05/10/07

AN EMPTY SPACE IS FULL OF LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

Joe Shosh poses with a gift from one of his high-school drama students, a poster celebrating the long-running play A Chorus Line.

"For too many kids," says Joseph Shosh, assistant professor of education at Moravian, "Classes are just one kind of meaningless exercise after another. And it doesn't have to be that way."

Joe and colleague Jennifer Wescoe, who teaches English at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, offer educators a way out of that trap. In "Making Meaningful Theater in the Empty Space," published in the current issue of the National Council of Teachers of English English Journal, they make the case that theater can be an incredibly effective teaching tool. "Often the theater arts are seen as an extra-curricular part of a student's experience," says Joe, who taught English and drama at the high school level prior to coming to Moravian. "Yet I think some of the very best teaching and learning of English happens in the authentic context of putting a theater production together." In the article, Joe and his co-author contrast the passive learning—memorization and regurgitation of information—that often happens in a high school classroom, with the "transactional, creational model" that can take place in the empty space of a stage (whether it's the actual school stage or part of a classroom cleared of desks and chairs).

Preparation for the article included surveying high school students about their English class experiences. The results suggest that the typical approach towards teaching dramatic literature leaves something to be desired. "Our students reported that in a traditional English class, they worry about their score on an exam and spend time reading Cliff notes. Reading the play in class, they're not thinking about the meaning of what they have to say, they're looking ahead to see when they speak next." But putting on a play for production gives the students a vested interest in deeply analyzing characters. Even if a full fledged production isn't possible, exercises described in the article can be adapted for classroom use. "In one activity, every student creates an autobiography of their character," Joe notes. Another exercise has students improvise a New Year's Eve or birthday party which each attends in character.

A central strategy to this approach, and one that can be applied to teaching other subjects, is the goal of turning the classroom into a community where students are participants in a shared experience rather than passive receivers of knowledge. "Often teachers are busy and don't take time to build that community, but it's crucial," Joe says. "Even in the classes I teach at Moravian, the first session or two includes activities to help us get to know one another, and help me learn what the students want out of my course." Community-building may seem to take time away from teaching, but it pays off by yielding students who are engaged and the learning process, he notes. "When I'm not part of that community, I don't get nearly as much out of the students." Conversely, a classroom community encourages learning beyond school hours. "When I taught secondary school drama, the principal once asked me, 'How do the kids who cut class, who get expelled, who don't want to come to school, end up at your Saturday drama sessions not wanting to leave?' And my answer was that it's all about the community we form when we're doing something that matters to the students."