Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Using Theater to Encourage Learning

I am not sure I titled this correctly, but I was watching a special on Thoreau the other night and the narrator assumed the audience was basically ignorant of the life of Thoreau even if they were aware of his literary achievements. As he started ticking off the events in Thoreau's life I found I remembered most of the details he was mentioning and even more that he had not listed. Some of this did not surprise me. I was raised near Concord and even had my swimming lessons at Walden Pond as a child. It is hard not to find teachers who feel the need to impress the local history on to children. However, it was in fact not a class, but a play that did the deed for me.

As a student, I was fortunate to have some very gifted high school English teachers. They married during my sophomore year and became an amazing team. They worked quite often in conjunction with the Theater Department to help students make the connection between plays assigned in English to actual theater in production. I was a technical theater junkie from my freshman year forward. I loved seeing how things worked behind stage. I had no desire to leave the dark. One of the shows we produced was The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: A Play. In order for the play to have meaning, it had to have context. First, one had to know who the transcendentalists were and what they believed. Then they had to know this helped to understand Thoreau, Emerson, and the Concord society of the time. The play uses Thoreau’s opposition the Mexican War, but understanding it is left to the student to research. Then there is the matter of what he was doing living on a pond in Concord in a cabin. Without the background knowledge, the play is about a strange hermit with ghostly visions.

When I was at college, I took a history course and one of my professors was surprised that I had studied transcendentalism in high school. I tried to explain the theater, history, English studies connection, but realized the professor was not buying my explanation. There is still major doubt that children learn more when their learning experiences are connected in activities they enjoy, not just constant repetition of material that they find difficult to connect with on any level.

I had a couple of high school friends who only passed English because of the Theater Department. They tried to focus as many of their English requirements around courses with theater ties because they could fulfill their production requirements with technical theater participation. With help from friends and by watching the show enough times, they finally started to understand what it was all about before being tested on the content.

After watching that TV program, I wondered if the play was as interesting as I remembered. I requested a copy through the library and finished it Tuesday. I realize now the benefits of having worked the show and being forced to focus on the dialogue in order to hit my lighting cues. If I had merely read this play, I might have missed some of the meaning. Seeing it produced made a difference. Having teachers who could put the show in context of who the man was, how the history of the time related to him, and who the other figures in the story were and the importance to him made this a play I still enjoy years later.
It is not a book I read, wrote a paper on, and have long since forgotten. The material I learned was obviously there to be retrieved and explored when this program prodded my interest. This is the one of the strengths of using children’s interests to teach them material we feel is important for them to learn. When we engage their natural love for doing something, we engage long-term memory for topics that might otherwise never be remembered.

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