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Discipline Tips from Drama Teachers

By Mary Ellen Flannery

In the best Hollywood movies, classroom management can be as simple as a wardrobe change. Scene 1: Teacher wears neat white blouse. Kids walk all over her. Scene 2: Teacher returns in black leather jacket and steel-toed boots and students listen, rapt!

Not that easy? Still, there’s something to be learned from those Tinseltown teachers, and it’s this: Your classroom is your stage. And the people who know best how to use that stage to command attention and respect from their students have a lot of other ideas to share about classroom management.

Take a bow, drama teachers.

Walk this way, kids!

Remember how a jump-suited John Travolta transforms his shop class? “C’mon guys, this car could be a major piece of machinery,” he says, leading his classmates in a neatly choreographed lesson in auto mechanics (and musicality).

“Why, it could be greased lightning!”

Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of following? It’s all about getting started right. When drama teachers walk into their classrooms, it’s not as simple as, “Open your books to page 33, please.” (“Miss! I don’t have my book today.” “Page what?”) Instead, drama teachers start with a warm-up exercise that gets the mind and body ready to learn.

In a typical drama class, it might be a mind-body exercise like Keith Taylor’s at Weaver Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, where students lie on the stage in “constructive rest,” knees bent, eyes shut, breathing deep, and running through voice articulation drills.

What? Won’t work in math?

It’s the principle that you need to adopt—“It really helps as a focusing tool,” advises Taylor, president of the North Carolina Theater Educators. For something that’ll work in any class, take a cue from veteran drama teacher Patsy Johns, former state teacher of the year in Nebraska. She starts class with rhythmic handclaps, which her students mimic, and then take turns leading the class in new rhythms.

“It captures focus in an unfocused world, encourages concentration, uses energy that might come out in disruptive ways, and it’s fun,” says Johns. Plus, while her students are engaged, she has time to take attendance or hand out work. “When I’m ready, they’re ready.”

Put me in, coach!

It’s tempting to think of yourself as the sage on the stage. Lights, please! Right here! On meeee! But drama teachers rarely lecture—a little less Hamlet, a little more Jimmy Dugan, the cinematic coach from A League of Their Own who famously yells, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

“Theater has taught me to approach teaching from a coaching standpoint,” says Jennifer Foster, a fourth-year drama and speech teacher at Norman High School in Oklahoma. “Part of that is getting the material out and giving them the opportunity to practice. I firmly believe that they have to do whatever concepts we’re teaching in order for them to retain information long-term.”

In Johns’ class, it means students may be moving independently through a variety of stations, reciting monologues to a wall, maybe working on stage. Just like basketball drills! “When a teacher steps into the activity, it’s to ‘coach’ one-on-one with a student,” she says. “They can raise a hand for help without drawing attention to themselves.”

And, in Foster’s class, it means more student-led activities—“the number-one thing that helps with student management,” she says. Recently, her students wrote legislative bills and debated them. “I don’t even start class; I put a schedule up on the wall that says who is the presiding officer, and I tack up an envelope that includes their checklist, timer, and everything they need. The students are a lot nicer to each other than they are to a teacher sometimes!”

There are no small roles

Theories of multiple intelligences have been popular in classrooms for some time—that is, there is no single intelligence, but many equally valid ways to learn, including visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

“That’s theater! That’s the nature of theater right there. In theater, everybody has a different job: tech designers, costume designers, lighting,” says M.J. Etua, past president of the Mississippi Theater Association and a drama teacher at Louisville High School. Each role is equally important and attracts different kinds of learners.

She thinks of a student who was always kind of a discipline problem: “Tuck in your shirt! Pay attention!” One day, they started drawing sets and “I saw the light bulb go off in his head,” she recalls. Suddenly, powerfully engaged, “the next day, he got up to help the other students.”

It’s possible to do this—accommodate different learning styles—in any kind of classroom. Watch the kindergarten teacher who asks her students to bounce up and down to break words into syllables, or the history teacher who asks Roger Sherman to stand and speak for the Colonies, or the math teacher who passes out the old abacus.

Everyone’s a critic!

What did the famous playwright and critic Oscar Wilde say about his own taste? “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”

Your students might feel the same, if you ask them to assess each other’s work, as is often done in drama classes. Etua regularly asks her students at Louisville High to peer-grade. “I call it a critique. I call it, ‘Defend your ideas,’” she says. “As an artist, it’s about process as much as product, and they have to explain their process.”

You could also call it critical thinking, an essential skill for learning, she says. Her students might look at another student’s staging and ask, “O.K., you’ve got this on your set, why?” They talk about the choices they’ve made and why. Along the same lines, the “critics” can’t simply say, “I don’t like this.” They also have to explain themselves: “It was too long for the audience,” or, “It doesn’t make sense in the historic context.”

This also gives them a sense of ownership of their own work. “You’re really trying to build that confidence, whether it’s in biology or history. You want for them to have the information and be able to tell somebody what they’ve learned,” Etua says. “One of the basic things you have to teach is how to listen,” says Greg Scot Mihalik, a young drama teacher at Nokomis High School in Maine, where he was nominated for state teacher of the year. Both performers and audience members—and peer graders—need to listen, he says.

When he asks students to assess each other, they start off with positive feedback before constructive criticism. (A little humor couldn’t hurt either: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you,” another pearl of wisdom from Wilde.)

Stage presence!

Enter, stage right: The Great Greg Scot Mihalik! [Applause, applause.] With a wave of his wand, he’ll make that troublemaker disappear! And you won’t even notice the sleight of hand that it requires.

Were it so simple. But Mihalik is an entertaining educator, even though he’s a little squeamish about that specific word. “I hate to use the word entertaining because teachers might not like to call themselves entertainers but I do think we need to be engaging, and you do have to sell the material to the kids. ‘It’s going to be fun, and you’re going to enjoy it!’”

Even if you don’t want to don the black cape, you can use tricks of the stage to develop a more commanding presence in your classroom. “As a teacher, just like in theater, you have to gain control of your environment,” Foster says.

Consider the use of lighting. When you “bring down the lights,” Mihalik says, it suggests to your students that there’s something important to listen to. Also, consider where you are in the classroom: Placement of characters means a lot on stage. If you’re standing and somebody else is sitting, you have more power. “When I want the students to have equal power, when they’re presenting, for example, I’ll take a student desk,” Foster says.

“I think it’s amusing when people walk into the room and can’t figure out where I am,” Johns says. “I’m in the middle of the learning process, not at the front.”

Also, consider your voice: “Bueller... Bueller... Bueller.” Remember the movie scene with the terribly boring Ben Stein? “You want inflection and you want tone, but you also want it to seem natural,” Foster says. “That’s the ultimate goal in theater, that this is reality.”

Send comments on this story to mflannery@nea.org

Photo: Danny Peck/Peck Studios; Styling: Groff creative, Inc.

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