Thursday, March 26, 2015

A funny Thing Happened on the Way to Rehearsal

As a director you need to be able to have a sense of humor. Today is not a day to give advice or great insights today is a day to celebrate the silly. Last week we wrapped our final performances of the year. It was a whirlwind week of rehearsals and performances for everyone. (this is also why there was no blog post last week.) Performing every night in a week is just too hard. As my final show of the year wrapped I looked back and remembered all of the fun my students and I had. Some of the things were crazy, some were huge mistakes, but all were well worth the effort. I love the rehearsal process and I am always amazed at what my students come up with.

Jasmine and the microphone

For our major musical we produced Aladdin Jr. My students did an amazing job, but it was a huge adjustment learning how to be on a big stage. One of the funniest things that happened was watching the kids learn how to use la-viler mics. My kids love to help, and often if someone didn't know a line they would try to whisper the lines to each other. This does not work with a microphone on. We always heard. Jasmine was great, she knew all of her lines and everyone else's. I was always "reminding" her not to whisper lines with a mic on. Well one night she was trying to whisper lines to Aladdin so she proceeded to try and be slick and cover up her microphone. I then told her that i could hear her through Aladdin's mic. So the smart girl she was grabbed the mics and took them both off and then whispered the line. I couldn't hear her whisper then! Success! except for the fact that we then had to break and spend five minutes repositioning the microphones and explaining why that might not be the best solution for not knowing lines.

Pecos bill and the lion

My fourth graders recently finished producing a show on Tall Tales. In the play about Pecos Bill, Bill is attacked by a lion and decides to try and ride him like a horse. Now I often let students help me block their shows. They are allowed to try what they like and then we modify as needed. As we were working on this show Pecos Bill and the Lion were working through the scene. At the end Bill jumped on the Lion's back and rode him off stage. It was the most random yet perfect blocking to end the scene. We ended up keeping it in the show and the audience loved it. This definitely reconfirmed my desire to let students help block. I would never have thought of it any other way. 

5th graders meet Shakespeare 

My 5th grade students performed Macbeth for their showcase. We had a wonderful adaptation that kept a lot of Shakespeare's traditional language in the play. The first day I had students try and guess what different words meant. They had such fun with the thees and thou's. Their favorite part though was reenacting the witches scenes. They loved to "double double boil and trouble" It was great watching them learn how to speak the language. But We did have several mispronounced words and misunderstandings, "What Ho" means something very different today then it did back then!

How old is 60 year old

So I made the "mistake" of allowing my third grade students complete character analysis on their characters. They learned a ton about their character and their play through this experience. The problem, i learned a lot about how they view "old" people. One of the characters in the play was 60 years old. As soon as the little girl found this out she immediately started playing her like she was a 90 year old women. The girl developed a limp and hunchback over night. When I asked her why she was so old the girl responded Well my character is 60 so I have to make her seem really old... Gee thanks kid

I love the rehearsal process. I love the chaos and experimentation that comes with working with young students and trying to create theatre. Directors of adults would not believe the number of times I simply practice lining up on stage and walking to microphones. Rehearsing for live theatre is always a fun creative event that keeps me loving my job. I hope that a few of these stories put a smile on your face. What crazy events have you ever had rehearsing? Do you think mistakes add to the process or hinder it?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How to Gain Administrative Supprt for your Fine Arts Program

Fine Arts Teachers are in a precarious position.  Every year as contracts come out, FA teachers worry about if their contract will be renewed. It is a sad state of affairs when budget cuts at the school often mean cutting the Fine Arts Department. Sometimes these cuts come in form of a non-renewal but more often these cuts come from the FA budget being decimated. As a Fine Arts teacher, you must advocate for your program and ensure that your students have the program and supplies they need to succeed. This is often a difficult task. To help make this task easier you must gain the support of your administration. A supportive administration will do wonders to help your children succeed. I have a wonderful working relationship with my administrators that I have worked very hard to create. Now this doesn't mean that we always agree or that I get an unlimited budget (oh man do I not get an unlimited budget) but it does mean that I have a working dialog with my administrators that helps make my job easier. Read on to see what I did to gain support.


It is the sad truth that money makes the world go round. Schools that are strapped for cash will often cut the fine arts programs first. This is especially true if your program is constantly needing money and never contributing to the general fund. Your department needs to become financially independent. If you are constantly going to your administration for money they are going to start thinking that you aren't adding value to the school. Your first goal is to simply raise enough money to run your own program. You should be able to cover your supplies, travel expenses and rights to performances. Check out my five creative fundraiser ideas if you need ideas on raising money. After you are able to raise enough money to maintain your own expenses you then need to start making a. "Profit" for the school. We contribute to our school through out major musical. This year we produced Aladdin jr. We made several thousand dollars for the school! If you are making money for the school, the principal will not want to cut your program!

Community performance

With the new leadership evaluation system that most principals are on, community outreach plays a large in the principals overall score. Going and doing community outreach is great for you and your principals' evaluation scores but it is also great for the students. Kids learn so much when they go and perform in their community. They learn how to adjust to different performance venues. They learn the importance of preparation and also being able to adjust on the fly. Most importantly, student learn about giving back to the community. I will never forget when out students went and sang for a nursing home. They came back talking about how happy the people were that we came and visited. They wanted to go back and see them again!

Be flexible but firm

As we all know in schools, things happen. You can't always avoid the last minute things that pop up throughout the school year. Being flexible with your administration can come in very handy. Principal asks you to put together a performance for a principals meeting "sure I would love to" is a great response. I once knew a theatre teacher who refused to be flexible ever. Her administration had accidentally scheduled the Winter Showcase over one of her early blocking rehearsals (meaning she had several months to make this rehearsal up). She refused to cancel/reschedule her rehearsal and threatened to not excuse students who wanted to perform in the showcase. This caused a lot of animosity between her and administration. Administration still made her cancel her rehearsal and both her and the principal were upset over the exchange. All of this could have been avoided with a little flexibility. If it all possible be flexible when your principal asks for something. If it is reasonable and you can reasonably accommodate them, always say yes.

Not only will flexibility help you create good will with your administration, it will also help you have good standing with your Principal when you need to say NO. My principal and I have a very good working relationship and she trusts me. She knows I will not say No to her unless I have a very good reason. Once we had a disagreement about how many students to put in a dance class. She wanted to let every student who had a desire to take dance on a grade level, take dance. I disagreed. I wanted to cap the class so that the teacher would not be overwhelmed (45 first graders in one classroom is just too many). She and I had a discussion, but I was firm. She could not put that many students in the class. It would hurt the program and that teacher's performances. She finally agreed and we were able to move on. I firmly believe that you need to be firm in your beliefs on what is best for the children. Say yes when you can, but when you feel like you must say no, do so firmly and have very good reasons ("I don't want to" is often not a great reason).

Get parent support

Parents can be your most valuable asset when it comes to gaining support from your administration. Keep your parents happy, and you will keep your administration happy.  Parents love to see their students perform and succeed. They love the opportunities you provide their child. Lets be honest, very core teachers have students performing and competing as much as Fine Arts Teachers do. Use this to your advantage. Give students the opportunity to perform. It always amazes me that no matter how many performance opportunities we give our students to perform (4+ a year), parents still want more. Parents will love you and it will create good good will with your administration.

Parents can also be your biggest support if your position is ever cut. I know of so many stories of Fine Arts teachers being re-instated at schools because parents went to the school board and complained. Parents hate it when the Arts get cut from a school. They really hate it when a fabulous arts teacher gets cut from a school. Sometimes going to the school board often enough will actually help save your job. Keeping parents happy is well worth the effort.

Put on awesome performances

The most important way to gain support is to put on quality performances. Do not throw a performance together at the last minute. Do not put on a performance that you are not proud of. Yes there is always more you can do to  improve your shows, but you need to first put in the effort. Choose quality material that is appropriately challenging. Encourage the students to go beyond their limits and then throw in a small amount of flash. Students love to perform. This is why you became a Fine Arts teacher in the first place. To teach students to love the arts and performance. Enjoy the process and do what you do best. For more tips on how to direct an awesome performance visit my Director's Corner. 

How do you gain support for your administration? Did I leave off any ideas? Do you think it is important to have support of your administration? What do you do if you don't have the support you need? 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Using Reader's Theatre to Increase Students' Creativity and Inference Skills

I love Reader's Theater. When I am looking for a short play for my class to perform. I often will choose a royalty free reader's theatre piece. For those who don't know Reader's Theater is a great addition to any classroom. It is a great way to engage the students and have them increase their reading fluency and creativity at the same time. Reader’s Theatre can be as simple or as complex as you want. Students can read from their chairs or create a full production. 

Reasons I love Reader's Theater

1. Easily engages all students- most students will pay more attention if they know they must speak at a certain time.
2. Easily differentiates for  different learning styles/levels- the same script can have advanced parts and easier parts so that all students feel successful.
3.  Easy group work- My favorite scripts are ones that have 4-6 characters. You can easily divide up your groups into different plays and have heterogeneous mixture of ability levels and all engaged.
4. Easy whole group instruction- Most plays can either be adapted to fit a whole group or just naturally come with enough parts for everyone in class. This way you can easily assess all student's level of engagement and understanding of a topic. 
5. Increased reading fluency-To be able to perform a play students must practice and rehearse. RT forces students to read their material multiple times. The more often they read a script the more often they see words, the better they will become at reading. 
6. Increases inference ability- Scripts very rarely state things explicitly, instead students must learn to infer emotions, costumes, feeling, props and all other aspects of the story based on simply dialog. Students who become proficient at RT become great investigators who are able to easily infer meaning from texts. 

Hopefully I have convinced you to give Reader's Theatre a try. If you are always using Reader's Theater in your classroom, read on to see how you can use RT to increase student's inference skills.

Character Analysis

Have students create a character analysis of their character. This is a great time to talk about internal vs external traits. I often like to have the students draw a picture of what they think the character's external traits are, then answer some questions on their internal traits. Be very careful not to let any students "off the hook" about character analysis. There are character choices you can make about even the smallest of characters.  You will often things like "my character only has one line I dont know anything about him" Have the student analyze what the character said, where the character lives, how old the character is etc. If they cannot find explicitly in the play an answer, have them make an educated guess then back up their reasoning "I think this character is 27 because they have one small kid". I would also warn you to be aware of the narrator trap. Most RT scripts contain a narrator. You can still do character analysis on a narrator. Look at if the narrator is biased, how intelligent the narrator is, if the narrator enjoys telling the story etc. 

Technical Analysis

Technical elements of theatre include the props, costumes, sound, lighting, and sets used in a production. Often times a playwright does not explicitly say what these elements look like. While they might give suggestions, "this play is set in a one room school house" they often leave the logistics up to the director (how many chairs you want, if you need a blackboard, etc). Allowing students to begin designing the technical elements for a reader's theatre production forces students to use their inference and reasoning skills. For example we recently completed a RT about Tall Tales from the Wild West. In the play John Henry, Pecos Bill, Sally Ann Thunder, Annie Oakley and Paul Bunion all get together to swap stories. Students had to infer the setting (a campfire) the time of day (night) and the costumes. Students did research of the costumes their characters might wear by looking up information on their character. They had to design a nighttime campfire scene to set the play in. We discussed how to make the room look dark without completely turning off all lights because the audience had to see them. They choose to use blue and purple lights to give the effect. Having students create a technical analysis of a play is a great way to build inference and creativity. Keep in mind students can simply propose ideas if you do not have the time/money to actually create props and costumes.

Program Design

Program design is a great way to engage and asses your more visual learners. If you have students who love to draw and create this part of the project is perfect for them. Students create a four page program (front cover) cast list, play synopsis, and back advertisement.  The cover must include the Title, Playwright, and Performance time/place. It also must include a picture that captures the essence of the play and makes people want to see it. Students then write up the cast list and a play summary. The summary is obviously a great way to check for understanding of the key plot points. On the back cover of the program I let students design an add for an upcoming performance. If you aren't holding any more performances let them create an add for a play they would love to perform. Once again this can either be a simple classroom assignment that all students complete, or you can have students design your actual programs for the performance.

Ticket Design/ Poster Design

Another great way to engage students in RT is to allow them to create the posters and tickets for the performance. If you want this to be a classroom assignment you can but I would encourage you to perform the play for someone (even if it is just another class that wants to come watch). Students can create posters and actually hang them up around school to advertise their show. They can also take posters home to parents to display on the fridge. Tickets are another great design piece. If you decide to do this production for parents, letting the students take handmade tickets home to give to parents, then collecting those tickets at the door, really adds a since of flair to the productions. Students get a huge kick out of putting on "a real performance" with tickets. As with the program design students must use their inference skills to find an important scene to display. They need to find a scene that is engaging and important but doesn't give to much away. They need to be able to infer what will make the audience come and see the production.

Reader's Theatre Unit

I love Reader's Theatre. If you are interested in using RT in your classroom, make sure you check out my Reader's Theatre Unit on teacherspayteachers. It has worksheets for all the items discussed in this post. It is a great packet to use with any RT production you might choose. If you need any help coming up with ideas of how to run RT in your class or simply need ideas of plays that might work for you feel free to contact me or leave me a comment. I am always willing to help fellow teachers who are trying out a play!

Have you ever use reader's theatre in your class? What were the difficulties? Did you find that RT engaged your students?