Teaching Strategies

OK, You’re On: The Classroom as Theater

All the world is a stage, including your classroom. Think about teaching as a dramatic act as you consider director, cast, choreography, set design, and lighting.

June 22, 2015

After a week immersed in the spectacular theater of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I found myself thinking about what it would be like if the classroom was perceived of as a theater and teaching as a theater production. Certainly good theater is far more engaging than most classrooms that I visit, where the most theatrical moments are usually unplanned and related to classroom management! So I want to share a few ideas. Think about your classroom as your theater, and then take a short journey with me to visualize how you might use this to help reframe your approach to teaching.

The Teacher as Director

Using the theater metaphor, most teachers see themselves as the starring actor. I did that for years. I was usually good, too. Whether in monologues or dialogues, I occupied center stage continually with a relatively strong presence. But I think it was a mistake to always consider myself the star of the production. As I learned over the years, my classes were definitely more effective when I began to think of myself as a director, even if I didn't think in those terms at the time. I believe teachers should think of themselves as directors, those responsible for organizing the production. There are some days where the "play" might be best served by having you also as the star, and other days where there might be another star, or no starring actor at all. Students could often be considered actors in the production, not just the audience, and your role should be to orchestrate their active participation in the play. Of course, this may also involve confronting your own ego if you feel a need to be the star. Again, there may be times when you do need to play the lead role. And there will be times when the students are solely the audience. But this should be less frequent and very selective. Directing can be exciting and a great creative opportunity!

Also think about the possibility of having an assistant director or two for some "productions." Inviting a couple of talented students to help you plan could be interesting and rewarding.

The Play's the Thing

Now what is the script of the play? It could be the curriculum and the classroom exercises you design within it, but it should also be a continual interplay between what you've designed and how students respond. In the best classrooms, we often have living improvisatory theater -- the script is a primary guide, but there's continual improvisation. In essence, there should be a combination of written and emergent curriculum. There should be room for students to respond in ways that are off script, if that response is also effective. And the best directors are always open to feedback from actors as they shape their productions. Remember that each of Shakespeare's plays is presented very differently as interpreted by the directors and actors of each production. They are always open to interpretation. So it should be with whatever prepared script you're given or have personally designed.

Choreography: The Movement of Actors in the Play

Unfortunately, choreography is much too simple in most classrooms. Students are usually stationary. Most of their movement is in their seats -- restless energy. There may be some movement in and out of groups. But consider the importance of students being given multiple opportunities to get up and move, as it best fits the script, sometimes into dyads, sometimes into groups, sometimes just an exercise that involves movement (such being asked to choose between a series of alternative-values responses and then move to one side or the other based on their choice). But what is most important is for the teacher to think about movement in creative ways, and not just assume a static stage design with all players always in the same place and position. Particularly in an age when students often spend too much time sitting at a computer or texting, movement in the classroom is essential.

The Staging

This is so important! Think about what kind of stage you want to create -- presuming you aren't so unfortunate as to be in an old-fashioned school where every seat is attached to the floor. This is a terrible theater to work in, and you may be able to transcend it only through very creative choreography and by creating destinations for students in corners or at the front of the classroom.

Clearly the staging should relate to the script and your vision as director. A circle or semi-circle of students will serve well for some scenarios. For others, a grouping of chairs may be most effective. Placing seats in rows, the traditional approach, is occasionally appropriate, though I think that's rarely the case. Imagine a play in which the actors were always stationary and mostly with their backs to each other. I would associate that type of staging with theater of the absurd!

The Lighting

Unfortunately, most teachers have little control over this. If you’re in a room with little outdoor lighting, that's what you have to work with. But try to make sure you always have working shades or window blinds. For showing films and videos, that's critical. I also know of teachers who've brought in lamps instead of using the classroom's fluorescent lighting.

Finally, take a look at this piece by Laura Ringdahl. Her perspective is different from mine, with the teacher mostly in the starring role, but I think it offers a related and alternative use of the same metaphor.

Now, you'll note that I left out costumes. There might well be special occasions when you'd want students to dress in a particular way and also carefully consider your own outfit, but that seems to push our metaphor to its outer limits!

In the meantime, just give this some thought, play with these ideas, and share with us any related things you've done and/or related resources that you think we should be aware of.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Arts Integration
  • Classroom Management
  • Learning Environments
  • Student Engagement

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