I recently had an experience with my students that I think is worth sharing with other teachers. If, like me, you often think elementary school "class plays" are of questionable value, our project may change your mind. What follows is a description of the process by which my drama students, their classroom teachers, and I created a play about the Oregon Trail that was both informative and entertaining for its audience and enriching and personal for its creators. This project was an experiment, and it often seemed likely to fail, but the result was ultimately so successful that I though it would be useful for other teachers to see how we did it. I am not suggesting that you necessarily try to imitate our project exactly, but I think that there is much of value to be found in this account. Rather than setting forth a series of instructions for other teachers to follow, I will try to describe both the successes and the failures we encountered along the way. Every teacher has a personal style, and will adapt the project to suit that style. I'll narrate the process from idea through the preparation, writing, rehearsing, performance and "post mortem." I hope in this way to provide an understanding of the project from which other teachers can take what will work for them and leave what won't.
I am a drama teacher in a private boys school. I teach primarily in our Lower School, which consists of pre-Kindergarten (Jr. K) through fifth grade. I teach one period per week of creative drama with each class in the school (20 in all). In addition, I assist with classroom projects that have elements of drama or theatre in them, coordinate the Lower School boys' participation in pep rallies and the like, and generally serve as a resource for anyone and everyone. (I also direct plays in Upper School.) The Lower School Drama program in place is my creation--the school had never had a drama teacher or any dramatic arts curriculum at the elementary level until I was hired to create it. It has not always been easy to win acceptance for drama in a school whose teachers, to a limited extent, and whose parents, to a much greater extent, tend towards the conservative and the "3 Rs." However, I now feel that drama is an accepted part of the school week, and it is clear that it is a favorite subject for many boys. Except in grade 5, the school day is divided between classroom teachers, who teach language arts, math, and social studies, along with related subjects to one homeroom, and "special teachers," who teach a single subject to multiple homerooms and grade levels, who come to them one or more times a week. The "special subjects" at our school are Science, Gym, Music, Art, and Drama. I am the only drama teacher, so I see every child in the school.
Every year at my school, each grade level (pre-K through 5) is assigned an "assembly" date. This "assembly" is in essence a class play. This tradition dates from long before drama was introduced as a curricular subject at the Lower School level, and the "plays" have traditionally been put together by the three classroom teachers at each grade level. Those of you who are practicing drama teachers will understand that this tradition rather dismayed me when I arrived here. Such "class plays," as traditionally handled, exist almost entirely for the gratification of parents, and are of little educational value. Depending on the degree of polish the teachers demand, they can be unduly stressful, and can even, in extreme cases, instill an early fear or hatred of the theatre in children. I must insist that I saw no signs of such extremes at this school when I arrived, and concluded that the "assemblies" were at worst neutral in impact, and sometimes educational. Even the Jr. K plays seem to be a largely pleasant experience for the boys. Still, I have tried, as my position here has become more accepted, to influence these programs in a positive way--to make them more process-centered, to include the children in the creative process, and to generally provide an experience of positive value for the students' education. Although my first few such attempts were met with skepticism, I have found that the classroom teachers have been very supportive overall, and the results have been gratifying.
For the most part the "assembly" dates for each grade are about the same every year. Since the subject matter for the plays is generally pulled from the social studies curriculum, which also stays pretty constant from year to year, each grade generally presents a play on the same topic each year. (Indeed, some of the grades present the same play every year!) Since I have been here, the first grade has done a Thanksgiving play, the second a "Native American Pow Wow" (I've tried to do something about that, but so far with no success--it's truly appalling), the third grade a play about ancient Egypt, the fourth grade a play about ancient Greece or Rome, and the fifth grade a "Medieval Feast." (The pre-K and Kindergarten classes do something different each year, but at that level the "plays" are really just recited poems.) The first grade level to embrace the change in approach I began advocating the day I arrived here was the third. A few years ago the third-grade teachers handed their "assembly" over to me almost completely. (I don't want to imply that the teachers had no role in the process--only that the roles were reversed, and I became the one ultimately responsible for putting the project together, rather than just an expert who came and coached the children on diction and projection.) I hit upon the idea of having the students write their own plays, based on ancient Egyptian folktales. The results were very well received, and that's what we do every year now. For me, the main point is that the students (in group sessions with me) write the plays themselves, which gives them ownership in the project, and shifts the focus from rote repetition and product to creativity and process. For the teachers and parents it doesn't hurt that our final product is usually up at least as good as the pre-written, royalty-free scripts traditionally used. (Lesson for you--if a play is offered royalty-free, there's usually a reason for it--beware, if you care about quality!) Still, these plays are very simple structurally--each of the three classes presents its own story--and they depend heavily on narration. (Convention dictates that each student must have at least one line, and in the third grade plays, most of them have lines of narration.) When, this year, the fourth-grade teachers indicated an interest in collaborating on their assembly play, I wanted to try something a little more difficult (and more theatrical).