Lower School News & Stories
Since the creation of the Lower School drama program more than 20 years ago, the goal of the program has been to reinforce and support the learning process of Riverdale’s youngest students by using drama and theater to explore their curriculum and to develop their public speaking skills. But this year, the fifth grade team took that process even further by not just putting on a class play, but actually creating their own production, start to finish. This included researching and writing each production; collaborating with the drama teachers on scenery, costumes, props, music, and video presentation; and creating a Playbill to accompany each performance.
Michelle Berti, one of three Lower School drama teachers, explains that she and her fellow drama teachers met with all six of the fifth-grade co-teachers to discuss what curricular topics would best fit the devising process, a process in which the actors (in this case, the fifth graders) are led by facilitators (the teachers) in creating original performance pieces based on a chosen topic or theme. “This was a huge leap of faith by the fifth-grade team, who have never experienced a process like this before. Their support and collaboration was integral to the success of the devising process,” Berti notes, adding, “They willingly adapted their teaching styles to provide this learning experience for their students, which ultimately led to the success of the program.”
“We knew that our students would be diving into history this year, starting with studying the causes of the American Revolution and then studying slavery, focusing on Virginia in 1850,” says Richard Layne, a fifth-grade co-teacher. “And, we knew that we would be placing a heavy emphasis on writing about history and imagining the lives of people in Boston before the Revolution and in Virginia before the Civil War. For us, the study of history and the discipline of writing about history came together in writing a play about a very specific time in the history of slavery in America. It seemed natural that our students should write their own play, Faces of Slavery: Richmond, Va., 1850.” Class 5MP’s play, The Common People of the Revolution, “was a melodramatic kaleidoscope with four separate scenarios,” says Lower School drama teacher Mary Beth Coudal. “The overarching themes were of children’s resilience in the face of the obstacles of slavery, a lack of education for girls, family illness, and war.” Class 5CP’s play, Journey to Freedom, also featured four scenes: “Passage to Freedom,” about children escaping slavery; “Free the Children,” about protesting child labor; “Riding the Bus,” bringing to life Rosa Parks’ and Claudette Colvin’s bus boycott to protest segregation; and “Birmingham March,” showing how children raised their voices to eliminate segregation in a non-violent way.
For the students—who were used to being handed a script—the idea of creating a class play that was truly their own was both exciting and frightening. “The students hadn’t seen this process before and were afraid to trust it,” says Berti. “We had to do a lot of reassuring and calming of nerves as we guided them along. One of the greatest rewards in the end was having the students who tentatively entered into this project walk away with pride.”
While the children were unsure of themselves, the three drama teachers never doubted that they were ready to take on the challenge of creating a class production. “We all felt that by fifth grade, the students had already embraced the techniques that we instill in the kids through the drama process throughout the Lower School years: becoming a different character, projecting voices, relating to one another with dialogue,” explains Taifa Harris, another Lower School drama teacher. “We wanted the students to have a real investment and hands-on responsibility in what story they wanted to tell. We in turn made them teachers in their own right as they were learning; they were teaching each other as well as their audience.”
Working through the creative process together
Each class began the process by drawing up a contract they created themselves. “We posted it on the classroom wall and always referred back to it in order to keep the students accountable to each other and to us,” says Harris. “It was important to make sure they felt safe and free to share their opinions and trust their own creativity.”
Each of the three drama teachers was assigned to a fifth-grade class so they could work hand-in-hand with the classroom’s co-teachers to lead students through the devising process to explore the themes and topics of the fifth-grade social studies curriculum, including the Revolutionary War, the creation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the common man, slavery, the Civil War, and activism. “The goal was to turn the fifth-grade social studies curriculum into a personal, first-hand experience,” says Berti. The students participated in the techniques used to devise original performance pieces, including improvisation, pantomime, tableau, soundscaping, hotseating, role-on-the-wall, reenactments, town meetings, journaling, and creative writing. “Students were given the opportunity to safely debate—both in-role and out of role—the issues of the history they were learning. From this work, the students began to piece together scenes, monologues, and images that would finally become their completely student-created plays,” Berti adds.
In February, when the students were scheduled to present their work, everyone (students and teachers alike) dove in, full force, to bring their work together. Students and teachers were editing at night, together, using Google docs; video presentations were prepared; costumes and props were discussed and organized; and Playbills were created with the help of John Mueser, a Lower School STEAM teacher. “It was the ultimate project-based learning experience,” Berti notes. “The students got involved in everything. When the work was completed and the students performed what they had created, it was clear that a new level of learning had been accomplished. The students didn’t just perform characters from a play, they became the characters they created. They empathized; they understood; they cared. These stories were now their stories. The new fifth-grade drama devising curriculum accomplished what we had set out to do: to show the students, through their experience, that they can achieve anything and that their voices and ideas can impact the world around them in the same way our ancestors have.”
Berti concludes, “The happy outcome from this project is that the fifth-grade students all succeeded and our community got to see that this process works. Now the younger students are eagerly asking us if they will get to do it when they are in fifth grade, too."