Last week at our school, 35 students put on what was, in the end, a very polished production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ They brought a wonderful sense of purpose and fun to a well executed script. It was a very proud moment for the students, their teachers, and their family and friends as they reflected on this student achievement.
Other than some logistical support, I had very little to with the production itself. However, I did have the pleasure of watching the students and their supporting teachers apply the finishing touches to their performance in the days leading up to the performance. As I observed, I truly began to appreciate the powerful and unique learning experience that a school play provides for students and teachers – particularly in terms of character development, assessment, and collaboration.
It takes a lot of character to prepare for a play and to perform in front of others. Over a period of months, every student displayed learning, perseverance, diligence, resilience, self-discipline and citizenship. It was this character that led to their success on the night. Importantly, this was made clear to the students throughout the process. They were encouraged to persevere when a scene was proving difficult and were required to diligently learn their lines outside of rehearsals. They were asked to learn from their mistakes and to be disciplined in attending all rehearsals on time and prepared. The students soon realized that their performance depended upon their character.
When the curtain fell for the last time, the play was finished. However, if these students are able to attribute their success to their character, a lesson has been learned that will last a lifetime and be transferable to anything these students want to do in the future. While a school play is a unique learning experience, teachers should strive to connect success to character in all of the learning experiences we design for our students.
For a play to come together on the night, every performer needs to know exactly what to do and how to do it. For that reason, the feedback each performer receives must be immediate and specific to his or her role, strengths and weaknesses. If ‘practice makes permanent,’ it is essential that students stop doing things that will ultimately lead to a poor performance. Misunderstandings and poor techniques must be identified and addressed before it is too late for them to be remedied.
It was clear that the students understood that the feedback they were receiving was being offered to help them succeed. A couple of days after the performance, How Arts Education Teaches Kids to Learn From Failure popped up in my Twitter feed:
…students learn from their fumbles, their mistakes and come to realize that it’s fine to “make bad work,” because that’s the only way to eventually make “good work.” Teachers and students alike are clear that critical feedback is essential to improvement, and that while practice is important, it only harms a student to practice the same error over and over because “practice makes permanent.” The artistic training students receive is fundamentally one based on a growth mindset, which they then apply to all their learning. These student artists not only learn to take and value critique from peers and teachers, but they are gradually learning how to evaluate their own work.
As I observed students and teachers working together to make “good work,” there was an obvious urgency and purposefulness in the feedback process. While this sense of urgency and purpose was unique to a public performance, it is definitely worth thinking about the improved outcomes if teachers and students could replicate this in all subjects and classes.
From the few days that I watched them prepare, it was obvious that the students believed that the success of the play was dependent upon how well they worked together and supported each other. Each student wanted to perform well and each student knew that their individual success and the success of the group was tied up in the success of others.
This shared understanding of success allowed for students to offer and accept help and criticism among themselves. I watched as a fourth grader prompted a middle school student when a line was missed at the beginning of a scene. That scene would have been lost without the students’ shared belief that individual success and the success of the group was tied up in the success of others. For all manner of reasons, from a saved scene to the survival of the species, this belief must be nurtured in all of our students in all curriculum areas. Standards-based assessment practices allow for it and this school play has confirmed to me that student outcomes would benefit from it.
There was a core team of four teachers that helped the students build this production from scratch. And from the first play meeting to the final bow, in so many different ways, this core team was supported by a wider community of teachers, support staff, family and friends.
The students needed a venue, they needed the stage to be set, they needed lighting, they needed props, the needed to be supervised, they needed seats for their audience to sit on, they needed someone to learn their lines with, they needed someone to remind them of their lines when they forgot them, they needed someone to record their performance, they needed feedback, they needed confidence, they needed encouragement, they needed class time to rehearse, they needed people to rehearse with outside of class time, they needed costumes, they needed people to know when and where they were performing, they needed a script, they needed make up, and they needed an audience to take a final bow to.
Ultimately, this school play was a very powerful reminder to me of what is possible when a community works together to do whatever it takes to provide children with the opportunities and support they need to fulfil their potential.