Friday, December 30, 2016

The Art of it All

Theater has been a part of my life since I was just a kid. I spent many nights watching musicals (and many times singing and dancing along) with my dad.
 However in high school, my relationship with theater became strained. My high school director had a different way of perceiving this art. He saw the perfection in the performance. He did his best to push that perfection out of us and was constantly pointing out ways we could better achieve that goal. His outlook did achieve fantastic stage productions, but for me, the enjoyment was gone.
In college, my professor had a much different outlook on the art of theater. I will never forget when I got my first major role as the maid Ida in "See How They Run." We were all sitting on set and my
Photo courtesy of Tim McFarland
professor looks at me and asked " Who is Ida?" The question took me completely off guard. I did not know at first what he meant by this question. My blank look must have given my puzzlement away. He responded with "Who is she? She is a person, she has dreams, goals, and fears." He then explained to me that in order to truly paint this picture for the audience, I had to know what made her who she was.
This opened my eyes to the truth of the stage. It
is much more than a "perfect performance." It was about portraying a piece of life to an audience. It was about taking people through an experience. Both productions may have appeared fantastic on the surface, yet deep down the true emotions and feelings carried the college performances to a place I will forever treasure.
You are probably reading this thinking "This is great and all, but what does this have to do with education?" That answer comes in asking yourself a question.
Are you more worried about the perfection of the performance? For educators this could be an observation, a state visit, or a standardized test. Sometimes we are all guilty of making things look and run in a picture perfect manner. In doing that though, we are losing something even more important. We are missing the essence of the art and that is bringing a piece of the world to life. As teachers we need to  let go and bring our classroom to life for our students. To do this we need to ask the simple questions of who.
  • Who are you?: This question goes further than your name or basic bio. It is a much deeper inquiry. It is valuable for educators to be transparent. The most impactful experiences I have had with students have been when I have opened up with things from my past that relate to them. Students want to connect to you. This is extremely important in allowing them to connect to your content. 
  • Who are they?: In this I am of course referring to your students. During the course of a school year, we have the joy of meeting a group of kids. Yet, in that joy comes a task. We are responsible for getting these students to learn our content and then prove to the state that they know our content. How are we expected to do that without first getting to know the kid behind the student? My first unit revolves around identity. We read the poems "Thumbprint" and "I'm Nobody Who Are You?" and discuss the experiences from our lives that define us and make us unique. One of my first activities in this unit is my wall assignment. I ask each student to bring in an item that represents them. It could be anything that can hang on the wall. I explain that  this is a symbol of them as a 6th grader and will be given back to them as they transition to 7th grade at the end of the year. In that activity (pictured above) I learn my first little piece of them. Throughout the year I do my best to learn more about their likes, dislikes and how I can best reach them. 
  • Who are we?: There is a lot of pressure today on the educator to deliver that "perfect performance." Sometimes we have to step back and realize we have put too much I in a team sport. I recently put together an escape room over a novel we were covering. I am a novice at the building of such a lesson so it was rather basic. The task for my students was to work in teams of two to help Crispin in freeing Bear. The goal for me was to have them read two of the last four chapters in the book in a way that wouldn't bore them two weeks before winter break. I could not believe the amount of learning that occurred when I was not in the center of the picture. One student came to me at the end of the lesson and said "Mrs. Ledford, You just got us to read two chapters without realizing it!" I laughed and shook my head. He replied with "You're a genius!" If that student only realized that although I set it up, the magic of that lesson had nothing to do with me at all. 
My love for the theater is now fully connected with my love for the classroom for they share some of the same principles. At the heart of it all is giving the audience a genuine experience based on true emotions. My students are my audience now and on a daily basis I push myself to give them the best show I can.