written by Megan Davenport, FariaPD

When you think back to your favorite childhood and high school memories, extracurricular activities likely spring to mind. For me, theatre characterizes a good portion of my youth, from my first children’s theatre production to taking the main stage in high school. Now into adulthood, I find that many of my friends had very little exposure to theatre, and certainly never considered auditioning for a production. They cite athletic activities, for example, as the best way for kids to grow and learn valuable life skills outside the classroom, like teamwork. While I also played sports and agree with the many merits of athletics, I would actually attribute much of my success as an adult to the valuable experiences I had onstage. Here are my top three lessons learned from Theatre, as well as further examples to go with each.

1. Public Speaking

I love being in front of a crowd. I find leading presentations and workshops to be thrilling, and the little bit of nervous energy that sometimes comes from standing in front of a group is something that I embrace rather than shy away from. Sure, some of this is probably my personality, but I have no doubt that my years of thriving in front of a crowd has shaped professional abilities and preferences.

See it in action: “Expressing my beliefs can change relationships across boundaries. I must state my position on the way forward for my community in order to affect meaningful change. Expressing words, both written and oral, communicates what we stand for.” These are the statements of inquiry that Theatre teacher Allyn Rathus uses to drive her powerful Public Speaking units in the IB-MYP curriculum at Whitby School, Connecticut. Allyn draws upon diverse resources including the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., advertisements from political campaigns, movie monologues like The Goonies and The Hangover, and much more.

2. Trust and Relationships

When onstage, you have to put a great deal of trust in your fellow actors. You are a team that is building a story for the audience, and a big part of live theatre is that mistakes always happen. There are a lot of moving parts, and it is inevitable that someone will forget a line, a key prop will get left offstage, a costume will rip, the lights or audio will experience technical difficulty, or any of the other many slips that can happen. Everyone involved in the production needs to learn to trust that everyone else will do their part, and that you will all be there to help cover any mistakes that do happen so that the audience never knows. After all, the show must go on, right?

See it in action: “Warm-up games are an effective way to build a sense of community within a classroom,” according to Theatre teachers Connie Rudd and Lora Hawkins at the American School of Kuwait. They presented at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Conference and compiled a dynamic list of warm-up games, activities, and performance rubrics available below.

  • Prezi on Integrating the Dramatic Arts into Common Core [ link ]
  • NESA Conference Handouts [ download ]

3. Empathy

When getting into character, actors must realize a high degree of empathy for others, even those completely unlike themself. Playing a convincing antagonist, for example, means that you must, on some level, understand the motivation for doing something that you may never do. I honestly can’t think of a better way to understand other people than to not only walk a mile in their shoes, but convincingly show others what that walk is like.

See it in action: “Like a muscle that tones and strengthens when one works out regularly, one’s empathy skills develop as one practices the critical cognitive elements that produce empathetic behavior,” Rubicon consultant Parfait Bassalé explains in his work, The Story and Song Centered Pedagogy: A new framework for teaching empathy in the classroom. Check out Parfait’s blogpost, as well as one school’s example of mapping Social Emotional curriculum in Atlas.

  • Understanding Empathy in order to Teach Empathy [ link ]
  • How We’re Mapping, and Driving, Social Emotional Learning [ link ]

While my experience has largely revolved around performing in live theatre, there is also a lot of value in watching live theatre. In this Education Next article, Jay P. GreeneCollin HittAnne Kraybill and Cari A. Bogulski found that their “experiment on the effects of field trips to see live theater demonstrates that seeing plays is an effective way to teach academic content; increases student tolerance by providing exposure to a broader, more diverse world; and improves the ability of students to recognize what other people are thinking or feeling.”

As you begin planning field trips for next year, consider adding theatre to your plans. Not only will your students get the chance to try something new, but they may also gain valuable skills beyond the planned curriculum. Who knows… you may even find that you have the next Tom Hanks in your class.

From left to right: Production of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “Annie”, and “Les Miserables”.

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