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 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 ūüôā

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.

Kick-starting the new academic year!

Wow, it’s been a while since my last post! But I’m back! I have been trying to shake-off the holiday mode and get back into the routine, partly because I love routines (to a certain extent), and partly because I miss the routine too!

So, 2013 is a very exciting year for us in the drama classroom! During term 1, the year 6 students are studying a unit-of-work on Mime & Pantomime, which is designed to help them explore the creative potential of their bodies. The year 7 students are studying a unit-of-work on Improvisational Theatre to help them explore and harness the human ‘natural abilities’ to improvise and use them in drama. The year 8 and year 9 classes are starting off with a unit-of-work on Commedia Dell’Arte, with a specific focus on how this historical theatre genre has drastically influenced modern comedy.

The academic year kicked off with an introduction to the rules, procedures and expectations in the drama class (or a refresher for the returning students), as well as an introduction to the MYP unit-of-work for the first term, particularly the Area of Interaction Focus, the Significant Concept and the MYP Unit Question. Each year-level was then asked to set three personal learning goals for this term. Here are the student handouts that outline the unit-of-work for each year level: year 6, year 7, and years 8 & 9.

During the second week, all classes were assigned a research & oral presentation task which will be used to assess Criterion A (Knowledge & Understanding). I always tell my students that it’s important to start off with the ‘theoretical’ part of the unit-of-work to set strong foundations for the ‘practical’ components.

The students are all asked to conduct a simple research about their chosen/assigned topic, and either present it as a poster to the class along with their oral presentation, or record their voices using a screen-casting app like ShowMe, or present their research in an iMovie video, or in a Keynote presentation (as we now have three year-levels with iPads: years 6, 7 and 8). The task spans over two double-periods (two weeks), the research being done in the first double-period, and the oral presentations being delivered during the second double-period (next week). I am very excited to see the students’ oral presentations, and to use them as the basis for my teaching for the rest of the term. Here are the task sheets for each year-level’s Criterion A task: year 6, year 7, and years 8 & 9.

Radio Drama: Create your own horror radio play (Part 2)

This term, the year 6 classes are studying Radio Drama. I have posted previously about how they created radio commercials to explore the creative potential of the voice. We also had a chance to perform poems to apply characterisation techniques to voice. Then we attempted to develop better enunciation and articulation by performing tongue-twister poems in this tongue-twisting lesson. The class also had the opportunity to explore voice projection and create their own radio interviews.

To sum up this unit of work, and to allow for summative assessment of MYP Criterion B (Application), the class will have the opportunity to create their own horror radio plays (as inspired by¬†Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds). The task’s learning objective is to¬†apply the skills, techniques and processes used to create a radio drama performance.¬†This task was planned to span over two weeks (one double-period per week). Last week, I posted about the first week of the task, where the students wrote their stories and brainstormed possible sound effects and background music to accompany the narration.
This week, we moved on to the next part of the drama process: to apply¬†rehearsal strategies ¬†and to reflect on and¬†evaluate¬†our artwork (process and product). The warmup for the lesson was a radio drama rehearsal game that I always enjoy: the students move into their groups and rehearse their radio plays five different times, each time with a different focus: once in normal speed, once in super slow motion (to force them to clearly pronouncing each vowel and consonant), once in fast forward (a very fun and tongue-twisting articulation and enunciation exercise), once as a comedy (to get them to think about tone and emotions in voice), and once as a musical (to help them warmup their voices and think about tone and emotions in voice). The students were encouraged to record their rehearsals using their iPods, listen to them and reflect on their characterisation, enunciation and voice projection. This warmup exercise achieves several objectives: to help students warmup, to rehearse for their performances, and to become more confident and ready for performing in front of the audience. The debriefing that followed the warmup was designed to ensure that the students take meaning out of this exercise (other than it just being ‘fun’) and reflect on it.
After the warmup and debriefing, the students sat in front of the performance space and formed an audience. Each group subsequently hid behind a curtain set up for the task, and delivered their horror radio play. The audience would then be asked to think like critics and give feedback (positive comments or useful suggestions) for the performers. Each radio play was recorded using my iPad. After all performances, the students were asked to bring out their task sheet and rubric¬†from their drama folders (handed out to them last week).¬†We then heard all the recorded performances through the class projector to help each student reflect on and evaluate his/her performance. Each student listened to his/her group’s performance, used the self-assessment checklist in the task sheet to self-assess, and then gave themselves a mark out of ten using the rubric attached to the task-sheet (in the ‘student’s self assessment’ column).¬†
After the self-assessment and evaluation, I had the opportunity to quickly conference with each student (for one or two minutes) and allow them to reflect orally on the process and product and justify their self-assessment. I concluded the conference with assigning each student his/her mark in the teacher self-assessment column and giving them oral feedback. 
It was a very busy lesson, with lots to do! However, I believe the task as a whole was a huge success and the students seemed very engaged with it. I believe this task can also be adapted and used in a non-drama classroom: English/ESL, LOTE, even Humanities classrooms where students create radio plays about social issues.
Below are embedded clips of the best three performances, as well as screenshots of the self-assessment checklist, the adapted MYP rubric used, and the whiteboard.