What Plays and Theatre Teach Us : An Open Letter to Harley Avenue Primary

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July 3, 2014 by kendrickheather

 I am still processing Washington Post’s Education Reporter Valerie Strauss’ article on the unfathomably absurd decision made in late April by the Harley Avenue Primary School to cancel their annual year-end kindergarten show because the kids had to keep working so they will be “college and career” ready.

Yes, you read that correctly. Kindergartners, the champions of creative play, who should have the opportunity to be in plays, on-stage, in front of their peers, teachers, and families, have been denied the expression of their voices in order to be ready for college.

Administration’s letter to the Kindergarten parents and guardians stated, “The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.”

Anyone who has ever participated in a play understands that this reads as a complete non-sequitur.

As a theatre director, educator, business owner, arts advocate, and champion of play in children’s school narratives and experiences, it is important to address: Why Theatre has value, what Plays teach us, and why the Arts ARE an animating core in 21st century pedagogy.

What is worth learning? There must be a balance between teaching to the test and teaching for the whole child, between taking the fun out of learning and inspiring life-long learning. 

I simply have to, must, am compelled to call out Harley Avenue and make the case for why Arts Education, especially Theatre and Plays, are a vital necessity in college and career readiness- no matter what one’s age.

Thus I present:

What Plays and Theatre Teach Us:

An Open Letter to Harley Avenue Primary School Administrators

 

I weep for not only the kindergarteners whose show you cancelled, but for antiquated thinking dispositions and our public educational system as a whole. The myopic nature of this stance and reasons for why the show was cancelled only further heightens reasons why our public school education often smothers creativity, innovation, and hinders career readiness. This kind of thinking and decision making also provides keen insight as to why we are lagging behind other countries in graduation and producing large numbers of articulate leaders and torchbearers of creativity, innovation, and collaborative knowledge acquisition.

 

In our era of being so concerned with “right” answers, we as a society are breeding trial and error right out, squashing curiosity, hindering innovation, and silencing creative voices. You are confusing the quantification of material over the cultivating and assessing of life skills.

 

We are in the business of preparing our children for life skills to enter a vastly shrinking global workplace. It is our duty to create deep resourceful thinkers who know how to think for themselves and who know the immeasurable benefits of asking beautiful questions rather than seeking final answers.

 

 

Children are natural inquisitors, innovators, and champions of creative play. They are curators of knowledge, as they should be. Not programmable robots of scantron thinking. Heuristic learners cannot be outsourced. Automated learners can by technology and call centers. I CAN TAKE TESTS!!! is not a resume builder nor it is a vital workplace skill.

 

 

However, big-picture thinking, creativity, resourcefulness, empathy, resilience, leadership, flexibility, compassion, motivation, self-discipline, humor, enthusiasm, an ability to articulate ideas, public speaking are the 21st century workplace skills most coveted by colleges and employers alike. ALL of these skills are developed and nurtured in shows.

 

Your letter states:

“The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.”

 

As a director of youth educational theatre, who begins with 5 year olds performing Shakespeare on stage and directing over 200 students ages 5-14 in a yearly Broadway style production  supported and championed by an amazing progressive administration in a phenomenal leading private day school where learning and empowerment of that learning are key, may I point out, you eliminated the very platform and discipline that is most accessible to students and which allows for the development of strong readers, writers, co-workers and problem solvers?!

 

Everything we need to learn, to succeed, and be career ready we learn on a stage. Even more so on a kindergarten stage where curiosity, freedom of expression, freedom to fail, creative play, open-mindedness, risk-taking and joy of learning have not been breed right out of our students.

 

A show is the very essence of project management where collaborative learning, creativity, communication and creative differences/problem solving reign supreme. When is the last time a multiple choice test produced those results, to quote Shakespeare- “in one fell swoop”, or at all?

 

A play by its very a nature is an exercise in writing, character development, using literary and theatrical devices to give voice to ideas. The actors, who are responsible for breathing life into the words of the play, must possess strong reading skills as they are the interpreters AND the communicators of the meaning, sub-text, intonation, and inflection.

 

An actor must speak articulately with an empowered voice to convey the story’s meaning to an audience with the dual objective of entertaining an audience, in addition to providing an emotional transformation, educational journey, and perspective changing of an audience. There is no greater power than using one’s own voice to move another human being to laughter, tears, or understanding.

 

To prepare for a show problem solving is key: how to work with others, dealing with creative differences, what if an actor forgets her lines, what if the lights go out, what if a prop is missing, how to deal with stage fright, where do all of these actors stand, how do I design abstractly a set-costume-light design that heightens the tone, mood, feeling, sentiment of the play? It is an exercise in grit, collaboration, growth mindset, business, resilience and empowerment.

 

The process of putting together a play requires creativity, empathy for others, compassion, perspective taking, the ability to create world’s never seen or to re-examine history, cultures, civilizations, to take note our of past, explore our present, and define our future. Empowering children’s voices is the key to making sure all girls and boys continue to speak out; to be given platforms for presenting and performing.

 

We are all players on a stage. Performing is the one skill used in every career: an attorney, a doctor, a salesperson, a hedge fund manager, a teacher, a politician, a CEO. This is the skill that is most vital to teach at the onset of formal education. The ability to speak well publicly, to articulate one’s ideas in a clear, persuasive manner in which another person will “buy” your idea is the foundation block of career readiness and of life.

 

Theatre is for Life.

 

 

Empower children’s voices, not silence them.

 

Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

 

Let’s test intelligence and see how you score.

 

Here’s a hint: restore creativity to its rightful place in education.

 

The show must go on!

 

One thought on “What Plays and Theatre Teach Us : An Open Letter to Harley Avenue Primary

  1. Amy Smith says:

    As a theatre person myself, I agree with your assessment. At the time of reading that letter, I was hoping it was written to open the eyes of the community to the absurity of over-testing. Alas, I’m afraid I was wrong.

    As a human, I learned so much through being on stage. My heart is sad when personal expression is shut down.

    Thank you for sharing your passionate response.

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