opening dialogue

I was delighted last weekend when my drama students used their voices to speak up during our first ever question and answer session after a performance of Holiday. They spoke from the heart, found an audience for their humor, and warmly received questions and offered answers.

Am I a little less certain that the students in my English class book clubs have found such an authentic voice. While the students have ownership, there seems to be little at stake for them. Sometimes when I listen to their conversation, it sounds inane. I hear one student recapping for another the events of the previous night’s chapter (groups set and enforce their own goals for reading and participation). They seem often to skip past the “club” aspect and move directly to the reading aloud of the next section. I find myself wondering about the similarities between the two experiences, both of which offer students a voice, yet which seem to produce widely different results.

On opening night of Holiday, the cast and crew of high schoolers assembled after curtain call, inviting questions from the audience. My students were poised and diplomatic, becoming ambassadors for the school drama program and for arts education. I suppose now that an element of trust permitted the opportunity to take such a living shape – as if a still life suddenly danced. Members of the cast transformed themselves twice that night – once for their entrances during the performance, a second time when they spoke up during the Q&A. They heard the questions, listened to each other’s replies, and moved the discussion productively and spontaneously forward.

What occurred on the stage – lively dialogue with others about a drama and their own lives – was it related to the work they do in the classroom daily? If so, why was it so different from my experiences in the classroom that week, where productive dialogue seemed to have frozen into a memento mori, a reminder of death?

Catching myself hurtling toward Holy Week, I consciously slow down to examine the conditions that lead toward dialogue as effective performance in one case, and as poor rehearsal in another. Before leaping ahead to celebrate resurrection, I will benefit by introspection and reflection upon my own teaching. Could unintended differences in my own coaching be the decisive factor in the contrasting ways that two groups of students approach and confront a task? Or did the formal theater setting cause the emergence into light of newly awakened, mature learners who engage with friends and strangers, while the informal routine of book clubs in English class had sealed sleepers in a tomb?

I have tried to provide similar environments for both groups of students: a high degree of accountability to each other, a place where they trust each other and me as they work toward independence; I am neither on stage nor backstage with them during performances and audience interactions, nor contributing as either co-learner or co-leader with them during final book club meetings. Students felt ownership because they had chosen their groups through a try-out process in drama or a vote on book club titles.

But some factors contribute to the differences between the two learning processes: as opening night in theater approaches, nerves are palpable and adrenaline is heightened as actors rise to meet expectations of other actors and the audience; in twice-weekly book clubs the expectations produce less anxiety and demand less trust, feeling more like early rehearsals than final performances. In my role as teacher I have set expectations and established routines for months in both cases, but I may have underestimated the degree to which anticipation of public success drives the effort toward independent practice. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” my place card at C.E.L. 2011 read, “Proverbs 29:18, Leadership Matters.” It is the coach’s role to prepare his students for a successful run, by setting a vision of success – be it a series of book club discussions or a string of performances and dialogues with audience. Finally, I admit the fact that drama participants have chosen theater, but the others have English thrust upon ’em.

Maybe I need to increase the gestation period of the book clubs before rolling away the stone in expectation of metamorphoses. This last quarter, I can be more involved in the group’s decision-making process as they set expectations for new book clubs (having previously allowed them to set their own goals and expectations, with little coaching from the sidelines). I can increase the amount and frequency of feedback I offer during small group discussions as a groundwork for book clubs, by both strict criticism and analysis of their performance of tasks, as I do with rehearsals in drama. I might even allow book clubs as an end-of-unit assessment of what they have learned this year about productive dialogue, so that they engage with each other and me about a text as a part of their final.

I also need to alter my model. Instead of envisioning my students as the dead who may, one Easter morning, emerge from the tomb, I must entrust them with the leadership of others so that they enact Pentecosts and transform society. This shift in view may be suggested in Marilynne Robinson’s new volume on democracy, When I Was A Child I Read Books.

I neWhen I Was a Child I Read Booksed to become the one who emerges a new teacher from the womb of the earth, in order to first equip them to do good work, and then to leave them alone to get it done. I will continue with them from the sidelines, cheering them on. But they need to see that I am not their primary audience, nor are their immediate peers. There is a world outside which they need to become a part of, interact with, commune and communicate with.

I cannot lose sight of the glorious knowledge, however, that in both settings students are finding, rehearsing, and using their voices for authentic purposes in preparation for joining dialogues about art, faith, sports, science, literature, society, education, and history – future and ongoing conversations about what matters to them and us. If a classroom book club or a post-play discussion offers even a glimpse of independent thinking so crucial to a democratic society, most assuredly spring is awakening and I, for one, am changing.

Photo Credit: Sara Zarr  

2 Responses to “opening dialogue”

  1. 1 Susan Berrend
    April 3, 2012 at 2:06 am

    This is my favorite posting yet! I happen to think the greater success in the drama setting was the ‘authentic’ audience that the cast/crew could not dismiss, could not blow off. There is too a shared aspect, very few individuals had to answer a personal question, and even if they did, others were there to deflect the focus if it was uncomfortable. The book clubs are less public, and I wonder how the questions could be more authentic without the stress from unfamiliar participants? If the book clubs were made up of readers from other schools, would that pressure develop more meaningful dialogue?

    • April 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm

      Great idea! Makes me think about revisiting a unit I once did with an assigned book and another class in Georgia. face to face interaction with others outside of comfort zone may be key. Fishbowls might also work here, as the larger audience is, the fewer Qs it’s members can ask, yet the size being larger than ordinary book club ups the ante. the trick is to get students frequently asking high stakes questions that aren’t personal.

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