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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Stage Craft: Taking Cues from Theater Class to Help Make Math and Science Fun

Why can't a classroom have the passion of drama or sports?
By Carl Engvall
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

I recently had a chance to read an article by Herb Childress called "Seventeen Reasons Why Football Is Better Than High School." The ethnographer spent a year observing students in a high school, noting the contrast between their boredom and discontent in the classroom and their joy and success on the playing field. Quite a few of the reasons he lists resonated with me as a high school teacher and drama director. In football, he wrote,

  • Players are considered active participants rather than passive recipients.
  • The unexpected happens all the time, so there's no time to coast or be unfocused.
  • A player can let the team down.
  • There's no such thing as "good enough"; we're always asking players to excel.
  • The adults who participate are genuinely interested.
  • A public performance is expected.

I think I'm a pretty good math and science teacher, but the skills that I see students develop when I direct a theatrical production seem to go deeper. Maybe that's because theater is a lot like football. Students must memorize their lines, the blocking, a repertoire of songs and dances, and the many nuances of the characters they portray. When the curtain rises on opening night, it's all up to them. It's their production. And the unexpected happens all the time: Sound recordings don't work, lights go on the fritz, props break, doors jam, people forget their lines or miss an entrance, and there are wardrobe malfunctions. Actors must be alert and able to adjust to surprises.

As in football, the stakes are high. One actor or technician can let the entire cast and crew down, and, as in football, "good enough" isn't good enough. There's always something to be tweaked in a performance, something to be perfected, skills to be improved.

All of these demands give students tremendous life lessons about teamwork and the rewards of hard work. Students learn that what looks effortless on stage is really the result of a lot of sustained effort. In sports, and in the theater, what the student is doing is real, about as real as it gets. And if it's seen as real, it can provide the opportunity for active engagement and effective learning.

Don't get me wrong: I believe firmly in the value of academics. It's important to know how to write lab reports, use the quadratic formula, and interpret the Constitution. But in the classroom, just as on stage or on the field, for real learning to occur, there has to be some desire on the part of the learner, and a significant part of that desire comes from the relevance of the material. When I sit down to create curriculum for my math and science courses, I've challenged myself to make my students' experiences just as real and meaningful as my actors' experiences on stage.

In my environmental science course, for example, this means testing the creek water in the school's backyard. It's very rewarding when students read the E. coli levels in water samples and say, "We need to do something about the water quality!" This is real learning with a lifelong impact.

It's more challenging to "keep it real" in math class, but still possible. One approach is to have my math students run an experiment for which they gather data, analyze the statistics, and then graph the results to determine the equation of the lines. Students see firsthand that working with numbers in real life is much messier than solving problems in textbooks.

I can already hear some of my colleagues: "Well, sure, your theater kids are happier. They're in your play by choice. Your math students have to be in class." And they're right. When we do something because we're forced to, our personal investment wanes (just think "income taxes").

It can be hard to find the motivation that leads to honest investment in a difficult task. But that is the teacher's responsibility: to create experiences for our students that make them active participants rather than passive recipients. With some creativity, flexibility, and research, it is possible. And it's also more fun -- for everyone. The teacher gets the gratification of seeing students develop life skills and confidence that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Students get to experience the excitement of discovery, the frustration of periodic failure, the camaraderie of teamwork, and the jubilation and pride inherent in giving a performance that has meaning.

Credit: Wesley Bedrosian
Carl Engvall is a high school teacher in Middlebury, Vermont.

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bret Wagner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great article, Carl. I'll bet most teachers don't even consider what team sports has over academics. Better yet, ask themselves how to make the classroom more like a team sport. I'm convinced that project-based learning is a big part of the puzzle. Anytime students work in a team, they will experience life lessons that will make them stronger, same as playing on the football field.

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Kathy Johnstone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This made me think. I am on a school committee for student attitude and this will be an addition to the conversation. Thanks!

Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It should not be forgotten that the star athlete did not emerge onto the field after a couple months practice. You will probably find more often than not that the high school athlete has spent years training -- PeeWee league, Little League, interscholastic -- and countless hours of training formally and informally. Drills to build strength, speed, and agility were repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Some drills are simply called just that, "repeats." It is a word that pervades the language of training. They are done because time has proven that that is how skills are learned to the point of automaticity. Many drills involve repitition of moves that will never be used in the "real world" of a game, but coaches and athletes know their value. Coaches know the value of playing at the appropriate level. No no-look passes, no one handed catches, no hot-shotting. With practice, in time, those skills and the knowledge of when to use them will come.

These things go unquestioned in sports, but in the classroom, or rather in the politics that control the classroom there are those who expect capable students in high school without skill building in the lower grades. There are those who use "drill" as a pejorative. There are those who instead of developing skills in nascent scholars encourage wild guessing. Fumble along until you find an answer, and if you don't have the skills now don't worry, you can get them later while learning more difficult skills that require the ones you have not yet learned.

As sports demonstrate, drills and skill building and teamwork and fun are not mutually exclusive. Let's take a cue and remember that while game day or the team project lab are exciting, they come and are fruitful after many not so thrilling hours of practice far from the field but not far afield.

Herb Childress's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is Herb Childress, the writer of the original "Seventeen Reasons" referred to here. Steve's comment is absolutely right on. But let's look at the experience of the earliest athletes who are willing to do the "repeats," the kind of rote and constant repetition that make one able to pull an action out of their repertoire. I can avow that I was able to do extraordinarily well in arithmetic early and math later in large part because my mother and my friends and I played cards all the time. There's nothing like cribbage to make you able to instantaneously add in your head and to recognize sequences, or to be able to multiply quickly. How much is a double run (four cards such as 3/3/4/5)? It's eight points. Why? Because 345 is a run of 3 points, the other 3 enables 345 with a different starter for 3 more points, and a pair of 3s is worth 2 more. Oh, but make sure you sum your cards, because 3+3+4+5 = 15, and that's worth 2 more. You start doing that with your family when you're six or seven years old, and you're bound to be an arithmetic whiz. But start kids out in arithmetic classes with no enjoyment, and you're almost guaranteed to engender boredom at best or fear of math at worst. My analogy with football had no implication that it was only the advanced players who benefitted; this is the same kind of learning that we should enable right off the mark.

Herb Childress, Ph.D.
Director of Undergraduate Curriculum
Boston Architectural College

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