I didn’t know what I would find when I started reading the NYC Department of Education’s sample theater curriculum maps. My experience taking theater classes is something I struggle to put into words even now – how to capture the transformation, the discovery, the risk and the joy? How to map something like that?

Diving into the introductory theater units for elementary students, I first found them unexpectedly funny, as they almost read like a guide to teaching tiny alien beings how to fit into human society. “Students will be able to use the body and voice expressively,” the standards say. “Students will be able to imitate and create basic emotions.”

But as I laughed, it started to dawn on me: teaching humanity, even at the most basic level, is what theater is for. Studying theater is an encounter with an entire history of human expression, and participating in it can help you understand your own place in this ever-growing story. Along the way, you learn to how to collaborate with others, how to express yourself, how to listen and create and connect. You learn how to be a person.

The NYCDOE’s Theater department did a great job modeling how a drama teacher might go about mapping the vital life lessons woven into their subject. Here are a few areas that really stood out to me:

Collaborative Skills

Self-Awareness

I think that self-awareness is closely tied with empathy. The process of examining how you present to the world involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes, after all! And theater is naturally aces at teaching this. Getting more skilled at acting involves a lot of self-analysis, often through receiving feedback from directors. Many of the units drawn out by the NYCDOE involve having students review tapes of their performances as well, which can be used to determine how they need to adjust their behavior to better match what they are trying to convey.

And empathy is present through it all—both in the empathy required to embody another character, as well as empathy towards fellow actors going through the same process.In the NYC standards, this most comes through in “Demonstrate sensitivity to the emotional and physical safety of self and others”—something absolutely essential to good theater.

Language & Expression

Point of View

And last but certainly not least, we have something I might even call the most defining element in who I am as a person today: developing my own point of view. As Kurt Vonnegut once phrased it, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”

So, praise theater for being so concerned with preventing that fate! Something that really struck me in the NYCDOE maps was how I could see this idea beginning at the youngest ages, through teaching students to recognize central ideas and themes in a text. It continues through response-based assignments, where students draw connections between plays and other works they’ve experienced, across a variety of mediums. Later, burgeoning directors can really dig into this lesson through developing a personal vision for a work, integrating their own experiences, perspectives, and interests into their concept for a performance.

For more exemplary curriculum maps from the New York City Department of Education, visit our page here!

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