The Melodramatic Eight Week Task… Um, maybe we need to change it a bit?

I posted previously about this eight-week task in my ‘staging a play’ unit-of-work for my current year 8s and year 9s. When I designed the task-booklet, it seemed perfect for so many reasons:

1- it catered for different learning styles as there are written components (script, and story-map), visual components (storyboard, and set-design), reflective components (group-work log, rehearsal log, and reflection and evaluation at the end), kinesthetic components (rehearsals, and performance), and interpersonal components (the task is group-based).

2- it involved a highly-creative thinking exercise (of the high-order thinking type): reading a script excerpt, and then writing up a beginning and an ending for it.

3- it emphasized the importance of the process as opposed to the final product, which is the unit-of-work’s significant concept.

4- it had an interdisciplinary component where the students had to decorate masks that represent their character. This part was designed for the students who prefer the visual arts to the performing arts (since drama is a compulsory middle-school subject at the school I’m employed in).

Wow, these are all wonderful reasons for how ‘perfect’ the task is. Or so I thought?

Apparently, the task lacked a very important ingredient: student-engagement. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this task was not-so-perfect. These were some of the worrying signs:

1- the students were taking much longer than I had expected in the writing up of the beginning and ending for the assigned script-excerpt.

2- the students were playing up much more than usual, and certain challenging students were being more disruptive and uncooperative.

So, I decided to have an open chat with the classes, and asked them what was wrong. Here are some of the responses I received (modified for blogging purposes):

“Sir, it seems pointless to put all this time and effort in writing, only to perform a two- or three-minute scene!”

“Sir, we come to drama to perform and act, not write, and then write, and then write some more!”

“Sir, the script-excerpt you gave us is actually pretty hard to understand, let alone write a beginning and ending for!”

And this is when it hit me: yes, I did get too carried away with the written components of the task! The fact is drama is a performance-based subject, and should be very practical and hands-on too. I think I got too obsessed with asking students to demonstrate evidence of learning, and it came at the expense of wanting them to have fun! Also, because drama is a compulsory subject, I always get a large number of students who are too self-conscious and really don’t want to be there. For this reason, I always try to include written components to involve the students who dread performing and play to their strengths. However, the key is to keep a balance between the practical aspects and the written components of the tasks.

The students did enjoy the mask-decoration component, so I will definitely hold on to that for the future groups to whom I teach this unit-of-work again. However, I can already see a few adjustments that I can make for this unit-of-work:

1- Use much shorter script-excerpts with easier language, such as this script-excerpt which I found on this wiki.
2- Expect students to write only a small beginning and a small ending (only half a page each).
3- Pick a different step of the drama process to focus on for each week, and ask students to create a mini-performance where they have to demonstrate evidence of that particular step. For example, one week the focus could be on rehearsal, and the students would be asked to create a mini-performance for which they have to fill-out a rehearsal log as evidence of rehearsing. The following week the focus could be on planning, and the students would be asked to create a mini-performance for which they have to demonstrate evidence of planning, etc… This means that there will be more than one performance exercise throughout the term, not just one big scene, and the students experience the process of providing evidence for all the different steps of the drama process [planning, preparing, rehearsing, performing + giving/receiving feedback, and ongoing reflection + evaluation].
4- Give students options in what sort of evidence they choose to demonstrate. For example, as evidence of planning, students could choose to submit a mind-map, or a dot-point outline, or a story-map. Students could choose to submit a rehearsal log or annotated photos/videos as evidence of rehearsal. Giving students the opportunity to choose which evidence to submit gives them more ownership over the process.
5- Design each lesson to have a small performance component, and some sort of planning or preparation or rehearsal component before for which the students have to submit written evidence, and a reflection/evaluation component after the performance.
6- Rely more on portfolio-assessment for this unit of work, rather than task-based assessment. For this reason I would have to modify the rubrics for the assessment criteria so that they address a portfolio of collected evidence, rather than one specific performance-task. At the end of the teaching cycle, I would then have to conference with each student, allow them to self-assess, and then I will assess their portfolio.

I am glad I went through this experience and learned from it though, students can sometimes (or often) be the best teachers!

The Melodramatic Eight Week Task – Part 1…

Yup, you read it right! It is an EIGHT WEEK-LONG task! This is the longest assessment task in my history of teaching (which isn’t that long really, six or so years?). I’ve designed this task as part of a unit of work about the process of staging a play, with a focus on melodrama as a theatre genre. The task will be used to assess [Criterion A – Knowledge & Understanding (using a peer evaluation)], [Criterion B – Application], [Criterion C – Reflection & Evaluation] and [Criterion D – Personal Engagement] from the MYP Arts Assessment Criteria. I wrote previously about how I introduced the unit of work to the students. The students were given this task booklet which they will use for the whole duration of the task.

Image Attribution: Honoré Daumier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The assessment task basically requires the students to read an excerpt from a melodrama script, write up a beginning and an ending for that excerpt, create a mask to represent their character in that excerpt, apply character-analysis and rehearsal techniques to rehearse their scene, perform their scene in front of the class, give and receive feedback to and from their peers, and then reflect on & evaluate the whole process. The students have to demonstrate evidence of every step of the process, as the unit of work’s significant concept is: The process is just as important as the product. Additionally, I will be assessing the students throughout every step of the process, as I walk around with my Evernote notebook and write anecdotes and fill-in quick checklists.
We have already been working on this task for two weeks, and the students have brainstormed in their story maps, and started writing up their beginning and ending. It has been rather challenging for students to decode the scripts’ meaning as they were given only a few pages right from the middle of the chosen scripts. I did have to intervene and scaffold them slightly, maybe next semester I will find easier and simpler script excerpts.
An example of student work – story map and script-writing

An example of student work – story map
This week we will move into the art room and get artistic with the mask decoration. We have blank white half-masks, feathers, beads, glue, coloured tissue-paper, sequins and scatters. I’m very excited!

End-of-unit Commedia Dell’Arte Assessment Task…

To wrap up our unit of work on Commedia Dell’Arte, I have designed a summative assessment task to assess Criteria B and C of the MYP Arts Assessment Criteria. We have already introduced Commedia Dell’Arte and researched its elements (to assess Criterion A), we have explored status relationships and their importance in Commedia Dell’Arte, and also had a look at the stock characters, lazzi, the use of masks and physicality in acting.

The end-of-unit assessment task is planned to run over three weeks, and is a task where the students build a portfolio (using their iPads) to demonstrate evidence of every stage of the drama process: planning, preparation, rehearsal, performance, and ongoing reflection and evaluation (the acronym I use is PPRPORE). The first four stages (PPRP = planning + preparation + rehearsal + performance) are used to assess Criterion B (Application of ideas, conventions, skills, techniques and processes), while the last stage (ORE = ongoing reflection and evaluation), which is actually intertwined with all the other stages, is used to assess Criterion C (Reflection and Evaluation). Here are the task sheets given to the students: Criterion B task sheet and Criterion C task sheet.

During the first week of the task, the students move into groups of four or five (one writer + one director + 2-3 actors) and have to demonstrate evidence of planning and preparation. To help the students, or give them some sort of structure, I gave them this ‘Story Map‘ graphic organizer, and I hung up a list of lazzi scenarios and a poster showing brief descriptions of ten of the main stock characters in Commedia Dell’Arte. The students were obviously given the opportunity to demonstrate evidence of planning in other formats they may prefer such as a mind-map or a bullet-point brainstorm, and were also given room to create their own lazzi to incorporate them into their performance. All group members, regardless of their roles, are asked to keep the same evidence of planning in their portfolio.

Once the planning phase is finished, the group members are then assigned a different task based on their roles in the group: actors have to start their character analysis based on the stock character they’re playing and using this ‘Character Map‘, while the writers start turning their planned performance into a written script. Once the script is finished, the directors and their teams cooperate to storyboard the performance and block it using this handout: Storyboard and Set/Blocking. The actors are instructed to keep evidence of their character analysis in their portfolios, the writers are instructed to keep their scripts as their evidence of preparation, while the directors are told to keep evidence of their storyboarding and blocking. This concludes the preparation phase, and is often finished by the end of the first week.

The second week of the task kicks off the third stage of the drama process: rehearsal. The students are spread around the room, and some groups are given space outside in the courtyard. The groups are then asked to rehearse and document their rehearsals using photos and videos, and also using this ‘Rehearsal Log‘, which achieves both documenting rehearsals and reflecting on them at the same time. I also often give the directors certain rehearsal strategies that they can use to help with different aspects of their direction: such as getting the actors to rehearse the scene as a ‘silent movie’ if they want to bring out more expressive body language and facial expressions from the actors, or rehearse the scene in ‘fast-forward’ if they just want the actors to focus on the blocking and movement in the scene etc… Rehearsals are often very fun, and I enjoy circulating around the groups and jotting down some anecdotal records to help me with my final assessment. Sometimes, I also use checklists of observed behaviors to guide my observations.

The third and final week of this task involves the actors performing the scenes in front of the class, while the writers and directors take video footage of the performance and photos to add to their portfolios. After every scene is performed, the audience are asked to give feedback to the group members (positive comments or useful suggestions only!). After all performances are finished the groups are then instructed to spread around the room and watch their performances on their iPads (to help with their reflection), then write their four-sentence reflection, written self-evaluation and use the self-assessment checklist and rubric to reflect on and evaluate their performance (using this Criterion C task sheet).

All students are then given some time to collect all the evidence in their portfolios (using Evernote notebooks on their iPads). After the portfolios are finalized, I call each student up to my desk, give them a few minutes to demonstrate their portfolio to me. I then ask them to refer to the Criterion B task sheet, and use the checklist in the task sheet to self-assess the whole process, give themselves a mark out of ten in the student-self-assessment column of the rubric, and then justify that mark to me in a few sentences. To conclude the conference with the student, I then assign them my mark for each criterion and give them some oral feedback.

I believe it is a rather big end-of-unit assessment task, and may be quite overwhelming for some students. However, I do try my best to offer sufficient scaffolding through every stage, which is why I give so many handouts. Additionally, while it is a group-task, each student is assessed individually. To help me with this individual assessment, and to encourage ongoing reflection and evaluation, I give all group members a copy of this Group-work Log at the beginning of the task, where they record their progress and concerns at the end of every stage of the process.

Overall, I think it is a carefully designed assessment task that engages the students in all stages of the drama process, and allows them to demonstrate evidence of their skills, techniques, processes, reflection and evaluation.

A lesson on status relationships in Commedia Dell’Arte!

Over the past two weeks, the year 8 and 9 groups were expected to demonstrate their “knowledge & understanding” (Criterion A of the MYP arts assessment criteria) of Commedia Dell’Arte. They did so through a research & oral presentation task.

This week we started the practical aspect of the unit of work. The learning objective for this week’s lesson was “to identify and apply some elements of Commedia Dell’Arte” (Criterion B – Application) and “to practice reflection and evaluation in drama” (Criterion C – Reflection & Evaluation). The focus for this week was on status relationships and the role they played in Commedia Dell’Arte performances.

The lesson started with a warmup called ‘Status Conversations’, where the class was divided into pairs; each pair starts improvising a conversation as equals, and somewhere during the conversation one of them has to regain a higher status. Once a student achieves a higher status, they must stand up while the other student sits down. At any point during the conversation, the one with the lower status can regain the higher status and thus stand up while the other sits down. It was pretty interesting seeing how often the status shifted between the student pairs.

After the warmup, we had a whole class debriefing about this warmup exercise and ultimately linked it to the lesson’s learning objective. I then went on to explain the importance of status in Commedia Dell’Arte and how characters were either Masters (highest status), Lovers (middle status), or Servants (lowest status). I also gave examples of each type. I told the students that we’ll put aside Commedia for this week, and just focus on status relationships for the performance exercise to follow.

The students were then divided into groups of four, and each group was given a list of characters in decreasing order of status (e.g. ‘Principal, Head of Department, Teacher, Assistant Teacher’ or ‘Sheriff, Sergeant, Detective, Cop’ or ‘Manager, Agent, Secretary, Cleaner’ etc…) They were asked to prepare a one-minute scene to show and exaggerate these status relationships. The students were given ten minutes to quickly prepare and rehearse their scenes.

During the performances, the students filled a peer-evaluation Google Form that was sent to them through our Edmodo class-page. These peer evaluations helped give meaningful feedback to the performers after their scene. Here is a screenshot of the Google Form used:

After all groups finished their performances and received audience feedback, the students were then asked to individually write their four-sentence reflections using the reflection help-sheet. The students had to write these on paper (not on their iPads). Each student received my initials on their reflection after I read it (this helps with my formative assessment).

To conclude the lesson, the students accessed their Edmodo group through their iPads and had to complete an exit-slip as a comment on my post. Here is a screenshot of the exit-slip prompt I used:

Overall, I think it was a very busy but successful lesson which had a performance aspect, a reflection aspect, and a peer-evaluation aspect. Thus the students practiced three essential drama ATLs (approaches to learning): peer evaluation, self-reflection, and performance. The students seemed very engaged with the warmup and performance exercises, and the peer evaluation forms seemed to really focus the feedback the performers were given and make it more specific. However, I have yet to devise an efficient way to distribute the peer-evaluations back to the students being evaluated.

Next week, we move on to other elements of Commedia Dell’Arte: stock characters, use of half-masks and lazzi. I’m looking forward to it!

Slapstick Comedy: Step three of the drama process!

The year 7 and 8 classes are studying a unit of work on ‘Slapstick Comedy’. I have posted previously about how we explored the concept of humour in general, and how we defined slapstick comedy. Two weeks ago, we kick-started the drama process and began brainstorming for our performances, and we had the opportunity to write up the scripts and draw up the storyboards for the performances
This week we moved on to step three of the drama process: rehearsal. The lesson started with a quick warmup called Status Pictures, where the students form still-images depicting situations involving characters of different status. This warm-up was chosen to get students thinking about status relationships and how they are used in slapstick comedy to create humour. After the warmup and debriefing session that followed, I recapped on the theoretical part of the unit which was written on the whiteboard (pictured below); then the students moved into their groups (or ‘theatre companies’) and were each given a rehearsal handout (A4 size) and an A3 size Rehearsal Log. I circulated around each group to check their progress and to recap over the rehearsal process: what is its importance and how can it be used effectively?
The students spread around the drama room (some groups moved outside into the courtyard) and they each rehearsed a few times. The groups were told to choose a different focus for every rehearsal (e.g. body language, or blocking, or voice etc…), to fill out the rehearsal log after every rehearsal to reflect on it, and to document their rehearsals with photos and some video footage (using smart-phones/iPods for year 8s, or iPads for the year 7s). The students were also told to keep evidence of their rehearsal in their portfolios: e.g. annotated pictures from rehearsal (printed from classroom printer) and the rehearsal log. For the year 7 students, who all have iPads, this evidence was just added to their shared Evernote notebook which they used as their group portfolio
The rehearsal process seemed to go rather efficiently, and everyone had a meaningful role as each student was either acting out in rehearsal, or taking photos/shooting video, or filling out the rehearsal log. The groups also seemed much more committed to the rehearsal process due to of having a different focus for every rehearsal. Below are some snapshots of the rehearsal logs of a couple of ‘theatre companies’, a snapshot of the whiteboard, and a screenshot of an Evernote portfolio from one of the year 7 groups.
Next week, we move into the final two steps of the drama process: performance, followed by reflection and evaluation. Stay tuned ladies and gentlemen!

Year 6 students creating radio commercials!

This term, the year 6s are studying radio drama! This unit of work is designed to introduce them to the creative potential of the voice (as one of the actor’s main tools). It follows a unit of work on mime and pantomime, which was used to introduce them to the creative and communicative potential of their bodies (the other main tool any actor has). In previous lessons they have learnt that the voice can be used to create spoken language, music/jingles and sound effects/soundscapes. They have had several chances to apply techniques to produce these different sounds.

Today’s lesson was one in which they would learn the many ways a performer can change the sound of their own voice (playing with pitch, volume, tone, emphasis and accents). The lesson started with a warm-up in which they had to find different ways of delivering a tongue-twister: “You know you need unique New York, but does unique New York need you?” Some students sang it, some said it in an angry tone, some delivered it like a crying baby, some said it using several accents etc… It was lots of fun.

We then moved on to a discussion about the many ways a performer can change the sound of their own voice and asked some students to demonstrate, linking it back to the warm-up. After the discussion, I explained the task instructions which were written on the whiteboard. The students had to move into groups of 3-4 students to create a 1-minute radio commercial about an imaginary product that I assigned their group. Examples of products used: smart machine to make you smarter in your sleep, dog collar with GPS tracking, and magic seasoning that makes any dish taste amazing (for more wonderful ideas, refer to the Drama Notebook). The radio commercial had to include music/jingles, sound effects and spoken language, and each student had to change the sound of their voice in at least one way. The students heard a couple of radio commercials as a demonstration and then were given 10 minutes to quickly prepare and rehearse.

The performances were all recorded using my iPad (name of app: QuickVoice). The students then had to listen to their commercials to help them in their reflection and evaluation (to assess Criterion C – Reflection and Evaluation). The first part of the task is to write their four-sentence reflection using the reflection help-sheet (pictures below).

The students then had to use the checklist to assess their own performance and the self-evaluation template to evaluate their commercial (pictures below).

The last step was to self-assess their ability to reflect and evaluate and give themselves a mark out of 8 for Criterion C (rubric pictured below).

Here is a successful example produced today by a group of 3 boys advertising a car-repairing business. The commercial included sound effects, a jingle and spoken language, and the boys made use of accents and other ways to change the sound of their voice. Enjoy!