Episode 137: Successes and Challenges: Firsts
Every teacher in this podcast experienced a “first” this past year. Their first year in the classroom. The first time their school has had a drama program. The first time back in the classroom after a long break. Join us as we talk about the successes and challenges of dealing with “firsts.”
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.
Welcome to Episode 137!
You can find any links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode137.
Today, I am talking to teachers and every teacher in this particular podcast has experienced a first – a first year in the classroom, the first time their school has had a drama program, the first time back in the classroom after a long break.
This is part one of two in our “Successes and Challenges” series and I really had a lovely time talking to these teachers. I love hearing what challenges you guys face, how you deal with them, and, more often than not, how those challenges turn into successes. I think that’s really important to share. I think it’s really important to hear if you are, you know, if you’re on your own island in the middle of nowhere and it seems like you’re at a loss that there are other people who are in the same boat as you who have taken on challenges and turned them around.
I recorded these interviews at the end of the year but I purposely wanted to release them now, at the beginning of the school year because, you know, it’s easy to forget where we’ve been after the summer break. Everyone’s been in the sun and, you know, everybody’s just getting back into the swing of things. So, listen and enjoy.
Let’s do it.
LINDSAY: Now, I’d like to say hello to Jena Dipinto.
JENA: Hi Lindsay! How are ya?
LINDSAY: I’m awesome! How are you?
JENA: I’m great! Thanks!
LINDSAY: So, how long have you been a teacher?
JENA: I have been a music teacher, a piano teacher, since high school. Instead of babysitting, that’s what I did. I’ve been formally a teacher for about ten years. I was a middle school choral director for a while and then budget cuts and all that. Then I found myself back in my hometown last year as a sixth grade general music teacher/preschool early intervention special needs music teacher.
LINDSAY: Oh, my gosh.
JENA: Yeah, kind of a different position, but it’s really fun.
LINDSAY: So, you’ve gone into this first year into this new position?
JENA: That was last year. This year, instead of sixth grade, I have fifth grade.
JENA: I still have my pre-K and then we have two middle schools in our district and the drama director at one of them moved away to pursue other opportunities. And so, being that we wanted to have another music teacher in the drama department so that both schools be parallel, they asked me to take over.
LINDSAY: What was that like? To not have any background and just sort of get called up or get called down to the office and go, “Okay, this is going to be yours.” What was your first reaction?
JENA: You know, I actually was thrilled because, in college, my background was…. I’m a musician but my background was literature and theatre. And so, musical theatre and theatre just kind of have always been the backbone of my music, you know what I mean?
JENA: Not so much of what I did for practice but, you know, I’d do musicals all growing up and I was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a particularly interesting musical called “Call of the Wild: The Musical” – a little weird experimental piece. So, I was kind of glad to get back to doing some theatre stuff and it’s the town where I grew up so I feel like I’m helping rebuild the legacy and helping enhance the legacy that we’ve had.
LINDSAY: That’s a nice point of view, I think. Instead of being terrified, I’d say you’re being helpful. I like that.
JENA: I have a great support system. Like I said, there’s the two middle schools and so my colleagues at the other middle school – which happens to be where my day job is, it’s very complicated – we’ve worked together to really create parallel programs at our schools. Our musicals are kind of run the same way, the way we audition is similar – a lot of that. We have a similar structure so that when they get to the high school – and that teacher’s also been helpful as a mentor – it’s more of a feeder program so they reach the high school having had comparable experiences. Our high school’s actually an award-winning program.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a really good thing to kind of get out there. It’s all about structure, isn’t it? If this group is doing it this way, let’s have this group do it this way. And then, when they get to high school, it’s not a whirlwind for them.
JENA: No, the big challenge for me though has been I actually found this play through poking around when I knew I was taking over this job and I believe I Googled “directing middle school musicals” which happened upon Episode 108 of your podcast. You had Brian Borowka on – how he wrote Roshambo – and we’re actually presenting that next week at the Massachusetts Middle School Competition Festival. That’s the big challenge for me. I’ve never done a competition festival. You know, you have the time moment of “Okay, guys, we want the show to be under an hour or under two hours,” but never been to this whole “Okay, five minutes, thirty-five minutes, break it down, you know, adjudication.” So, that’s been really interesting and that’s where the n helpful – because they really drive that themselves and they love, love Roshambo. They absolutely think that this play is just the coolest thing ever.
LINDSAY: Oh, that’s so wonderful! Oh, Brian would be so happy to hear that. You know what, I really do think competition is an animal, isn’t it? It’s just its own thing.
JENA: Our high school just got all the way to the top level and so a few of those students who were in middle school who were – remember there’s the two schools – some of the kids who were in that who were at this middle school when they were younger have actually come and mentored and helped them, given them pep talks, and some of these kids are eighth graders so they’ve done it in previous years. It’s just amazing to me how devoted these kids are – that you have all this time to do it. I mean, I understand it being a theatre person myself, but to see it at a middle school level of the other day they said, “Can we rehearse later?” It’s like, “Yes? Sure? What time?” “Well, we surveyed all the parents and they said 7:00 – from right after school until 7:00 pm.” “Sure! Why not? I’ll be there!” It’s amazing.
LINDSAY: Do you ever see any of the downside of competition?
JENA: I haven’t yet. Get back to me in a couple of weeks once we’ve done it and I’ll let you know. But it is hard that it’s a cut cast. You know, my musical was 77 kids. We did Dear Edwina Junior. It was great. There was a way to find a part for everybody. That was heartbreaking to go, the week after the musical, to say, “Okay, I only need sixteen of you now.”
LINDSAY: Yeah, because they don’t quite get it, because, I mean, in your mind, it’s like, “Look, I did the 77. You got it.” But they want to be in everything.
JENA: Of course, of course.
LINDSAY: So, what would you say when you’re facing the challenge of competition? What would you say to other people? There’s lots of folks out there who are in the same boat in terms of they don’t have the background and they sort of have been thrown into that aspect of the drama program. What advice would you give to someone dealing with competition?
JENA: I’d say just go with it. Just go with it. Find a play that you find some investment in. Like, our spin on Roshambo is we’re playing it deadly serious.
JENA: Because that’s how you find the comedy, right? It’s like old school Saturday Night Live. You know, Andy Kaufman was only funny because we had no idea why it was funny. Dan Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic was funny because he was deadly serious about selling that blender. That’s the way they’re playing it. So, find a play that speaks to you. That, to me, struck me as something like that. And, if you believe in it and your kids believe in it, then just go with it. If they’ve got a wacky idea, as long as it’s within the framework, just go with it. The worst that can happen is that you don’t win. And so what?
LINDSAY: Yeah, I like that very much. I love it! I love it! Well, it’s like we get really wrapped up, don’t we? It’s like, “Oh, it has to be this way, it has to be this way,” and it’s like, “Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t.”
JENA: That’s what’s been very freeing about the competition play versus the musical too. The musical is the big production and you want to get every kid and every elementary school family and every high schooler to come and watch it and fill your theatre. So, there’s a lot more directing and a lot more maybe professionalism to it. But, because the competition is supposed to be student-driven, I’ve found a lot more opportunity to just say, “Well, what do you think?” You know, they’ll come to me, “Would my character…?” I say, “I don’t know. Would you character?” Because they’re supposed to know that, they’re supposed to be able to tell the adjudicators that, and it’s really very hands-off. I mean, I have to rein them in once in a while when they decide that, you know, “We should build an entire school on the stage!” “No, guys, we have five minutes. We’re not going to do that. Let’s use some blackboards and a chair. It’ll make it look like it, you know.” But they have these ideas that they come up with themselves and instead of going, “Well…” it’s a good chance to say, “Well, I don’t know. You tell me.”
LINDSAY: And I can’t think of a better learning tool.
JENA: Yeah, it’s an improv “yes, and…”
LINDSAY: Yeah, totally! Totally, totally! Okay. Well, this sounds very successful.
As you’ve doved into the deep end of all this, what has been a great success for you this year?
JENA: Honestly, it was seeing the musical happen that I hadn’t done a musical in a long time. It hadn’t been since college. I hadn’t done any directing. For it to just go off so well and be so well-received, picking a musical nobody had really heard of instead of a Disney show, I wanted to try to bring more real theatre into it and not so much just filling the seats, and the fact that we had a very successful run, the local paper covered it, we sold tons and tons of tickets, the families were happy. I was worried that it was going to come off to be like no one was going to show up. Who’s ever heard of Dear Edwina anyway? What is this thing you’re doing? It went beautifully and so that to me just was, “Okay, I’ve got one. I did one.” You know, now to go from there, I know I can do it. I know my kids can do it. I know I have a good group of parents to support me so it was just getting that one – that one out of the way. I’ve got my success under my belt.
LINDSAY: That means next year is just going to be awesome, right?
JENA: I guess it depends if I can find the right show but, yeah, I’m hoping. I was toying with Xanadu Junior but most of my kids don’t roller skate. And then, you know, Sweeney Todd doesn’t really have a junior. We’ve had this little game going on online with my friend, my other theatre friends, and I have, you know, the most inappropriate “junior” plays we could think of, yeah.
LINDSAY: Yeah, Sweeney Todd.
JENA: Hair Junior, not so much. Rent Junior, no. But it’ll be finding the right show for the group of kids and what’s nice is I’ll know them all next year. I didn’t know these kids this year because I teach at the other middle school so it was completely blind casting which was kind of nice. But now I know, okay, I’ve got no low boy voices, I know that I have X number of superstar girl, I know that I have a sixth grader who’s a competitive roller skater which is why I toyed with Xanadu, I know that I have three girls who do Irish step-dancing. I have more of an idea of what I have so I can pick a musical that better suits my kids.
LINDSAY: You can play to their strengths.
JENA: Exactly. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage. I was blind of an audition process but that may help in a way for me to pick a show that suits the kids better.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Thank you so much, Jena! That was lovely.
JENA: Thank you!
LINDSAY: I love hearing what people are doing and I love sharing what people are doing because there’s going to be somebody out there who is just like, “Oh, that’s me!” and feel better and feel good.
JENA: Well, they’re always welcome to email me and get in touch.
LINDSAY: Oh, you’re a doll! That’s awesome. Thank you.
JENA: Thank you very much!
LINDSAY: Hello Brittany!
LINDSAY: Hi. I’m talking with Brittany Daley and you are a first year teacher.
BRITTANY: I am, yes, first year middle school.
LINDSAY: And that’s basically your success and your challenge in a nutshell I’m guessing.
BRITTANY: Yeah, first year has been very interesting. I worked previous as like the after-school teacher at a separate school so I definitely am used to working with kids but this was my first year working full-time and actually lesson planning and stuff.
LINDSAY: Yeah? So, let’s get into that. What was your biggest challenge this year?
BRITTANY: I think two of the biggest challenges for me – and I’m sure you’ll hear this a lot with first year teachers – was dealing with classroom management strategies and then sort of getting used to the school and having that feeling of like the kids kind of knew a little more than me coming in. Actually, I was hired exactly a week before school started too which was very interesting so there was a sense of being kind of thrown into it and the kids knew the routine of this school, they knew what was expected last year with their old drama teacher and trying not to get compared but you inevitably get those “Well, last year, we did this” type statements so managing those two things was definitely interesting – probably my biggest challenge.
LINDSAY: I’m sure the first couple of months were just like, “Okay! Here we go!” The seat of the pants stuff.
BRITTANY: Yeah, it was a whirlwind. Thinking back, you know, I tried to maintain some sort of journal or reflection of what was going on but there were some points where I’d think back and I’d just be like, “Oh, my goodness, how did I get through?” Like that one day where I woke up and was like, “This lesson plan doesn’t work, what am I going to do?” and, you know, struggling to try to make things work and getting the classroom set up and all of that so it was definitely a whirlwind.
LINDSAY: You’re right. A lot of our teachers who I talk to, classroom management, particularly in the drama classroom, is such a big thing. How did you address it?
BRITTANY: I think the first thing for me, I had to kind of come to terms with the fact that, even on the days that things didn’t work out, that it wasn’t a reflection of me as a bad teacher because there were definitely those days the first few weeks where, if I came home and I had a class that was particularly difficult, I would almost be in tears thinking, like, “Oh, maybe I’m not cut out for this and I should have stuck to just, you know, working after school versus teaching full-time,” and sort of coming to terms with the fact that there are just going to be days where things happen that, you know, keeping your cool, they’re out of your control, and not letting it get to you – that’s the first step I think – because then, after that, you can actually take more control of the situation. But little things like the first trimester was definitely establishing routine. I didn’t have any. So, once I was able to lock down, you know, “What do I want my kids to do when they come in? Where are their materials going to be?” once the kids had their sense of the routine, that helped to eliminate a lot of behavior issues. And then, getting to know the kids is a big one, too. I always had this idea that, with classroom management, being fair meant having all the same policies for every single kid but you start to learn with certain students that there’s different ways of handling a situation and picking up on those cues and kind of having like a toolbox.
For example, I have one student – he loves to use a blanket in my classroom. I have a box of blankets. When he has that blanket, he is well-behaved and focused. And so, we have this sort of agreement that, if he’s behaving, he gets to use the blanket. But the minute something changes, he’s kind of losing that privilege. So, knowing the kids and having different techniques for each of them was also a big step forward.
LINDSAY: Now that it’s sort of under your belt, what do you look back on and consider your greatest success this year?
BRITTANY: I would have to say just that first trimester in general, especially getting my first show done because I was also the Drama Club director at the same time. So, I think managing, getting used to the school, the town – all of that. And then, also being able to successfully put on a full-scale production, we literally started rehearsals three weeks after I started there. I chose my show when we went. So, getting all of that done, but the show definitely sticks out in my mind as a big success.
LINDSAY: Well, it’s lovely too because it’s a process and a product, right?
LINDSAY: You work with the kids but then there’s also something that you can look back on and go, “Okay, it went up in front of an audience!”
BRITTANY: Right, we got there, we finished, exactly. I know, I’m sure at the end of this year, once the year finishes and I’m able to look back, but it kind of feels like, as far as the lesson planning and the teaching full-time, it still doesn’t feel complete yet because I still am working towards that goal of adjusting my lessons and kind of throwing out what didn’t work this year and preparing them for next year. But, I agree with you, the play has that concrete like, we finished it, we got there, we had an audience, it’s done.
LINDSAY: What’s one thing that you are thinking about to apply for your next year – year two?
BRITTANY: I noticed this year that I kind of had to run with, since I got hired so late, I kind of had to run with lesson plans that I sort of had in the bag from grad school and stuff and also topics that I knew the most about so I could readily pull from them and I found that, in my lesson planning, sometimes I would extend an activity longer than I think I would need to – or vice versa. Sometimes, I would plan for the activity to be quick and then I would do it with the kids and realize, you know, that this is going to take a lot longer. I think, next year, I’m looking forward to just applying my time management skills and also making more time to sort of research different theatre topics that I can add into the year. I’m really excited to look at puppetry because we didn’t have a chance to do it this year but I realized we had time so I think the kids will like that and I really want to do something with sort of like solo performance or Anna Deavere Smith – like, have them research someone and write a monologue and maybe perform it as them – something along those lines. I’m looking forward to applying new stuff.
LINDSAY: Well, it sounds like your first year is not going to be your last year. It sounds like this is…
BRITTANY: Oh, yeah!
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Brittany!
BRITTANY: Thank you!
LINDSAY: Okay. I am talking to Corby Kissling.
LINDSAY: How are you today?
CORBY: I am quite good. How are you?
LINDSAY: Excellent. I am quite good as well. So, let’s get into – I can’t wait to hear you talk about – your challenge for this year. What was your challenge?
CORBY: My biggest challenge was convincing my principal to start a theatre program.
LINDSAY: I think that is the best challenge ever.
CORBY: I succeeded!
LINDSAY: Yes! Okay. Let’s talk about the difficult parts first. Was he/she difficult? Did they not want to do it? Why did you go in?
CORBY: I kept putting the bug in the ear all of last school year because last year’s school year I taught language arts which is the curse of all drama teachers. And so, I just kind of kept putting the bug in his ear and I would give him random articles to read about how it was good to have all sorts of arts and how theatre arts really supported language arts, yadda yadda. On the last day of school, I found out I was going to be teaching drama.
LINDSAY: Okay. So, then you got it and then you had to sort of step up, right?
CORBY: Oh, I had to start from scratch – complete scratch! I had to write the curriculum for the county. I wrote the curriculum for the class. Everything that I did literally came from my brain.
LINDSAY: How long did that take?
CORBY: We had no book. We have no scripts.
LINDSAY: Oh, you are ground zero.
CORBY: Yes, we are dead ground zero but, luckily, it’s theatre. We know how to produce things out of nowhere. So, I started off with improv because that’s free and you don’t need anything for that.
LINDSAY: Right, and then?
CORBY: And then, we’ve progressed to simple open scenes because, again, those are free too. And we’re starting to do a little bit of Greek, a little bit of Shakespeare – staying away from copyright but I only have them for a semester so, by the time we get through that or they’re required to take a state test, they’re out of here. But I did get them all dressed in authentic Greek costuming which was awesome.
LINDSAY: That’s a great picture for administration to see. It’s like, “Look!”
CORBY: Yeah, and I had one seventh grade boy bring in a wheelchair because his god did not walk so he put, like, he called it his “wheelchariot.”
LINDSAY: Oh, my gosh, that is awesome.
CORBY: Yeah, and one girl made her entire Medusa costume out of trash bags, tin foil, and two-litre bottles.
LINDSAY: See? That’s awesome. That is an amazing thing. See? I can picture that and I just think that’s great. So, how has the response been?
CORBY: The student response is crazy. I started Drama Club after school as well and we have a magnet school for drama but the kids who were here still wanted it. I haven’t had less than thirty kids and we do our meetings every other Friday which is insane because I beat all the other clubs – doo dah, doo dah!
LINDSAY: And does your administration, do they acknowledge the impact that this is having? Maybe?
CORBY: I’m working on it!
LINDSAY: Well, you know, nothing changes overnight.
LINDSAY: You know, all you can do is one step at a time.
CORBY: Yeah, and last semester was such a learning semester because I’ve taught high school theatre, I’ve taught college, I’ve done acting classes, I have never dealt in the middle school arena before, and it is not for the faint-hearted.
LINDSAY: No, and I think too – I’ve been talking about this with others – I think it’s really easy to make mistakes with middle schoolers. Like, high schoolers are very defined. I think elementary students are very defined. Middle school is just that amoeba in the middle. You can’t treat them too young, you cannot treat them too old, and they’re their own beings.
CORBY: It’s a cornucopia of craziness and I have some classes that are sixth all the way through eighth so I’m just like, “Uh… how do I talk about the three different Greek plays and explain the Seder play?” Let’s just say it’s really dirty and we’re leaving it there.
LINDSAY: See? Some challenges are not just about you but also how things are going to be handled, you know?
CORBY: Since we’re in Florida, we’re doing a whole bunch of tests, race for the top stuff. Between April 13th and May 19th, I have a full class – two days.
LINDSAY: Wow. Wow! Wow. Well, let’s put it this way. Let’s spin this. So, two days is better than no days?
CORBY: And I’m a giant dork so I’m putting all of my notes online.
LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s lovely! So, this is your challenge and your success, right?
LINDSAY: You have succeeded in moving this project forward, moving drama forward, and that means that you can’t be stopped, right?
CORBY: I am a bull – not in a China shop.
LINDSAY: Just a bull in the middle of nowhere.
CORBY: I’m a bull in the middle of nowhere – or a honey badger. I don’t care. I’m going to get what I want done.
LINDSAY: That’s fantastic. I love that. Thank you so much, Corby!
CORBY: No problem!
LINDSAY: All right. I am talking to Barbara Stoicheff. Hello Barbara!
BARBARA: Hello! How are you?
LINDSAY: I’m awesome. How are you?
BARBARA: I’m doing well.
LINDSAY: Cool. Okay. How long have you been a teacher?
BARBARA: I have been a teacher for… this is my first full-time teaching job. I have taught part-time for a couple of different years so I would say one year since it’s full-time work. I won’t count the part-time work.
LINDSAY: Oh, my god. Well, that’s kind of exciting. I hope it’s exciting.
BARBARA: Yeah, it is!
LINDSAY: Now, did you sort of decide to make the plunge to go full-time or it was offered to you so you took it?
BARBARA: It was offered to me and I took it. It was a last-minute thing and I just decided, “Sure, why not?”
LINDSAY: And, a year later, are you happy that you made that decision?
BARBARA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, with teaching, there’s always challenges – every single day – but it’s not a decision that I regret in any way. Coming in full-time, there’s more challenges every day since you’re in the classroom every day versus part-time. When I wasn’t in the classroom every day, there was a different set of challenges but, no, I wouldn’t change it. I really do enjoy it. It’s actually easier being a full-time teacher than a part-time teacher.
LINDSAY: The rhythm is probably a lot easier, huh?
BARBARA: Yeah, and being able to be there every day and understand and know everything that’s going on where, if you’re a part-time teacher and you’re only teaching two or three days a week, you miss out on so much from the day-to-day that you’re always playing catch-up so it’s a little easier I think.
LINDSAY: Okay. Let’s get into it. This was your first year full-time. What was the biggest challenge that you had to face this year?
BARBARA: The biggest challenge? It was – well, still is – I have one drama class and I am an A-certified English language arts teacher and theatre, I don’t have a strong background in theatre so that has probably been my biggest challenge. The majority of my classes are English, language arts classes, and then I have one drama class. And so, that has been my biggest challenge – (1) coming into a new school, (2) coming in as a full-time teacher, and (3) being given a drama class with no experience in teaching drama so that’s been the biggest challenge.
LINDSAY: How did you deal with it? That’s a big thing.
BARBARA: Yeah, it is. Your website has been very helpful, to be honest.
BARBARA: Reading the blogs, yes. No, I mean, seriously. I mean, I have other friends that are teachers that teach drama and such like that and, you know, talking with them, but being able to have a resource handy like your website to go in and read for lesson ideas has been huge because I can only think of so many things off the top of my head. So, really being able to go in and explore other ideas, that type of thing.
The other thing that’s been challenging about it is I have many different levels of students within one class and we only have one drama class so we don’t have like a Drama 1, a Drama 2, a Drama 3 type class. They’re all, if the students want to be in the drama class, whether they were in it from last year to this year, I have different levels of students – beginning to, you know, more advanced, I guess I would say – yeah, I would say. But we don’t have different levels of the drama class so that’s been a really big challenge. I only have thirteen in the drama class so it’s a small class size but I have, this year, there’s more freshmen so they’re more of the beginners and I have quite a few seniors so the skill set is either really new or really advanced. That’s been interesting.
LINDSAY: You’ve had these challenges. What would you consider the most success that you’ve had? What was something successful that you really felt good about?
BARBARA: Well, we are going to be putting on our play in about two weeks. The ultimate success will be how well our play goes on. We have two showings of our play. That’s coming up in two weeks. That will be my greatest – hopefully – it will be the greatest success for the kids but I don’t know yet. So far, I would say going along, not having any experience in theatre, having – I mean, I had a few classes I had to take in theatre but not actually having a background myself. Being able to teach the kids as far as how to, like, line memorization, character analysis – that type of thing – on my own. They really have seemed to do well with that and so that’s been one of my successes.
LINDSAY: It’s amazing when you’re sort of told to jump into the deep end of the pool and you’re like, “Okay, let’s do it!” and then it actually happens. It must be very rewarding! I think that’s very daunting to get thrown into something that you don’t know a lot about.
BARBARA: Absolutely, and that was my biggest frustration at the beginning of the school year. You could only do improv activities for so long before nobody wants to improv anymore. Coming up with different activities to do in class at the first half of the year, it started to wear out and the kids were just ready to move on to the play and we had some trouble at the beginning trying to pick a play that would work. But, once all that was kind of worked out and we had our scripts and we started working on our play, things really started to take off a little bit better. The course is a full-year course and so I think, for next year, we’re going to keep it just to a semester course so it’ll be like in the spring and the course will focus solely on putting on the play for the school instead of just developing skills and then putting on the play because that first half of the year when we were developing skills, like I said, with different levels of students within one class, that just became really tedious and I didn’t want to break the class down into, “Okay, beginners and advanced,” because, in a small class of thirteen, you can’t really do that and be successful – at least I can’t figure out a way.
LINDSAY: Well, the beginners just feel like they’re less which is not the point.
BARBARA: Right, exactly, and with thirteen it’s better to work as a cohesive group that just split everybody off. That’s what they were used to in the past with the other teacher. They were being split off into different levels but I think, this year, I think, after a while, they’ve finally understood it is more fun when everybody can be kind of together working on one skill set or something like that.
LINDSAY: Well, putting on a play, that’s all the skill sets sort of combined into one. It’s all the levels combined into one and then they’ve got to put on a play.
BARBARA: Yes, that’s right, and we’ll see how it goes.
LINDSAY: Well, break a leg.
BARBARA: Oh, thank you.
LINDSAY: Break a leg and, well, it sounds like it’s just going to be wonderful, right? It’s always going to be fine.
BARBARA: Yes, that’s right, yes. That’s right, yes. It will be, it will be. They’ve been working really hard and I am really looking forward to, in two weeks, seeing them pull it all together and work together as a cohesive group and put on a wonderful show for our school and our parents and our community.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Thank you very much, Barbara.
BARBARA: Thank you so much.
LINDSAY: Hello Lea!
LEA: Hello Lindsay!
LINDSAY: All right. I’m talking to Lea Marshall and, Lea, I love your story because you are a first-time teacher – sort of.
LEA: Sort of, yes.
LINDSAY: But you took a long break there.
LEA: I did. I took about sixteen years off – just a little “compose myself” kind of break and raise my own little thespian group, yes.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a very good reason to have a break.
LINDSAY: We’re talking successes and challenges so let’s talk about, first, the challenges of going back to be a drama teacher after all that time.
LEA: The challenges were I had taught elementary school drama classes. And then, when I came back, I came back as a middle school theatre teacher but I had been subbing in elementary, middle, and high school, and I just found that I loved middle school now and I loved that they were still willing to give you hugs but yet they got all my jokes so it was the perfect storm – the perfect wonderful storm. So, I wanted to come back at this level and I happened that my kids had gone to a performing arts magnet middle school and I had done some directing for them of their musical and had also done some teaching in the classes – some Shakespeare unit teaching. And so, when they had an opening, I stuck myself in the door and came back after a little hiatus – just a little short hiatus. I guess the biggest challenge was starting over – starting in middle school and not having a curriculum but that’s also one of the greatest parts of it – not having a curriculum – just kind of making up everything from scratch was really a fun challenge. Some days it’s more challenging than others but I love that. I love that part of it.
LINDSAY: I think it’s true. It really is true. Not having rules or not having a base to follow or to fall back on can be the most terrifying and yet the most rewarding, you know?
LEA: Right! It was both. It was terrifying and it was terrific because there was a ton of freedom for me to choose things that sometimes choose things I’m comfortable with and sometimes choose things that are incredibly challenging for me and the students. It’s both. It’s both which is a lot like life. Hello!
LINDSAY: What was one thing you chose totally out of your comfort zone which was challenging for you and your students?
LEA: Oh! I will say that, right now, what I’m teaching is absurdism – totally out of my comfort zone. The only thing I was kind of comfortable with was my son was in a production of “Waiting for Godot” and so I became very familiar with that one. He was the boy in “Waiting for Godot” a couple of years ago. But that was out of my comfort zone and I’ve loved it. It has been one of my most fun units to teach and the kids, I mean, nobody gets absurdism like middle school kids – nobody.
LINDSAY: Well, it is their life, isn’t it? It’s just completely absurd.
LEA: It still is easy for them to write absurdist plays. I really feel like I could take some of these on the road. Some of the absurdist plays that they have written are just brilliant in an absurd manner.
LINDSAY: All right. So, what do you think has been your best success this year?
LEA: I think my best success was I’m one of those theatre teachers that I’m right down kind of the middle of the line between, you know, chaos and organization. I’m right in the middle. I love both but I have to have both. And so, I kind of, at the beginning of the year, established just a really good skeleton for each class because I knew I needed that structure to kind of hang all my chaos on so I just established a structure that was familiar to me. I had the directed the musical here and so I had a structure that was exactly like you would do when you came in to rehearse a play with me. When we come in, we’d do what we do in the beginning which is a focus where I make them be silent for at least thirty seconds – I try for longer but thirty seconds is sometimes all I get – where they do something with a quote of the week. I have a quote of the week that sometimes is theatre-related, sometimes is life-related. This week, it’s a quote but Seth Godin about failure and not being afraid of failure and so they do a little focus activity with that and then they write how they’re feeling and how their intention is for today. I try to be very intentional and try to make them intentional. Then, we go around and share those. They share their feelings – three words or less – and they share their intention which sometimes they actually read my goal written on the board and they say that – those are my try-hards. And then, sometimes, their intention is not to fall asleep or not to punch somebody in the face or something like that which, I mean, hey!
LINDSAY: Hey, man! I’ll go with that!
LEA: My intention sometimes is also not to fall asleep or punch anyone in the face so I totally understand your intentions! So, we do that and share our intention. As the year’s gone on, they actually really kind of get that. Like, today, someone’s intention was to be a good audience member as they were listening to monologues. I see them trying to live out their intention a little bit more now that we’re near the end of the year. After that, we do a warm-up and my stage manager of the week chooses the warm-up sometimes. Sometimes I give them the warm-up, depending if it’s something that we need to do to go with the lesson. So, we do a warm-up just like you do in a rehearsal and then, after that, we start into our play and the first thing we do is exposition which the kids will tell you is where I talk. The exposition, I give the exposition for what we’re doing that day, you know, what our kind of focus is, why we’re doing it, and the backstory to it, if you were in an actual story plot. And then, we have rising action when they do something, you know, some kind of rising action. Then, I tell them I want a peripetia. I want a brain change. I want something to change in their brain during that class. And so, they try and focus on what’s changing. What are they learning? What are they doing well? And then, we have, you know, falling action which is sometimes, you know, cleaning up. Sometimes it’s asking questions. Sometimes it’s picking up people who have fallen. You know, it’s a theatre class. And then, after that, we have our denouement which is a nodding which is generally, you know, put everything away, put your notebook away, get your books back from the basket where you’ve stored them – that kind of thing. and then, they line up at the door and they have to tell me about their peripetia or something good that they did that day or someone else did that day or the class did that day, and that’s a really important thing that I think I didn’t realize how important it was until I kind of stopped letting it happens sometimes and I realized that they go away so much more positively and so much more in touch with did they complete their intention when they have a chance to say, you know, “How did my brain change today?” or “What did I do good today?” or “What did somebody else do good?” or “What did the whole class do good?” No one ever says what I did good as a teacher but maybe we can work into that – no validation.
Another thing we try and do at the end of the day is applause. Try and have some applause at the end, kind of getting their step up. I try and have this structure every day even though every day is remarkably different from the one before but the same kind of skeletal structure is there – almost like it was a rehearsal or attending a play. You kind of had that same little story arch going through every class period.
LINDSAY: I have to say, I love that, and I love that your structure is theatre-related and that, you know, we’re teaching them – you’re teaching them, not me, you – about the arch of the play is the same thing as the arch of the class.
LEA: Right, and that helps me to remember too that story arch and to have that rising action and then, with rising action, there needs to be falling action and there needs to be that brain change so it helps me as a teacher. In fact, my lesson plans are in those categories every day and I write what we’re doing for each one of those categories every day. For me, it helps me to structure something that is very unknown to me – the curriculum. As we go into it, it helps me to put those bones into it also and it makes me more intentional then I have an intent for the day also. It’s helped me I think as much as it’s helped the kids and it has. It’s intuitively taught them that structure of a play which is one of my big goals. I want them to never look at a movie or a play without kind of applying all of those things to it.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s lovely. Oh, thank you so much, Lea!
LEA: Oh, certainly!
LINDSAY: I think that’s a lovely success and I think that that’s a really wonderful thing to share. Thank you!
LEA: Well, thank you! Thanks so much!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Lea, Jenna, Barbara, Corby, and Brittany.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and share your stories.
Stay tuned next time where we have a potpourri episode of successes and challenges – using student leaders, a monologue unit, and the ultimate challenge turned success.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
If you are a first-time teacher or you’ve got a class of beginners, where do you start? What plays work best? I always suggest you have a look at our vignette series of scripts.
Vignette plays are plays that are made up of short scenes on a theme. For example, we have a play called “Wait Wait Bo Bait” and that’s all about waiting. “Stupid is just for Today” is about how we all think we do stupid things on a constant basis and yet stupid is temporary. It’s just a temporary feeling and you look around and you think someone else is being perfect, they feel just the same. “betweenity” is all about pauses. “Hoodie” is a play about appearances and self-image in middle school.
Because the plays are made up of short scenes, they’re easy to do with a class. You can have everyone in your class in the play working at the same time on separate scenes during class times.
Head on over to theatrefolk.com. Check out our vignette plays. I’ll put the link in the show notes which you can find at theatrefolk.com/episode137.
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. You can find us on the Stitcher app and also 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.