Episode 171: Divergent Learning in the classroom
There is no class that is more divergent than the drama classroom. You have the vast number of different students who end up in your classroom, some who want to be there and some who don’t. You also have the ability to look for many different solutions to a problem in the drama classroom. There is often more than one way to play a character, to interpret a scene, to apply creative thinking. Theatre is the perfect place for divergent learning to happen.
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!
This would be Episode 171 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode171.
Today, we’re talking with one of our playwrights, one of Theatrefolk’s playwrights, Steven Stack, who also has many other talents and many other hats that he wears – one of them is that he has a background, he actually went to school for this in divergent learning.
So, mostly for my sake, let’s define that word. To be divergent – and I’m going to mention this in the interview, I keep thinking of the book series and the movie but that’s not what we’re talking about – is to move or extend in different directions from a common point.
Let’s say, a script or an idea or a character or being different from the “typical student” – to differ in opinion, to deviate from a plan, practice, or path. I think both you and I know that there is no more class that is more divergent than the drama classroom.
You have a vast number and a variety of different students who end up in your classroom – some who want to be there, some who really don’t – and I know all of you have had students who deviated from “the path” – again, I’ll use those air quotes – you know, “the path” and they’re ending up in your classroom, too. You also have the ability to look for many different solutions to a problem in a drama classroom. There is always more than – well, let’s not say “always” – there are a lot of times when there is more than one way to play a character, to interpret a scene, to apply creative thinking.
Theatre is the perfect place for divergent learning to happen.
That’s my two cents. Let’s hear what Steven has to say on the matter.
LINDSAY: All right. I am talking to Steven Stack.
STEVEN: Hello, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: How are you doing?
STEVEN: I am doing great. How about you?
LINDSAY: I’m doing peachy. I’m doing absolutely peachy.
STEVEN: Peachy? Very nice!
LINDSAY: Why not? I’m trying to mix it up a little – not be awesome all the time. Sometimes, I have to be a fruit.
STEVEN: Exactly! So, now I feel like I should have gone with, like, a pineapple. I had a chance there.
LINDSAY: But that was, in a very subtle way, sort of a great example of the thing that we’re going to talk about today which is Divergent Learning. Of course, I also wat to say – which I’ll also talk you up greatly in the introduction as I always do – that Steven is one of our fabulous Theatrefolk playwrights. When we get to the Theatrefolk News at the end of this, I’m going to name them all – Bottom of the Lake; Ashland Falls; She Wrote, Died, Then Wrote Some More; The Dread Playwright/Pirate Sadie.
STEVEN: Oh, even at the beginning, too!
LINDSAY: Oh, I’ll tell ya, I’ll tell ya. We’ll do it all. We’ll do it more than once. But the reason that Steven is here and he is talking to us today is I learned something about Steven.
Now, Steven, you’ve been writing for us quite a number of years.
STEVEN: I have, yes.
LINDSAY: For the first time, we were talking about a course that you’re going to do for us for the Drama Teacher Academy and you mentioned – on the sly, I think – that you have an MED in Divergent Learning.
STEVEN: I do, yes!
LINDSAY: First of all, how I think I know, you went to school.
STEVEN: I did go to school for that, yes.
LINDSAY: Did go to school for that. So, first of all, why did you decide to get an MED in Divergent Learning?
STEVEN: Well, I started my career teaching middle school – sixth, seventh, and eighth grade – and you can’t really get more divergent than that. So, as I went through that, I was really drawn to the vastly different students that I dealt with on a daily basis in the same classroom and, actually, the same students on a day-by-day basis or a minute-by-minute basis I’ve always been drawn to the different students and how they learn and how they interact with the world around them. also, with brain theory, too, because that was one part of this course, this program that I was in. We studied a lot about brain theory and that was really exciting to me.
LINDSAY: From my understanding of what divergent learning is – and I keep thinking of the book series of Divergent; every time I say the name, that book series comes up to me.
STEVEN: It’s a little different than that.
LINDSAY: I hope so! What? You mean this learning isn’t, when you get ripped away from your family and have to go live in a different… Now, I’m trying to remember what it’s all about.
STEVEN: Well, that’s only in the advanced classes, though.
LINDSAY: Yes, only in the advanced classes are you ripped from your family.
STEVEN: Absolutely, and that really takes a lot of work.
LINDSAY: It really does.
But, my understanding of divergent learning is that, when you get into it, you’re really looking for as many possible answers and solutions to whatever it is that you are dealing with. Does that sound about right?
STEVEN: Absolutely. I think the key thing is that the whole program was to force you to not look at students as a group of students but as a group of individuals and adjust your teaching and your expectations and your perspectives to the individual student so you can give them what they need to be better students, to learn what you’re teaching, or to be better at life in some ways.
LINDSAY: This just compares to convergent learning where that’s really sort of the standardized testing model, isn’t it? Where everything sort of leads to one answer and one solution.
STEVEN: Right, and I can see why testing is pushed in education – because that’s the easy answer. But that presents a black and white solution – either they can do the test on that day or they can’t or they can answer the question.
But, in reality, students – just like anything – it’s never black and white. It’s always a shade of grey and that’s what divergent learning reinforces as you’re faced with it every single day, looking at those shades of grey, having to see the individuals, realizing that there’s so many variables that you can deal with with every single student that the course allows you to be equipped to handle that and to, instead of being scared – “Oh, no, they’re all so different!” – you can look at it and go, “Okay, I know what to do here!” or “I have an idea of something that might work. If that doesn’t, I have a bunch more ideas, too!”
LINDSAY: Now, we’re going to dive into the drama classroom because there isn’t a lot of convergent learning that happens in the drama classroom.
STEVEN: Absolutely not, yeah.
LINDSAY: On a daily basis because there is no one solution for a lot of the things that happen in drama class and that divergent learning is just prime for the drama class where we can push students towards creative thinking and working together and just learning that there is more than one answer to any problem.
STEVEN: Absolutely, and theatre is the perfect place for that to happen because, when you look at theatre at its basic level, it’s a reflection of life and all the many nuances of life and all the characters that we encounter and all the feelings and all the hopes and the dreams and all the fears and everything, and then theatre becomes that and the fact that sometimes theatre becomes a dumping ground where you get kids who either love theatre or don’t even know what theatre is and they’re all in this one class. It’s so beautiful because you’re looking at the world right there in your classroom.
LINDSAY: I will not start singing “We are the World.”
STEVEN: You could if you wanted to, though.
LINDSAY: Okay, I don’t want to. How about that?
STEVEN: I just want to do the Stevie Wonder part because I’ve got that down!
LINDSAY: Okay! What are some skills that you sort of need to pursue? What are some skills that are really important when it comes to pursuing divergent learning in the classroom? What’s one skill that you think teachers should be applying?
STEVEN: The first is very simple and this is very internal. It’s changing your perspective of how you see the divergency of your classroom as in it’s an opportunity. It’s not something to be feared. It’s an opportunity to reach these students on so many levels and that’s the big thing. It’s a perspective shift.
I hear some teachers talk a lot where they’re scared and they’re like, “I don’t know want to do. They’re all so different!” If you change it to, “This is exciting! This is something new!” because, right now, in my summer camp, I have eight students right now in this summer camp where we’re teaching playwriting and acting and things and I have a kid who, five years ago, was in a refugee camp. I have a kid right now too who’s transgender and is suffering from many mental issues that she’s struggling with and various panic attacks and experience and all kinds of levels. At first, I was intimidated, too.
But, when you take the time just to talk to them on their level and you’re willing to adjust what your expectations are per student, it becomes a beautiful thing and that’s one of the next things.
Be willing to adjust. Not have “this is what I want to do and this is what I’m going to do no matter what” but have “this is an idea, this where I want to go,” but understand that these students are going to take you in various directions and be willing, be flexible enough to go, “Cool, I’m going to do this. This is where we’re going today.”
LINDSAY: Well, it’s really interesting too because, in the drama classroom, relationships are almost as important as your curriculum.
LINDSAY: Because it has to be a safe place.
LINDSAY: I think that, if you’re going to approach your classroom as a place of divergent learning, then your classroom is automatically going to be safe because you are taking into consideration the relationship – not only your relationship with each student but the relationship between the students.
STEVEN: Well, one of the things is what I tell my students when we start is I want to create a community of one where they’re all individuals but they’re all working towards the same goal and they respect that they all have way more in common than they actually have, like, different.
We embrace those differences and we support one another because, if you don’t have that support – like you said – if you don’t have that safety, kids aren’t going to feel comfortable to take chances and that falls on the teacher to create that community of one and to be willing to put themselves out there to encourage students to put themselves out there and where they feel safe to.
Once they feel safe, once your basic need of safety is taken care of, what you can accomplish, there’s no limit to it. You can push yourself further and further and that’s an amazing thing. Also, what a teacher can do, if you focus on progress every day, where you point out your student’s progress – like, something they got better at – that also helps because they’re seeing that growth every day.
We’re talking about this whole notion, you start out with this concept of the community of one and you’re starting on your first day and you’re looking at all these students and you’re looking at them as individuals, what’s an exercise that you do to sort of start out with looking at students as individuals – something that might get them to start relationships with each other?
STEVEN: Well, the basic thing I do in every class and what I start with every day – it’s one of my favorite things – it’s just simply called a check-in where a student is allowed – they don’t have to, they can pass if they want to – they share something that’s on their mind.
It can be funny; it can be what they had for breakfast; it can be something that’s stressing them out. But they share it and everyone else listens to it. They don’t comment on it. They just share it. And the, the teacher, I share something as well. That right there, something as simple as that starts creating that community where they’re sharing a basic fact about themselves. It’s safe but, at that point, students are listening to one another.
Some other things I do after that early on is we create these games where basically you can look at it as team-building but they’re working on a project together where they either succeed or they don’t succeed together. There are no stars. They have to work together for success.
A version of that is what we call a play in a day – or if you’re in a public school, it could be a play in a week – where I give them a play and their job is to completely stage it, cast it and everything by themselves with me providing guidance when things get a little iffy. But then, they see that they’re having to give each other feedback and they’re having to work together.
If you allow them to struggle, the end result is a beautiful thing.
LINDSAY: What a neat – and “neat” is not the word I mean. What an interesting thing to just put out to your students and go, “Okay!” I almost think it should be like two days. It depends on how long I guess teachers see their students.
LINDSAY: Maybe a week. Oh, if it’s a week, then it has to be memorized. “Here’s a play, you must put this play up.” As you say, just to let them struggle with it and how do they work with each other, how do they find different solutions? Like, you know, we don’t have a set. What are we going to do? Okay, we don’t have costumes. Okay, well, what are you going to do? What are different solutions that you could come up with? I really like idea that succeed or not succeed, you know, they’re all doing it together.
STEVEN: The cool thing too is that the success is not based on the performance at all because, to be honest, I rather like when the performance suffers – people mess up and things like that – because then, if the process was right, like, they did their best, they tried to put it together, they worked hard, and everybody was working together, they face struggles but they dealt with those struggles, that’s where their success is.
So, after their performance, whether it’s great or not, I base it on the process. I don’t even talk about the performance at all and I want the students to reflect that the process is more important than the product because the process takes care of the product in the end, regardless. Product, we don’t really control necessarily anyway – too many variables.
LINDSAY: Actually, I really like that idea because they’ll know. It would be very heightened for them if their process was filled with conflict and people fighting and things going awry and people not communicating and not collaborating. That’s what’s going to be on their mind.
STEVEN: And I love that! There’s another thing that I do, too. It’s also team-building but they’re games I set up and the games, once again, you succeed or fail together, and the early games they play are set up to be where they think they can succeed but they can’t.
LINDSAY: Oh, like what?
STEVEN: For instance, there’s very simple games. One is just keep the balloon up. I say, “You have to keep the balloon up. No balloons can touch the ground.” Seems very simple. Then, I keep throwing more and more balloons in until it’s basically triple what they had. There’s no way they can succeed. When a balloon hits the ground, I go, “Well, you lost. Now, sit. Plan again. Come up with a better way to do it.” So, I give them another opportunity to try it.
But what I want – and I’m monitoring the whole time – I’m letting them have that conflict where they get frustrated with one another and then I talk to them. It’s like, “Well, what is this frustration getting you right now? You’re dealing with it; how do you make it better? What do you need to change? What’s the steps you need to take as a group to win?”
And then, as the games go on, the last game is always set where they can definitely succeed. Once again, it’s not winning the game. It’s winning the process.
LINDSAY: See, that need to go on a t-shirt right there. “It’s not winning the game. It’s winning the process.” I love that! See, I started seeing! I think that’s an awesome thing.
STEVEN: I have a feeling, by the end, there’s going to be a “We are the World” and I’m ready!
LINDSAY: It’s either that or something from Hamilton.
LINDSAY: We’ll be current.
All right. This is why I like talking to you, Steven. I always get very excited.
That’s the first thing. That’s a really great thing in terms of relationships and communicating and collaborating and that process and process I think, in a classroom situation, always has to trump product and that’s where divergent learning can really come in.
STEVEN: And they go together beautifully, too!
The process feeds the product, you know?
LINDSAY: Yes, I do.
Now, let’s talk about something else that has to happen with divergent learning and that is not looking for one answer – looking for multiple answers. Students today, unfortunately, are just not wired that way anymore, right? They are being told in all their other classes that there is only one answer.
When you are working with students and you are getting them to try and change that thinking to get them to look for multiple solutions, what do you do?
STEVEN: Well, the first thing you have to do is get them to take ownership of their decisions of their learning. One of the things I always tell them is like, “When you’re answering this, don’t give me the answer you think I want. I don’t want that. I want you to own it. You do what you think is right. When they’re writing a script, write it – not for me. That’s part of it.
And then, what you want to do, because students need to discover things on their own. I can easily tell them that life is not black and white. Life is a shade of grey. But they’re not going to go, “Oh, thank you! Now, I instantly believe that!”
LINDSAY: “Now, the world has opened up to me and I know everything!”
STEVEN: Right! I stress to them, “I can’t make you change. I can’t make you learn. It’s a decision that you make.” But one of the things I do too in class is we do a quote of the day where I pick various quotes about life, about empathy, various things about learning, and I just write them on the board. They always have an actor’s journal where they write various things – scripts and such – but they write their reflection. What does this quote mean to you? I might have an idea of where I want to take them but all I want them to do is think. Each day, I push them to think a little more. The hope is that you plant these seeds and you just look at it, day by day, week by week, and see the progress as the students start to evolve their thinking, as they start to see that there are other viewpoints rather than just their own and other teachers. And then, they start to expand their thought process. That’s one of the things we do with the quote of the day. It’s amazing how that works, too.
LINDSAY: Do they share their points of view on the quote or is this something that is just private between them and you reading it?
STEVEN: Well, they write it down and then we do have a share time. I don’t force them to share but what happens, if it’s not forced, gradually – giving direct feedback too, that’s another thing – gradually, what happens, those ones who would never share, they do – especially quotes that they connect to. And then, I share my feelings but I stress that, just because I’m the instructor doesn’t mean that I’m telling you this is the way you have to believe.
What happens is they hear what other people’s feelings are and then it expands their worldview at the same time creating that community of one. You’re creating connections just simply by sharing their feelings about a quote and not worrying about whether their opinion is right or wrong because opinions can’t be right or wrong – which we stress also.
It’s fascinating because one of my students right now – the student who, five years ago, was in a refugee camp – he struggles with English and he’s committed. Like, he has ten brothers and sisters and none of them have been to college. His goal is that. He ended up thrust into my class. For the first couple of days, he barely spoke at all. Now, at the quotes of the day, because he was allowed that ability to grow and to get more confident and to take chances, he’s sharing every day now and connecting it with his life that we know nothing about.
LINDSAY: Well, his point of view on everything must be – “foreign” is not the right word – completely out of everyone’s comfort zone.
STEVEN: It’s fascinating and here’s a part of adjustment, too. He’s never been in a theatre class, never been onstage, certainly hasn’t written a one-act play. Now, we went over the fundamentals of writing a one-act play – the basic formatting, things like that. And then, we talked about what he wanted to write about. So, he created a character that lived with this refugee camp and the day-to-day experiences of that because he connected it to it.
Now, normally, I had an idea where this would go in some other direction. But, when you consider the individual and you empower him, he is writing some amazing things, exploring the things that he has experienced. And so, not only is he connecting to the work, his peers that haven’t experienced this are connecting to it too and seeing him in a completely different light than a quiet kid who struggles with English.
LINDSAY: Well, because it’s all about the notion of assumption, right? Well, he doesn’t talk. What on earth could he have to say?
STEVEN: Right, it’s that black and white decision. Instead, allowing students to see the nuances of life, create and make points instead of rushing to judgment, it makes them at least take a pause and go, “Wait, maybe this isn’t what I think it is. Maybe I should just step back and learn about a situation, a person.”
LINDSAY: Well, looking for all possible, looking for multiple solutions to this, right?
STEVEN: Right, and that’s what theatre is! It’s so varied – the characters that you’re going to play.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and just the different ways that they can be played.
STEVEN: We talked about it in class a couple of days ago where one of the quote, I actually sent that one to you too about empathy – that theatre can teach empathy because you have to get inside of these characters. And then, one of my students said, “I get that and I get how it’s possible, but my problem is that I have these people in my theatre group that play these characters and they’re the meanest people in the world. Why is that?” And then, that led to a discussion about how hard it is to take the focus off ourselves and actually to see the world through someone else’s eyes. That discussion went for, like, thirty minutes. We got so behind in other things, but that discussion was the most important.
LINDSAY: When it comes to the process of them as human beings, then it was exactly the thing that had to happen.
STEVEN: Right, because, in the end, it’s not just about the class. Let’s say we make them great theatre students and they pull of the show or they write the great one-act, but what about the part that connects to the human experience? What are they going to take from your class that’s going to help them have a chance at a successful life?
LINDSAY: These are all the best scenarios. This is the best scenario where everybody is listening to each other and collaborative. What do you do when it’s not the best? Because you need to be pretty open in terms of getting students, if you’re going to teach divergent learning, if you want students to engage in divergent learning, how do you deal with the students who are resistant, let’s say?
STEVEN: Directly. You talk to them.
One of the things too in your class, you need to have very direct feedback. When things are working, you point them out specifically. “Hey, I notice that you’re doing this. How can we continue this?” Or when a student is struggling, you deal with it directly. You pull them aside. You talk to them and you deal with them on a case-by-case basis.
Some students, you can just talk to right in front of class. Some students, you have to pull aside and ask questions. “I saw this and I need to know why this is happening. What’s going on with you?” Instead of seeing it as, “Oh, no, this student doesn’t want to be in the class,” it’s real-life and theatre is supposed to believe real-life and you can use it as a teachable moment. Embrace those challenges!
I’ve had students that love theatre and students that had the most negative attitude about everyone. There were days where I would talk to this student every single day but I was always direct – “This is what happens.” Sometimes, the students would not acknowledge it and would have a negative reaction, but that’s okay because the goal wasn’t to fix the problem myself. The goal is just to start the conversation going and to look for a chance of progress, to let the student know that I’m involved and this situation has to be fixed. And then, let the student take ownership of that.
At some point, hopefully, the more you give that direct feedback, they start to take ownership and they start to evolve. In the end, the goal, when you look at the adult world, you see how the adult work struggles so much just to be nice.
LINDSAY: Oh, my! We struggle so much!
STEVEN: Right, and that’s their role models.
STEVEN: So, I’m always way more patient with students than I am with adults. I feel like adults should be better but then they’re not. With students, if our role models are all messed up, then we should probably be more patient with the ones who are looking up to us.
LINDSAY: Well, being an adult is just high school all over again.
STEVEN: It really is.
LINDSAY: Don’t tell them that, though.
STEVEN: Actually, you say that too but that’s one of the things I say when I first talk to them. I go, “I’m going to be honest with you guys. You’re all messed up. You’re a bunch of hormones and bad decisions and arrogance.” And then, I mention all the good things about them to and I say, “But here’s a secret: adults are just as messed up but they won’t admit to it!”
LINDSAY: No, in fact, we put on a big shell – an ego shell that says we’re better than teenagers.
STEVEN: Right! Oh, my goodness!
LINDSAY: It’s not true. It’s not true!
STEVEN: When you tell a teenager that, their eyes get big because an adult is owning up to the messed-up-ness of just the human experience. We’re all in this together. We’re all messed up. It’s all good.
LINDSAY: I’ve said this before. I say it all the time. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I was pretty sure that I would hit a certain age and then a switch would flick and I would become an adult. I would become a grownup. Still waiting… I am still waiting.
STEVEN: I don’t think that happens anymore. I have given up hope of that.
LINDSAY: Okay. I just wanted to hit one more thing in terms of this and that is on the notion of brainstorming. Do you practice brainstorming? Like, just to really push students to come up with multiple choices for something? How do you get them to really key into that part of their brain where they’re not looking for one answer?
STEVEN: Well, one of the things that I do is I talk about my process with writing plays and things like that and they really eat that up. I talk about how it’s okay just to sit and play in the creative sandbox for as long as you need and just to jot down all the ideas. Actually, I tell them, I usually go: “Reject your first 253 ideas because that 254th one is going to be amazing.” What it is is that, in the brainstorming process, you don’t reject it then but you just get down all your thoughts and you don’t start writing. You enjoy, you embrace the process of playing around with thoughts – like you did when you were four. Because, with four, you weren’t worried about the final performance or the final product. You just played.
Encouraging them to just focus on the process of creating, of thinking, of getting these ideas down without even judgment is a beautiful thing.
I make that joke about the 253 because they’re so product-based now that they limit themselves to some great ideas. When that next idea is just around the corner, if they just stayed in that creative sandbox a little bit longer and, when I model it, that really help because they see the instructor doing it and they’re like, “Oh, maybe I’ll try that, too.”
LINDSAY: Awesome! Lovely image to end on!
Thank you so much for taking time out to talk to us today!
STEVEN: No problem! This is fun!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Steven!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
So, Steven has a gaggle of plays in the Theatrefolk catalogue. Not only does he do comedy well, he also knows how to combine creepy and comedy, and I think that’s my favorite part of his writing skill.
As I mentioned in the interview, we’ve got plays such as The Bottom of the Lake which combines ghost stories, urban legends, a little noir, teen issues, and smores with an ending that no one saw coming.
Also, Ashland Falls, an excellent acting challenge as each actor has to play two completely different roles in this very ghostly tale.
She Wrote, Died, Then Wrote Some More is actually not a ghost story – it’s a melodrama. We have characters who die, supposedly, and then they don’t die. It features some betrayals, some broken hearts, an odd but beautiful love story – the best kind, I think – and a fainting when frightened disorder. I swear it’s not a ghost story. It’s totally a really great melodrama.
Last, we have The Dread Playwright Sadie. I’m going to say two words – girl pirates. Three words – rocking girl pirates! I love that about this play. Comedic girl pirates. How often do you have girls in your class who don’t want to play the standard roles? Makes them be pirates, right? We also have a girl who wants to be a playwright but has to be a pirate. Okay, that’s more than two or three words but you get my point.
You can find all of these marvelous scripts at Theatrefolk.com by searching for Steven Stack. You can also read sample pages of all of these plays before you buy on our website. We like to make sure that you like what you get. If you’re looking for creepy or comedy or creepy comedy, it’s a good bet that you’re going to like what you see.
You can also find a link in the show notes to Steven’s plays at Theatrefolk.com/episode171.
Finally, finally! Where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.