George Lucas Educational Foundation
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In the 21st century, we are living in a creative society and economy rather than an industrial one, which begs the questions:

  • What skills do young people need in this new world?
  • How can they gain creative skills for innovation in the work place?

An Arts-Based Approach

While attending the Conference of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), I participated in a session about the Common Core State Standards, where it was suggested that meeting English language and math standards begins with students' passion for learning. The question is: what are the most effective methods to ignite that passion? The arts, of course! I believe that the performing arts can inspire all learners to invest in their own learning, and it is hugely important that teachers build opportunities for creative learning to model these important skills for their students.

The Common Core mission statement says:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

I believe that students work best when they learn kinesthetically, which lends itself indelibly to striving towards the Common Core State Standards. In my work at the New Victory Theater, we create ready-to-implement activities that show which anchor standard they are fulfilling. This lets classroom teachers easily incorporate theater techniques into academic units, like English language arts. With these activities, teachers can hook students into creative learning, which enables them to deepen understanding.

For third-to-fifth grade educators who teach a fairytale unit or a book-of-the-month focus, here are some activities where theater can enliven literature. The example we’ll use is the Brothers Grimm's Sleeping Beauty.

Briar Rose Meets the Common Core

Objectives and Goals

  • To explore the text Sleeping Beauty through different theater techniques of storytelling
  • To build imagination and point-of-view skills through the theatrical convention "River of Dreams"
  • To make artistic choices to complete the final scenes of Sleeping Beauty using the theater skills explored


  • Flashlights
  • Lighting gels or different colors of cellophane
  • Overhead projector
  • Classroom objects (stapler, folder, chair, etc.)
  • Instruments/sound makers
  • Sleeping Beauty plot points (pre-determined by teacher)

Prior Knowledge

  • Ask students:
    • How do you tell stories?
    • What techniques do you use when telling stories in your classrooms?
  • Students will be asked to keep their responses to these questions in mind throughout the session as they activate and adapt text by using different theatrical and design techniques.

Activity 1: Story Whoosh!

Immersed Story Whoosh: Students will embark on a flocking activity where they follow the teacher (who serves as narrator) to different stations placed around the classroom.

  • Lead students through the Whoosh by narrating or telling sections of the story. At each station, students will be asked to create the mood of a particular plot point using the art form or materials provided.
  • In addition, students can use sound design (Foley, instruments, objects and voice) to create the sonic mood of these plot points, characters, etc. at each station. The stations are as follows:
    • Moving Image or Tableau: Direct students to physically create the setting, characters, etc. of the plot point.
    • Toy or Object Theater: Encourage students to use objects found in a classroom to activate a plot point or create the mood for that scene.
    • Lighting Design: Invite students to use gels with clip lights, flashlight or an overhead projector to create the mood of a plot point of the story.

Teachers can also choose other art forms -- such as music, songs, puppetry, etc. -- for the students to tell the story.

Activity 2: River/Corridor of Dreams

  • Ask students, "What do you think Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose) dreams about during 100 years of sleep?"
  • For the River of Dreams, students will reflect deeply to create a visual timeline of Sleeping Beauty’s dreams while she sleeps in her tower.
  • Using a large piece of butcher block paper, students will draw and create the character's dreams over the course of her 100-year sleep. One end of the paper represents Year 1 and the other end represents Year 100.
  • Encourage students to add illustrations or images that they recall from the Story Whoosh, as well as moments in her life and dreams that they imagine.
  • Once completed, invite students to walk the river to see what stands out for them.
  • For the Corridor of Dreams, invite students to arrange themselves in two rows facing each other. Give them a moment with the person in the opposite row to create a soundscape of Briar Rose’s dreams over the course of the 100 years she is asleep in her tower.
  • Reflection:
    • What do you notice about Sleeping Beauty's dreams?
    • How do they change over time?
    • What do you think it would be like to be asleep for 100 years?

Activity 3: Finale of Sleeping Beauty

  • Remind students of the different ways of storytelling they have explored during the Story Whoosh activity.
  • Invite them to select one of the art forms they explored to create the final scenes of Sleeping Beauty.
  • Once in small groups, direct them to create final scenes of Sleeping Beauty by activating the scene through their chosen art form.
  • In addition to reviewing the text, the group must decide how they would like to collaborate to build the scene.
  • Also instruct the groups that, just you narrated the first activity, there must be a narrator for each scene.
  • Once groups have completed the task and rehearsed, have each group share their scenes in narrative order.

Assessment and Follow-Up

Once completed, reflect as a large group. Return to the initial questions to see if anything has changed for them, if anything new stands out, etc.

  • What techniques did we use to bring this story to life?
  • What do you know about this story that you didn't know before?

Imagination in Action

At the NCTE conference, Sir Ken Robinson said in his keynote speech about creativity in schools, "Imagination and creativity are not the same. Creativity is imagination in action."

The activity described above meets all of the anchor Common Core standards and provides a creative learning environment for students to make deeper connections while building skills that young men and women need in this new creative economy. We encourage teachers to continue finding ways to use theater techniques and incorporate other art forms in their English Language Arts units. We encourage them to continue igniting students' passion for their own learning.

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Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

zep's picture
Education Specialist

" I believe that the performing arts can inspire all learners to invest in their own learning." Why do you feel the need to go any further, implicitly denying that learning the arts is in and of itself valuable, arguably more valuable than any CCSS? It may in fact be time to turn the tables and ask CCSS advocates how these standards support the more significant learning which occurs in the arts? English and Math instruction which does not foster creativity and student self-esteem may not be worthy of a student's time. Let's stop feeling we have to ground support for the arts in the shroud of "academics" in a day and age of the internet wherein any student can pull up a TedX and receive core academic instruction any time of any day, the arts on the other hand may be best facilitated by the passion of an instructor.

Peter H Hoffman's picture

I apologize for being pedantic but the issue below is something people get wrong so often and the purpose of this site is education.

"In the 21st century, we are living in a creative society and economy rather than an industrial one, which begs the questions:"

{ "Begging the question" is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place. } --

People often (as in this case) use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question".

Susan Stein's picture
Susan Stein
Art Teacher grades Preschool - 8

I wish we could go back to the days when the arts were taught in school because they are valuable in and of themselves. That is how I became turned on to visual art, music and theater. Clearly, there are few schools that can operate this way today, and while I am disgusted with that fact, I am hopeful that by tying the arts to the Common Core Standards and scientific research on learning, instead of fighting the tide, that the resurgence of arts education will continue to grow.

Courtney, great blog post. I would love to do what you are doing using the visual arts. I am a big believer that children should not have to feel that they have to be "good" at art in order to do it, so I create experiences that, while challenging, are enjoyable, promote creativity and learning, plus allow every child to succeed. I feel that if these kinds of arts experiences were offered in schools, then many more children would enjoy arts classes and benefit from them.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I didn't know that! Thanks for the quick education. I'd always wondered what the difference was between raising a question and begging a question!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

As a former theatre teacher, I love anything that allows us to pull from different parts of our students' experiences and passion. Combining these things just makes sense. Thanks for sharing this!

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