Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Moving the Blog

This summer, I'm trying something new and moving the posts from this blog and the Young Playwrights Guide to a new publication on Substack. The brand new Young Artists Guide premieres at 7:05 am today. Please take a look here. Thank you!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

And... scene!

from the Holmdel Theatre Guild
Today is the first day of summer and the last day of school. A half day. I've been home for 90 minutes and am already antsy and looking for something to do. Those of you who know me probably expected that. Even though I plan to rest this summer, I'm not one who is really able to rest. And there is plenty to do - a whole summer's worth, in fact. But I'm trying very hard to take the second half of this day - and the whole day tomorrow, if possible -  to not do work. Writing seems to be a happy medium.

This year was a long one and like many other educators, I'm relieved to reach the end. This was a hard one. In some ways, this year was more difficult that the last two with Covid, but it ended on a relatively high note. Lots of yearbooks signed. A couple of student requests for selfies. A few gift cards. And one student who quietly asked me to sign her book and then, when I was finished, quickly told me I was one of her favorite teachers before she ran off and away from what was clearly a moment of vulnerability for her. As I told the two other students standing there with me, "that's why I like the last day of school".

Middle school graduation was last night and high school graduation is tonight. I view this last day in the same lens that many graduation speakers tend to take: Every end is a new beginning. There will be time to further reflect on the year and make adjustments for September. I have a pile of data from student surveys to peruse; oh, and a new classroom space being built! (More on that as we get closer). For now, I will try to take it easy. Maybe read a book, or play a game with my kids. There's so much more time for that now. The work will be there for me on Thursday.

Happy summer, everyone!

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Remember to Have Fun

Today, I met with a middle school class that is one of the most energetic I've had this year. They were working in randomized, small groups on a "final" performance project that ended with about 8 minutes left in the period. As I sat in the back of the auditorium marking the final group's rubric, the class - all of whom were sitting together in the first three rows - began to laugh and joke around with one another. A few students began performing on stage. They were doing funny bits, acrobatics, singing... I was in awe. A few turned around and asked if I was okay. It seems that I was sitting there rather comically with my mouth open just taking it all in. I walked to the front of the room as the circus died down and told them that was the most incredible eight minutes I'd witnessed all year. A few of them wondered if they were in trouble. Quite the opposite, I told them. I was just enjoying watching them let loose and have so much fun with one another.

I try to keep the classroom fun. I'm lucky because theatre is built to be that way, but sometimes things can get a little too serious, or a little too formatted. Their display was a great reminder that sometimes we just need to let loose and have a good time... especially in school.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Winding Down

Photo by Richard Pasquarella on Unsplash

Seven days more until summer.
June 21. Coincidentally, that is our last day of classes. I am especially looking forward to this one and to having time over summer for the preparation of new programming and to revise curriculum for 2022-2023.

These last days of school are always interesting. With middle school, it's about keeping things "normal" while battling the students' ever-growing feeling of summer freedom.

In the high school, there's more a sense of winding down. As tests and projects come due, we all breathe a bit easier and reflection takes the stage. I love sitting with classes and asking general questions: How are you? How did things go? What worked? What didn't? What would you like to see/do next time? What can we do better?

These conversations over the last five school days brought excellent ideas and suggestions from students that I can't wait to put into action. It's great how this work always comes back to the core finding that has become my mantra: "take them seriously". They've begun taking themselves seriously, too, and the awakening that has begun is going to be fun to watch develop in the next school year!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

We're Back!

Well, hello there! Long time, no see... and I'm just going to get this in before another month passes us by.

When I last left you, were we just getting into the thick of things with the high school musical. I'm happy to say that the experience was excellent and left us with positive vibes all around. I learned a lot from the experience and came away with some good data; I hope to write more about those things in the future.

For now, I'll say that the work begun in 2019 has successfully revitalized and grown our theatre program. Students are more engaged, families and faculty are excited, and there's all around good will toward our work. We've laid a solid foundation from which to grow and, yesterday, I received the gift of comfort being told that my contract will be renewed for next year. That's a huge weight off my shoulders! And, this is the first time in five years I've had that information before June. Now, we can turn attention toward next year with a confidence and certainty we've never had before.

In the meantime, I will return to school on Monday (after a surprise second bout with Covid right at the end of spring break) and the last two week of A Midsummer Night's Dream rehearsal at the middle school. I'm meeting wtih the musical collaborators to plan, not just for next year, but for two years at two schools. It's a great opportunity that I'm blessed to have. Can't wait to see what happens next!

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Gifts of Planning & Collaboration

This school year presented a unique opportunity to direct plays on both sides of the MS/HS complex. At the end of January, we closed the middle school musical production of Rock of Ages: Youth Edition while the high school production of Oklahoma! was in full swing. Having collaborators on both projects made this a smoother transition than one might expect. I am grateful for their flexibility while I swung back and forth between the two projects.

It seems this arrangement may continue into next year with additional directing opportunities. It sounds like a lot of work (and it is), but an incredible way to further develop the theatre programs in both schools. An added benefit will be the time I've been given to plan.

Choose any number of quotes about the importance of planning here. The most difficult challenge in the process this year was being handed the reigns to the middle school shows a month into the school year. Again, having a collaborator made that process easier. The addition of time gives us the ability to reflect on this past process and to make adjustments for the year ahead. I already have a few ideas in mind and am excited by the possibilities.

It is a unique arrangement to be in charge of theatre programs at two schools. Perhaps some of you reading this post may have experience with this. Any suggestions or advice you may have are greatly appreciated!

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Theatre History: What was the "first" play in the United States?

My first year teaching middle school theatre, I was surprised by how few students understood that Theatre has ancient roots. In their defense, the history of theatre is not a major topic in elementary social studies classrooms, if it is even mentioned at all. It make sense that the students' frame of reference would be what they have experienced for themselves.

I love theatre history and it was a great pleasure to bring some of that knowledge to the curriculum in subsequent years. They are genuinely shocked by how old the art form is and how widespread the practice of performing stories for an audience has been across the world. What surprises them even more is that some historical "facts" can be disputed. This is particularly so when we talk about historical "firsts".

historical marker in Accomac, Virginia

For example, as a conversation starter I will sometimes ask: "When was the first play performed in the United States?" We discuss their answers, which they are allowed to guess or Google. I often get the following:
Then we consider that the United States has only been an name used for a particular area of North America since 1776. Of course, that geography has changed in the 245 since. We can then go further to consider what play may have been the "first" in the American colonies. But, then again, people have been on that land before the Colonies were formalized, even before the colonists reached the land. And we typically think of those colonies in the context of the 17th and 18th century. Did the Vikings perform plays in North America? In what ways did the indigenous peoples perform for one another?

It is a bit more than they bargained for, but in an elective class that the majority of students present didn't elect to take, it is an important idea to consider. Our definitions, our ideas about what is important or good or fact, may be limited by the context in which we search, or exist. It is a great way to get students who are used to thinking academically (not necessarily creatively) to realize that things can go in many different directions. That's an important understanding in a classroom where creativity and imagination are essential tools.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Finding Purpose in the Pause

Pauses and stops are disruptive by nature. What if we saw them as opportunities instead?

This morning I woke up to the second snow day of the week. While it is nice to have a more relaxed day at home, it also means rescheduling and restructuring lesson plans and rehearsal schedules and more, I'm sure. But in that re-, there's possibility. I will look at all of those plans with a new perspective and restructure goals under new limitations and dynamics. Being home also allows other opportunities, too (doing laundry while I work is huge).

From a more poetic viewpoint, there's possibility in a day like today - to any pause in our routine. I wrote more about it on the Young Playwrights Guide blog today. You can read that here.

Okay. Back to work!

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Theatre History: Lincoln and Booth

Robert Todd Lincoln

One of my favorite stories from American theatre history is also connected to one of the most tragic. Last year, I included it in the discussion of theater and stage spaces in the middle school Theatre classroom. As I've previously written, that class is often populated with students who have been placed in the class rather than chosen it. Their interest in the art form is tepid, at best, so I love connecting it to other subjects whenever possible. The students' reactions to those connections are excellent.

This story may have taken place around this time of year in either late 1864 or early 1865 and involves the only surviving child of President Abraham Lincoln (Robert Todd Lincoln) and the older, more successful brother of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Edwin Booth). The story was told by Robert Lincoln to a friend in a letter dated many years after the event and goes something like this:
Edwin Booth as Hamlet

Robert Todd Lincoln was standing on a crowded train platform in Jersey City, NJ. He was pressed against a train that suddenly started moving. He lost his balance and slipped into the narrow opening between the train and the platform when someone grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to safety on the platform. Lincoln turned to thank the helper and found himself face to face with Edwin Booth, arguably the most famous actor in America at the time. Lincoln said he thanked Booth by name; however, it is not clear that Booth recognized Lincoln. At that time, Robert Todd Lincoln would have been about 22 or 23 years old and serving in the Union Army. He had not yet held any public office and presidential families were not as public and therefore not as recognizable as they would be today.

Obviously, Edwin Booth's youngest brother would murder President Lincoln just a few months later. Booth was devastated by this and it took him quite a while to return to the stage and the public. It is said that learning he saved the life of Robert Lincoln helped Edwin heal and feel a sense of redemption. It is also a remarkable coincidence and fantastic story!

Friday, December 31, 2021

Goodbye, 2021

New Year's Eve is one of reflection and resolutions. This year, I'm not spending much time on either. Just pushing on and not looking back on this one. My goal for tonight is to enter the new year writing. I've been posting as much as possible on the Young Playwrights Guide this week and have the draft of an essay about the importance of youth writing and digital theatre in my Drive. I look forward to doing more of that in the days ahead.

I'm also gearing up for the return to school on Monday, but not exactly sure what that day will bring. As my wife and I began our prep this evening, the biggest unknown is exactly who will be in the room. Her school has decided to go virtual for at least a week; mine has not made that call. I imagine we will be in-person, but I also expect that the room won't be full. Maybe we begin the week with a one-off SEL activity to ease us back into the groove and to assess who is there and how that week will go. Remote teaching is different from in-person teaching; a hybrid of both is yet another thing. Using the day to gauge will be of help.

Otherwise, the plan is to keep the students in mind and to continue "taking them seriously". Encourage their work, their ideas, and their voices and keep putting it into action. It has been a good adjustment bringing that idea to the fore. Doing it more should get them even more engaged than they already are.

Happy New Year, everyone! Make it a good one.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Welcome, November!

For most teachers, November is the first time there is a significant break in the calendar. In New Jersey, public schools have at least the last two days of the first week off due to the annual NJEA Convention. Some districts took the entire week. We will return to two full weeks before a shortened Thanksgiving weekend that mirrors this one. They couldn't come at a better time!

A few weeks ago, a text message spam bot from the NJEA wrote to ask if they'd see me at the convention this year. The reply was simple: "Nope!" All the best to those with the energy to get down to Atlantic City this weekend, but I need this time to myself. These first nine weeks of school are the toughest I've ever experienced and while I'm not in school, I am still working. There is plenty of grading and lesson planning and home projects that need attention.

And please check in on your teacher friends. Last year was hard, but this year is much harder. I won't be surprised if 2022 brings an even greater swath of retirements than we saw at the end of 2021.