Warning: Drama Teacher Burnout!

It’s been a while since my last post. I have had one of the busiest terms I have ever experienced in my whole teaching career! I have also had one of the most draining. A huge part of that ‘drain’ has been more a result of my ‘perfectionism’ than anything else. I am very aware of that, and I now realize more than ever that it needs to stop otherwise I will experience burn-out, because I am very close to it…

I take a ‘drama process’ approach to teaching drama. I coined the steps of that process as follows: planning, preparing, rehearsing, performing, reflecting & evaluating. Previously, I used to expect students to produce written evidence for every step of that process for one major performance at the end of the unit-of-work. However, that disengaged students because it was “too much writing” for only a two-minute performance, and I have to agree.

This term, I tried to adjust my expectations a little bit. I started only asking for evidence of planning or preparing or rehearsing pre-performance, and of reflecting or evaluating post-performance. So an example lesson would look like this: a quick warmup followed by a debriefing, then a discussion of the new content/concepts, then a quick performance task to apply the new content/concepts. All students would have to prepare a quick brainstorm (as evidence of planning), or write a short script or draw a storyboard (as evidence of preparing), or fill-out a rehearsal log (as evidence of rehearsing). After watching all performances and giving/receiving feedback, all students would then either write a reflection or self-evaluation or use a self-assessment checklist (as evidence of reflecting & evaluating).

This seems like a very manageable lesson plan. However, I only see the students for one double-period a week, so that’s a total of 86 minutes. For me to get through that whole planned lesson in 86 minutes, I would end up being very cranky and snappy and rather impatient, which is unfair to the students. Drama is a noisy and loud classroom, and is a highly-stimulating subject for both the students and teacher. Students take time to think and then write and then transition between activities. While I have managed to get through the planned lesson several times with many classes, I would end up feeling very tired and drained by the end of the lesson. This is worse on Tuesdays, where I have three double-periods of drama in one day! Also, the lesson does not necessarily cater for all students’ learning styles as I’d like to believe.

So I have decided:

1- I will not to be over-ambitious, not because my students can’t handle it, but just because it will burn me out.
2- I need to let go of control a little bit, and relax.
3- I need to give students more time to enjoy the practical activities and the noise and loudness associated with them.
4 I need to give students more choice as to how they want to produce evidence of their learning: one group member might want to write a reflection after performing, while the other might prefer to draw a storyboard before performing. I need to allow those choices, as opposed to force everyone to write a script, or draw a storyboard. Students learn differently!
5- Every week, I will alternate between pre-performance evidence, like brainstorms, scripts, storyboards, and rehearsal logs; and post-performance evidence, like self-assessments, self-evaluations, and written reflections.
6- When asked to demonstrate pre-performance evidence, I will allow students to choose, even if they choose different things within the same group: one group-member might choose to write the script, while the other to draw the storyboard. Students learn better and are more engaged when they are given more choices.
7- Since the MYP requires reflection to be ‘on-going’, I need to incorporate a short reflection exercise for every step of the drama process, not just post-performance. A fellow teacher pointed out that it is best to get students to reflect about what they have just done as opposed to only after their drama performance: so if one student is drawing a storyboard, I can ask them to answer some reflection questions about that specific storyboard like ‘how did the storyboard help you in preparing for your performance?’ and ‘what was the most challenging thing about preparing your storyboard?’

I hope these reflections, and the decisions taken as a result, lead to more engaged students and a much less burnt-out teacher (ME!)…

Image credit: By LaurMG. (Cropped from “File:Frustrated man at a desk.jpg”.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons

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!

The year 8s & 9s will have a very melodramatic term!

Last term, the year 8s and 9s did Commedia Dell’Arte. This blog follows that specific group’s journey because they are the group with whom I trial my new units of work, as they were the first group in the school to take drama as a subject with a curriculum created by myself. This blog allows me to document their learning progress (and my teaching progress) and also reflect on my lessons, units and tasks. Last term’s unit of work on Commedia Dell’Arte was a huge success, and the students enjoyed it a lot.

When I was planning the unit of work for this term, I had lots of different ideas. I was interested in exploring horror as a genre, directing skills, and script-writing as a process. However, I decided to focus on the process by which the director and actors stage a play. In all other previous units of work, the students would write up their own scripts and performances. So I decided to give them a new experience: staging a play based on a script written by someone else. This will introduce new steps to the process of character-analysis and character-development.

I started searching for simple, cheap/royalty-free scripts online. At first, it didn’t really matter what the genre was. But over time, I thought maybe melodrama as a genre would flow naturally from Commedia Dell’Arte (which they did last term) and Slapstick Comedy (which they did the term before last). In both the Commedia and Slapstick units of work, students were encouraged to exaggerate body language and actions, and explore status relationships. In melodrama, exaggerated actions and dialogue is a key feature, and the students are exposed to different character relationships: villain, victim, hero, sidekick. Also, melodrama is a genre that we can all relate to because we come across it very often on TV and in movies!

I found a couple of Melodrama scripts online that were simple, fun and easy to perform: ‘Love, Sick and Montezuma’s Gold’ and ‘Truth and Consequences’, both by Daris Howard (I purchased them from Amazon for about 99cents each!). Since the plays are only performed in class for educational purposes, it falls under fair use of copyrighted material. I decided to select small excerpts from each play, get the students to use these excerpts to analyze and develop character, then write up a beginning for that scene-excerpt, and an ending. The students will then create masks for their characters, rehearse their scenes and perform in front of the class. The audience will provide feedback for the performers, and then each performer will write up a detailed reflection and evaluation. This is a lengthy assessment task that will last about 7-8 weeks, and will be used to assess all four MYP arts criteria.

The MYP Area of Interaction for this unit of work is ‘Human Ingenuity’ because it follows the highly creative process by which a performance is made alive from a written script. The Significant Concept is: The process is just as important as the product, and the MYP Unit Question is: How does the quality of the process affect the quality of the final product? I decided to focus a lot on the ‘process’ as many of my students tend to pay a lot of attention to the final performance that they neglect a big part of the process which is the documentation of written evidence (in their rehearsal logs, for example) and the ongoing reflection and evaluation. Therefore, this unit of work was created to give students the new experience of performing a script written by someone else, to expose students to a new genre which is melodrama, and to highlight the importance of significant steps in the process leading up to the performance that students tended to neglect in the past.

During this week’s lesson, the students were given this student handout to introduce them to the unit of work and the weekly plan, and also to encourage them to set three personal learning goals for this term. After that, I used this fantastic one-page script-excerpt to introduce the students to melodrama and brainstorm the features/elements of melodrama (I found this script-excerpt as a part of a year 7 Melodrama unit of work on this website). We read the script-excerpt once together, then I asked some students to dramatize it in front of the class. After the dramatization, we had a quick brainstorm on the whiteboard to highlight the features of melodrama as demonstrated by this script-excerpt and other melodramas that the students can identify from TV shows and movies.

Image credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

World Theatre Day!

March 27th is World Theatre Day (WTD). This year, I received a message from a teacher from the United States on Twitter, Nick Cusumano. He approached a number of drama teachers in the Twitterverse, and suggested we do a collaborative video showing our students reading ‘All The World’s A Stage’ monologue from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’.

We all got super-pumped and excited and got right on it. I asked five of my drama club students to read different parts of the monologue: Attila, Hana, Hameed, Amine and Furkan! I am very proud of them and their performances in the video! Enjoy 🙂

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!