A few years ago, my department chair approached me and said, “Your students seem really engaged and happy at the end of the school year. What’s your secret?” My secret is drama, and lots of it. Our tenth grade English curriculum concludes with a drama unit: Death of a Salesman, Glass Menagerie, and Raisin in the Sun. While all are important canonical plays, my students kept commenting on what a letdown it was to end the year on such a serious note. I needed a way to keep my students engaged and interested in the last weeks before summer break.
Enter legendary veteran drama teacher, John Van Meter, a master teacher who taught drama for over thirty years. He suggested I include a little play by N. Richard Nash called The Rainmaker (it was made into a film in 1956 starring Kathryn Hepburn and Burt Lancaster). It’s sort of a silly play. Everyone in it is white. The major conflict is a drought. The female lead, Lizzie, is mousey and may end up a spinster. But the play is otherwise plot-perfect and fun: it finally rains, and the girl gets the guy. Perfect for a project-based assignment in the form of a silent Western.
The biggest problem I have to avoid is making sure my students don’t order a copy of John Grisham’s novel by the same name. Other than that, we hit the ground running about a month before school is out. Students know this is a gift from me to them: a project-based assessment instead of an exam. Moreover, it’s the end of the school year, and students are bouncy. They want to move. By now they are also familiar with assignment sheets and collaborating. We read the play out loud over the course of three days, really hamming it up. Students apply their knowledge of drama, and also draw upon prior acting experience from a unit in which they worked with local Shakespeare Teaching Actors and learned about blocking and showing emotion. By this point my students are having fun—and they haven’t even selected scenes yet.
I spend the next few days watching and reviewing the 1956 film, which students love discussing because they find the acting and lack of special effects—well, laughable. But all the better, because they aren’t amazing actors and won’t have fancy costumes or special effects either. I also find that rather than setting the bar low for them, it makes them realize that it takes a lot for just a little—and they don’t want to be laughable to their friends. Watching Joseph Anthony’s 1956 movie also gives students the opportunity to learn new film terms: they learn POV shots, close ups, transitions, editing techniques, and genre—all in handouts I give them and discuss. While not technically a Western, The Rainmaker makes it easier for me to provide them with an accessible archetype for their own films.
And here’s the best part: because students film a silent Western, they don’t necessarily need to memorize lines. Once they select their groups, choose a scene, borrow a camera (or check out a flip cam from our school library), and plan their scene with a Director’s Notebook (which includes storyboards, setting, costuming, casting, and editing notes), the students spend the last few days of school off and running. The project is not easy, but it’s not an albatross, either. Students scout the school campus for an appropriate location (urban schools can get creative with setting). They enjoy putting together “Western” costumes (it’s amazing how many households have cowboy boots and hats). They film and edit—and you’d be surprised how well students already know how to do this, and how little it requires of you. They collaborate, delegate, and problem solve. Most importantly, they have fun while you circulate between groups and watch the process.
Think about capstone moments that mark our achievements in life: end of the school year; graduation from high school or college; end of an athletic season; the last night of sleep-away camp. These tend to be moments that we celebrate with our family, friends, and teammates—that one last hurrah before heading off for summer vacation.
Why then not end the school year with a culminating project that brings students together in meaningful work with their peers? The Rainmaker silent film project allows students the freedom and responsibility to show mastery without the stress often associated with exam prep. In the Director’s Notebook, the students reflected on the process: what and who worked well, what and who didn’t, and why? Finally, during our allotted exam time of two hours, we celebrate all that the students have learned and achieved over the year with a Film Festival. After watching each 5-7 minute film (for about 8-10 groups), students use a google form I’ve emailed to vote for Best Actor, Actress, and so on.
And without any further ado, they take off for the summer, feeling good about the year.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.