Wednesday, February 10, 2016

WIlde About Reading Plays

     I’m sure Oscar Wilde had something to say about novelty, but I am leery of looking it up on the Internet because so many quotations are misattributed. For instance:

Let’s just start by saying that one of the joys of teaching we don’t highlight often enough is the creativity it takes to come up with a new approach. In my drama class this year, I’ve tried to find a way to encourage my students to read more plays.
     I turned to colleagues first, and learned how they approached the problem.  This let me set up a different plan each of the nine weeks to see which approach worked best for our program.  The first nine weeks, it was completely up to the student to pick one of the hundreds of plays from the back cabinet in the drama room, read it, and complete a report.  The second nine weeks, each ‘house’ in the drama class read the same play and had a guided discussion about it.  This nine weeks, the entire class is reading The Importance of Being Earnest, and we are checking in at the end of each act.
     The first nine weeks’ approach felt like a good way to introduce the new play reading requirement.  One advantage was that students could pick literally any play available in the room.  That meant they had hundreds of plays to choose from a collection the previous drama teacher and I built over the course of three decades. I limited their choice by saying they couldn’t read a play we have produced in the last four years or a play they’d read in their English classes.  I had them complete a simple play report when they finished, asking them to consider the narrative arc and find key lines that helped build character.  One of the disadvantages to this approach was that the end product, the report, was not that helpful since they got the questions at the conclusion of their reading instead of before they read.  Another problem was that students had so many different types of plays that the report wasn’t appropriate as a response to all of the choices.  One student might have read a traditional narrative while another read a play built from scenes and monologues with no ‘through story’.
     The second nine weeks I asked each house in the drama class to read the same play.  This time I could control the style of play each group read and the prompts for discussion could be less generic. This second time through, I assigned a one act play to each group and then had them meet and discuss the play using guiding questions.  This approach meant their reflection on the play they had read was more meaningful, but it also meant I had to have enough copies of a variety of plays that everyone had the appropriate script. Having all those scripts available could get expensive over the long run, either for me or for the students if I were to require them to find the plays in question.  I did like the chance to have the houses interact in another way.
     In this third nine weeks, the entire class is reading the same play. I’ve set deadlines to read each act and we are meeting in our respective houses to review the assigned reading in a variety of ways.  One aspect of this arrangement that I like is that it is easier to control for quality of literature.  I can imagine setting up a rotation of plays over a four year period which would help students read a solid canon of classic dramatic literature using this approach, whereas if I always give them free rein to choose, they might choose the easiest plays to read instead of those that challenge them both in form and content.  Another aspect of this approach that I enjoy is the way I asked the students to review.  Instead of providing a list of questions, I set up four stations and rotated the houses through each to respond to a variety of prompts. I tried to vary the kind of thinking required at each one, so that different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy were addressed. In addition, I tried to account for the situation where one student in the group did all the group’s work by making it a rule that there had to be a new scribe at each station.
     At the first station, there was a simple matching task where the students had to match aphorisms from act one to the character who said them.  At the second station, I asked students to indicate how three major characters contradicted reality in the first act (who lied, in other words). At the third station, the group had to imagine the play as a musical and indicate where a character or characters might burst into song and what they might sing.  Finally, the group had to write a sort scene for two characters that might have happened before the play opened.   
     This final approach is my favorite of the three I’ve tried so far. I know the students are reading a significant piece of dramatic literature, I can use the play to amplify their knowledge of theater history by discussing the comedy of manners, the approach to reading is flexible, and the way I set up the review means the students interact with the people in their houses more, helping build community in the classroom.

     I will probably try a fourth approach  in the last nine weeks and then survey students to see which one they appreciated the most before I decide on a consistent way to handle this new aspect of our drama curriculum next year.

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