One of the most important things I've learned about working with middle school kids is what I call layering. I believe that they can do great, great things, but one of the fundamental limits they have is that they can only think of one or two things at once. So, when we have a tech day, it starts at 8:30 with the stage crew. We go over all the set changes and then run it. Then we have the older kids come and run it again. Then we have the younger kids come and run it again.
On Saturday, we use props and lights. On Monday, we do props, lights, and costumes. On Tuesday, we do props, lights, costumes and hair. On Wednesday we do props, costumes and hair and makeup.
When I teach a large musical number, I find if we get the general contours down--or if everyone learns the melody, then it's easier to go back and teach a few kids the harmony or different steps or whatever.
This took me years to learn this approach as in professional theatre it's usually opposite--you basically rehearse everything as it's going to be right from the start. When I started teaching middle school, I had this same orientation, but it never worked that well and over the years, through trial and error (mostly error) I finally figured out the approach I now use which I think of as layering.
I learned this in a theatrical context, but I believe that the principle can be applied to nearly every endeavor where an adult wants a student to accomplish something that is complex and difficult.
As adults, I think we're a bit more accustomed and developmentally able to think in multi-dimensional terms. Middle school kids aren't like that. They need to master one thing. Then you add another. And another. So get the room clean. Then add another small thing. And another. And another--and throw in lots and lots of rewards along the way.
I'm really happy to be part of the blog tour for my Crater Lake: The Battle for Wizard Island by Steve Westover. (Read more about other stops on the blog tour here)
Steve is a talented author and great guy and we share a publisher, so I've enjoyed getting to know him better over the past year or so.
Crater Lake is his second book, his first for younger readers. This is a fantasy adventure for middle grade readers, my favorite genre.
Steve cleverly takes a Native American legend about the formation of Crater Lake--a real location with unique topography.
Crater Lake is fun and original. If you like this genre, you should definitely check this book out.
You can read more about the book here.
Check out Steve's website here.
It's a beautiful day. Beautiful, beautiful. Nashville in the spring is about how I imagine heaven.
I'm sitting in a park typing this. I'm really excited because I just got word from someone who is going to help me with the book trailer for The Kindling! I think it's going to be pretty cool. I'm goi
As I've mentioned (1,009 times), last week I had the absolute joy of directing 133 students in our school's production of Hello Dolly.
It's such an old-fashioned musical--a musical from the late 60s based on a play from the 1930s about life in the 1890s. Many of the major plot points rest on cultural practices or beliefs that simply don't exist anymore (clerks living with their employer and being fired for going out on the town, matchmakers, widows shocking the world by working and so on). In fact, when I first started rehearsing, I almost felt like I was directing a Shakespeare piece in terms of having to fill the kids in on various cultural and historical details so they could understand what was going on. So much has changed since this musical was produced. So much has changed since my high school performed it in the 80s.
So, why do it? Why do these creaky old shows? I've been thinking a lot about that. My students all want to do Wicked and Hairspray and High School Musical each year (never HSM!!!!!) A lot of other theatre educators choose to do lots of edgy social commentary stuff. So, I'm definitely marching to my own beat here.
My first priority is always to find the play that provides the most opportunities for the most students and that fits the talent profile of a given class—which this play did--I had some boys with great voices. I had some strong altos and very few sopranos. I needed a play with an expandable cast--and so on. Dolly was uniquely suited to these specific needs in many ways. But, logistical demands aside, I believe that there is tremendous value in being acquainted with some of the great works of the past—and that is true in literature, art, music, as well as theatre.
Hello Dolly is not great art. I know that. Even within the genre of musical theatre, it didn't break ground like South Pacific or My Fair Lady or Oklahoma. But it's a well-crafted musical and, at one time, had great appeal and took it's place as the longest running show on Broadway for a time. Even today, audiences still enjoy it. I was amazed at how many people commented on how good they felt as they left the theatre.
So, although I wouldn't call it great art, I do think it's a classic in those terms. Something becomes a classic because generations of people find it funny or poignant or meaningful. It tells us something about the human condition that we find resonant with our own lives.
It is the great bias of the living that they occupy unique, usually uniquely difficult, times. And while it’s true that many things have changed over the years, human nature remains remarkably consistent. The value of a classic is that it helps overcome our bias for now by lifting the curtain of contextual details to reveal something about the human condition.
Some parts of this play are dated, and are linked very specifically to a certain time and place. But there are other parts that are more universal, that deal with concerns humans have expressed as long as we’ve been recording our thoughts: love and loneliness for example.
I believe that at least one purpose of an education is to gain the ability to understand and appreciate a classic—to gain the interpretive tools and background knowledge to allow us to transcend the bias of our contemporary mindset and appreciate and enjoy the classics in any genre or discipline.
The truth is that Hairspray and Wicked are fun shows that have things to say. But the students today need no help to access those. They can do that on their own. And, as wonderful as those shows are, they are only the latest creations in a rich and robust theatrical tradition that spans thousands of years! The job of a teacher is to help unlock this rich heritage.
That is why we still perform old shows like Hello Dolly; On a more elevated level, it's why we read Dickens and Shakespeare and look at pieces by Degas and VanGogh. It’s why we listen to Bach and Beethoven and Handel.
These pieces have shaped our culture and world. They have informed our culture today and they belong to us! And I believe our lives are richer when we have the ability to enjoy and learn from them. That's why I am proudly old-school.
Okay, this isn't a showtune. But I don't have a category for just cool songs. We're working on this song in one of my classes. I always feel so happy and uplifted whenever we work on it. I thought I'd pass it on.
If I were to come into your house and disagree with something you say, that would probably be okay with you. But if I started to cast aspersions on your motives, or devolved into name-calling, that would probably not go over so well. In fact, if I persisted, you would most likely ask me to leave and not invite me back. And you would be right.
This is my blog and it is sort of like an online home. It's not a perfect analogy, I understand that. Nevertheless, I think the same rules apply. If you choose to come here and read and comment, fine. If you disagree with me--fine. If you think something I write isn't funny, or well-written, that's fine, too.
But if you make jumps from disagreeing with what I (or another commenter) write to being insulting, not fine. If you call names or speak in pejorative terms, you are simply not welcome here. I will delete your comment and block future ones.
I've never had any kind of commenting policy on this blog before. I've never needed to. I've loved having readers from a variety of backgrounds, regions, ages, religions, and life experiences. And people have always been great.
But yesterday, that changed. Someone found something I wrote a year ago offensive and posted a link in a discussion group. My traffic went through the roof. Most people came for a minute and left. Perhaps they liked it, perhaps not. But they went their way.
Now, I'm genuinely sorry if anyone was offended, but I re-read the piece three times and didn't see anything I felt was offensive. When I wrote it, I didn't have malicious intent. So, what can I do? I can't apologize for something I didn't intend and something I don't think I did. That would be dishonest and cynical. All I can say is, "I'm really sorry you were offended. That wasn't my intention." I don't know what more I can say.
A few people left comments. One was thoughtful. The commenter disagreed politely--explaining why she (I think it was a she, but I don't know for sure. Sorry if I'm wrong) was troubled by what I wrote. I tried to respond respectfully and explain my intentions. I think and hope we understand each other a little better now. Another commenter made assumptions about my beliefs and the way I live my faith. That's rude, in my opinion, and ineffective in discussions. But her tone was at least civil, so I assumed she was acting in good faith, replied to her and left her comment up. The next commenter was just rude. She assumed bad faith and called names. I deleted her comment.
After that, I just turned the comments off. It was a busy day and I didn't have time to read or reply to comments, was tired of the tone, and decided there was nothing more I could productively say. Since this is my personal blog, I don't feel obligated to provide an unlimited public forum.
I am tired of rude people. A lot of people seem to think that being angry, upset, or offended, entitles them to disregard common courtesy and decency. Many seem to think that disagreeing with them is the same as being offensive. I don't care where you fall on the political spectrum. I don't care how old you are, what gender you are, or where you live. Rudeness is rudeness and there's no excuse for it. Speaking up for what you believe is not license to be rude and seeing something differently is not offensive.
I happen to think that this is one of the more pernicious characteristics of our public discourse and has serious implications for our world.
I can't control what happens in the larger society. But if you want to comment on this blog, please do so in a civil tone. Saying, "I disagree with you completely and here's why..." is fine. "You are an arrogant, stupid jerk..." is not. Implying that someone is an idiot or a knave is not acceptable, either.
I have visited many blogs over the years where people said things I disagreed with--sometimes strenuously. Just the other day, in fact. So, I closed my browser and left. I didn't feel compelled to make a comment in most cases. Frankly, that seems a bit presumptuous to me. But if it was a discussion and I did leave a comment, I tried to do so in a courteous way. You can disagree with someone's position without attacking their motives and character. In those exchanges, I often learned something or at least came to understand someone better.
When I write something, I take responsibility for what I intended to say and for how well I said it. If you think something is badly written, not funny, inaccurate, fine. Writing is highly subjective and I realize not everyone will like or agree with what I say. And if I write something that I feel is actually offensive, I'll apologize. That is the responsibility I assume with this blog.
But I can't--and won't--take responsibility for other people's reactions to what I write. Subjectivity cuts two ways. I can't be responsible for other people's assumptions or the background and frame of mind they bring to reading what I write. I won't argue about my motives or character. If someone chooses to read and comment, then that person assumes responsibility for their responses and must accept that their background and experiences may very well tint their perception of what I write.
Those are the rules for this blog. If you want to abide by them, you are most welcome anytime, like me or not, agree or disagree. If you do not want to abide by them, please leave my virtual home.
I love these pictures from the big finish of the title song of the play (Hello Dolly). I think they capture the joy of the song and the energy of these kids. I'm so proud of them.
Going into the big finish...
And here we go to the big finish
I'm starting to get pictures coming in from the play. What a joyful experience! This one was sent to me by the mother of the leading lady. This was taken as we went over Dolly's notes from our final dress rehearsal.
I don't like the fact that my face appears to have been attacked by scabies/leprosy/excema/dermatitis/psoriasis all at once. Not sure about that. The lighting isn't great for her, either. But I love this picture, and will admit to getting a bit choked up when I see it, because this is what I do. And I find that to be an incredible blessing in my life--one for which I am deeply grateful.
Last week I wrote about a lesson I've learned recently--adapting the means employed to achieving an adult-defined objective with adolescents. The next thing I learned is closely related, but not quite the same and I'm working to try and articulate the difference in my own mind.
Back to my most recent foray into the swampy fields of adolescence: the school play.
The choreographer and I were watching rehearsal a few weeks ago. I told her how much I loved a number that had just happened and she said, "Well, it's not exactly what I taught them, but as long as you like it, I guess that's okay."
The number wasn't wildly different from what she'd taught them--but they had essentially adapted it to fit their own capacity and sensibility. I'm certain it wasn't conscious, but adolescents tend to translate everything into their own terms and also will do what they feel is best. They are particularly agressive about doing this to make something more comfortable.
That can be aggravating--and is sometimes dangerous. Generally speaking, I don't have much patience with schools of thought that see children as being terribly competent in terms of making their own decisions. I think that is romantic, wishful thinking. I think it's pretty clear that many times, adolescents make terrible choices when left to their own devices and adults need to provide very clear guidelines.
But there are times when the stakes aren't terribly high and letting them improvise within those parameters is very productive. Sometimes this might be conscious collaboration or compromise, other times it might be just letting them do it their way--as long as it's reasonably close to what you wanted.
So, last week I suggested letting them come up with the means to meet your objectives. This week, I am suggesting that there are times when being flexible with the end result and letting them suit it to their needs, wants, abilities and so forth can be very helpful.
This means that you not only allow them flexibility to meet certain objectives, you work with them on the means as well as the ends--allowing them to have some say in the final outcome as well as the intermediate steps.
I've found that this is where theatrical brilliance or true learning in the classroom often occurs, incidentally. I provide a scaffolding or foundation for them but then, in a moment of inspiration, frustration, or curiosity, they then change it. Often the result is vastly superior to my original plan. At a minimum, the fact that they have ownership makes them execute the plan far more energetically and happily. As I look back, I see that some more successful parenting moments were also an application of this principle. Often, this is not done in a formal way, through a conversation. That can happen, but usually, I think it happens organically by just backing off a bit and letting them find the path.
No, this is not my audition for "Fat Chefs: The Musical." It's Dolly and me in "Hello Dolly." My fun little cameo with the leading lady.
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