew it would be perfect to perform for those incoming fifth-graders and they love it.
It also helps recruit for my program because the fifth-graders that come to see the show see my sixth-graders performing it and they remember it. They remember “Oh! I want to do that!” and I have kids, especially the jeans, cute T-shirt, sweater. Oh, they quote that all the time! Even my incoming sixth-graders remember it from when they saw it in the spring.
LINDSAY: School Daze is essentially a day in the life of someone starting middle school.
What a great thing, too. The fifth-graders who are coming in see something they want to do. but, the sixth-graders, this must give them a little… not seniority but a little bit of pride maybe? They’re the demonstrators. It’s not the eighth-graders. It’s the sixth-graders.
MICHELLE: Oh, they love it. They look forward to it all year because that’s what I tell them. “At the end of the year, we get to do the play.”
And so, they’re so excited and they can’t wait until we perform the play and we’re performing May 22nd so they’re already rehearsing and they’re so excited and they can’t wait until they get to be the big kids that are up there performing for those fifth-graders, especially because some of them remember some of those younger kids from when they were at elementary school.
And so, they know that they’re going to get to perform for their teachers as well, so they get very excited about it.
LINDSAY: What was your thought process in having it be the sixth-graders as opposed to the eighth-graders? Was it because they were so close in age? Did you think that the play just fits them better? Why that age or that age group?
MICHELLE: I think I picked that age because sixth grade to me is more of that transition. We’re not doing production work so much. It’s more creative drama.
To me, the play felt like it lent itself to moving into monologues, moving into scene work without it being so structured. I mean, it doesn’t require them to memorize a whole lot. It controls the movement.
For their first introduction into a performance, a production, I think it’s a really great transition for those students because, before they get into production work, I think that before they go into a play where they have to memorize lines and learn blocking, I think this is a nice segue into that because it gives them movement but yet it’s very controlled so you don’t have to worry too much about it. It doesn’t require a lot of costumes and the material is relatable to them.
It’s a good foundation for them as a production because I feel like, once they’ve done that, they’re ready to do a little bit harder work – not harder, but…
LINDSAY: More in-depth?
MICHELLE: More in-depth work, yeah.
It just prepares them because even the monologues are short monologues, so it’s good for them to experiment with and it’s not intimidating for students that are afraid to memorize lines, so it makes them feel comfortable and, because the cast is all onstage during most of it, it’s not threatening to be by yourself.
I just feel like it’s a real good piece for the sixth grade as they’re moving up and some of my sixth graders take theatre because they really like what we do in theatre but they’re not necessarily going to go on with theatre or acting, so it’s good for that as well because it allows kids to join the idea of being in a production without having to risk too much.
LINDSAY: We’re just talking about using theatre as a tool – that small tools are actually just as beneficial as large hammers. Just having a step-by-step kind of process for those grade six students as opposed to landing them in a production from the beginning but to give them a ladder, eh? Just give them a place to grow to.
We’ve already done puppetry and we’ve done some monologue work. And so, for this, it’s another stairstep and it gives them an opportunity to actually go up onstage.
It’s a huge deal for them to go up onstage in front of their peers and perform. It’s not like it’s a small performance. I’m asking them to do a lot, but it’s really a great experience for them because they’re proud to do it. It’s less intimidating that it would be kids their age. But, since they’re doing it for the fifth-graders, it makes them already feel like they’re the big kids.
LINDSAY: How does that affect them as they move on to grade seven and eight?
MICHELLE: I think that it makes them feel more comfortable performing because I know a lot of the kids would never have thought about being onstage before and some of my students, after doing the play, feel a lot more comfortable onstage and they’ll find that they’ll participate in other things. They’ll either go on to theatre and take theatre as a class or I’ll see them presenting and performing in front of their peers in classrooms and in other work.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. That’s the overall picture.
What an opportunity! If you’re in a middle school and that guidance counselor has come up to you and said, “Hey! Can you just put on a little show?” about how it can be useful not only just for that moment but also for your program and growing your program and leading students to grow through your program.
What about your process? Do you do the same direction every year? Do you change things up? Do you have a process that you stick to? Or do you fluctuate depending on the students?
MICHELLE: I fluctuate depending on the students.
For example, this year, I have three sixth-grade classes. And so, normally, what I’ve done in the past is I’ve had two sixth-grade classes. Now, I’ve got to find a way to combine all three classes into two productions because we can only do two performances because we do it for half of the kids and then we do it again for the other half.
Now, I’ve got three casts and I’m going to have to meld them all together into two different casts. And so, that’s the other thing that’s nice about the play and the structure of School Daze. You can do the whole thing with a class period and then you can take sections. I could say, “Well, this second period, you all are going to do this scene. Fifth period, I’m going to have you all do this scene,” and it still all flows and works because of the way that the play is written. So, that changes my process every year, depending on how many students I have in each class period.
We do warm-ups – a lot of the warm-ups that I’ve seen in the Drama Teacher Academy. We do our warm-ups every day, so they’ve had to memorize those. We’ve memorized warm-ups so that they know that they can memorize things. That’s the first clue.
And then, I let them audition. I teach them the audition process and we go through the audition process. They do audition for the roles. After we audition for the roles, then we start.
Because we have to practice in my classroom and I don’t have as much space as I would on the stage, we work with those little vignettes and blocking those and getting comfortable with those and creating pictures. And then, when we get closer to the performance, we’ll actually get to come to the stage and run through it on the stage. But we run through it a lot so that they can get comfortable memorizing the lines.
As far as the process, sometimes I’ve had a student teacher at that time, so I’ve let the student teacher do some of the blocking with the kids and that gives them an opportunity to kind of work with them and then they’ll try something different or they’ll change something that I’ve been doing for a while.
Sometimes, I’ll take that and use that as the blocking. Sometimes, I just kind of stay. A lot of it depends. Sixth-graders, especially boys, have a hard time sitting still for even 20 minutes. Sometimes, it just depends on how long they can sit – whether I’ll bring them in sooner or bring them in later or how I utilize them onstage.
It’s just a different process. I mean, it’s a similar process, but it’s different every time, depending on the kids.
I know you’re doing it with a purpose – and I know it’s the same play every time – but, because of the students, does it feel like a different play every time?
MICHELLE: It does.
Like today, I was just watching it and we were performing one of the scenes. It was amazing to see the way she interpreted the lines which was really exciting.
I have one kid that wanted to be Joey Delson really badly. They talk about him, but he doesn’t have to be there, but he wanted to be Joey Delson. That was his big thing. So, he stands over and talks to a buddy. Sometimes, they suggest things. “Oh, I really like this idea!”
And then, of course, the tableaus. I do a lot of tableau work with them. and so, the tableaus for the announcement girl’s scene, those are great, and the kids create those. I have them create those in different groups and each one of those we create with a message and we talk about what we want to say in this one, what we want to say in this one.
We talk about, “Well, when those fifth-graders come, do we really want them to think that the sixth-grade class is totally out of control?” And so, we talk through that process. They love the tableaus. The tableau work is a lot of fun for them.
That particular piece, if you take that section – the announcement girl – out. One year, we had to perform it in the gym. In the gym, you know there no way people can hear and it’s really hard to think of something that translates well to the gymnasium and that piece works really great just doing that scene in the gym. When we did it this year, we had to do it on two sides. There were people sitting on either side. And so, it allows you to create tableau space in each direction. And then, you can have the announcement girl on the microphone, so it worked really great for that.
But, the pictures, the audience loves the pictures and they crack up every single time. We had a chance to do just that segment for a night where the parents came. And so, we did just that because they wanted me to do something for that. I was like, “Well, in the gym, what can you do?” We just did that part of the play that we had practiced in the gym.
LINDSAY: I love sitting here just listening to the process of it and the adaptability of it. I’m so glad. I’m so thrilled that this play works for you and that you have found it. I think that is also wonderful that you are taking this on.
As we sort of wrap up, I really thank you for sharing this. I think it’s such a wonderful… it’s an idea, you know? I listen to or I hear experiences that people have with our stuff and I just know that your name comes up every year of another production of School Daze and I just thought it would be an interesting thing to kind of get out there about, “Hey! How can you use theatre as a tool?” Let’s come back to that.
Before you go, since you do have 30 years under your belt and that you sound so still in love with teaching, what advice would you give to new teachers? For new teachers that are coming into the drama classroom, what advice would you give them?
MICHELLE: Remember what it was like when you were a student.
I think a lot of times, especially after you get out of college, right when you first start teaching, you kind of forget what it’s like to be a middle schooler or a high schooler. You forget that wonder because you come out of academia and so you have that vocabulary and so sometimes you forget. “Oh, yeah, that’s what it felt like. Oh, no wonder that’s the only thing I’m thinking about.” I’m constantly trying to remember what it’s like. Or I talk to the kids so that I get a feeling of what are the things that they’re interested in. What are they talking about?
I listen to middle schoolers talk and I love it when they don’t think I’m listening because their conversations crack me up. They’re so funny. That’s what’s important to them, so I think that, if you can do that, then you can enjoy the kids and, if you can enjoy the kids, then it makes your job so much easier.
LINDSAY: Oh, I think that’s the key point there, right? To know what’s important to them and to enjoy working with them, right?
MICHELLE: Yes, definitely.
LINDSAY: Oh, yeah, I’m sure you know lots. I talk to lots of people who I don’t think they enjoy working with them.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I’ve seen those people. You know, it’s unfortunate because I really feel like it’s a privilege. It’s hard. I’m not going to say teaching is not hard. It is, and it gets more and more demands on us every day. But, if you can just remember why you do it and it’s because of the kids and that moment when they finally get something that you’ve shared with them a million times and it comes together – in a production or something. That moment that little lightbulb goes on, it’s amazing. There’s no better feeling in the world.
LINDSAY: And that is a perfect note to end on.
Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today!
MICHELLE: Great! Thanks so much, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Michelle! Thank you, Michelle!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Michelle mentioned the Drama Teacher Academy and so am I!
DTA is the education arm for Theatrefolk. It’s an online membership site with professional development, curriculum, classroom resources such as scenes for classroom study and a fabulous community piece with monthly professional learning community events and a Facebook group where you can ask a question, share a struggle or a success, and everyone knows exactly what you’re going through.
It’s the beginning of the year, right? You need resources! You need emergency lesson plans in your back pocket! You need classroom management strategies!
So, go to DramaTeacherAcademy.com – that’s all one word – for more info. Click the link in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode214.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you will see we are on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end.
Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.