Audacious Idea: Engaging kids through theater

WBS director Patrice Hutton blogs for the Open Society Institute’s Audacious Ideas about engaging students through creation and performance of original plays.

Engaging kids through theater by Patrice Hutton

Let’s give every student the chance to write and produce a play. This can happen in the language arts classroom or as part of an after-school program. The important part is that students are in charge, from brainstorming to production night.

Students crave opportunities to express themselves, and theater offers a constructive outlet for the classroom. Theater presents a perfect hybrid of possibilities for academic learning and student fun. It also allows students to guide the creative process, beginning with an idea and seeing their writing through an initial draft, revisions, rewrites, and a final product. Theater is a cooperative art form, and the social benefits of bringing students together to create and perform plays extend beyond the classroom into many areas of students’ lives.

Last month, the 8th grade writing workshop I teach at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School wrote a play called “The Day Baltimore Ran Out of Chicken.” It grew out of a simple writing exercise. Each student received a note card with an item written on it, and they were to imagine that Baltimore had run out of that item. Baltimore without tires? Sidewalks? Sugar? Churches? Bus drivers? How about chicken? They read their stories aloud, and I challenged them to take it up a notch, thinking catastrophically. They re-wrote their paragraphs as catastrophes—with explosions at the end times. Chicken was the worst. So bad, in fact, they wrote a play about it. Wrote, assigned roles, and created the sets. They’ll perform it this Wednesday. In the end, they decided that a fictional Sheila Dixon steals all the chicken.

Students were captivated with every part of the process. Their classroom teacher emailed me to say that they couldn’t stop talking about a Baltimore without chicken. Every week, the students would greet me with new ideas. They wanted to incorporate technology into their play and pre-record the newscasts. They hope to turn the story into a comic strip, novel, opera, or television show. They’re in love with their idea and more engaged than I’ve ever seen them.

Writers in Baltimore Schools constantly strive to narrow the gap between what schools value and what youth find important in their lives. We’ve struck a goldmine with theater. Next school year, we will launch a Theater Club. Small groups of students will write, cast, design sets, rehearse, and perform two plays per year under the guidance of a Johns Hopkins theater student.

Let’s think about how we can do the same across Baltimore. Throughout the city, there are hundreds of individuals passionate about theater, and their talents could be put to good work with students. Talk to the school in your area. Talk to your local rec center. Talk to us. We’d love you to join us in giving every student the chance to write and produce a play.