I knew at a young age I wanted to be a teacher. I also knew I wanted to continue my passion for theater. When I was accepted to the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I declared a major in Elementary Education with a Theater Arts minor. It was the best of both worlds for me. I remember sitting in on several meetings with my college advisor my first few years. She was less than impressed with my choice of minor. She was convinced I needed to switch to a more specific area of academic focus like math, reading, or special education or risk being an unfavorable candidate for employment.
Perhaps I knew what I was doing, or perhaps I was just being stubborn, but I stayed the course, determined to prove that my experiences on the stage would positively contribute to my time in the classroom. Not to mention, I got to spend more time doing something I love. That’s what school should be about – exploring personal interests, right?
Fast forward about ten years. I just completed my eighth year of teaching, and this summer I spent my first week off at an Arts-Integration Conference in Madison, WI, hosted through the Innovative Schools Network. It is a conference I attended last year and really enjoyed, so I was really looking forward to seeing what this year’s speakers and workshops had to offer.
The final session I attended was called “Using Drama as a Tool for Classroom Management.” Led by Arts Integration Consultant, Sean Layne, I want to say the three-hour session changed my life, but it didn’t. It finally confirmed what I had known all along – how powerful theater and drama techniques can be in the classroom. Drama offers an outlet for creative expression and an opportunity to safely explore thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It teaches discipline and self-control. It sharpens one’s ability to respond to unexpected circumstances. It improves communication and interpersonal skills while building confidence and a better understanding of oneself, as well as the perspectives of others.
At the conclusion of the session and the conference, I left the beautiful Overture Center, walked down the street, got into my vehicle, and cried. I spent the next two-and-a-half hour drive home reflecting on what I had just experienced and devising a plan for a new class idea for the coming school year. Though I do not yet know what to call it or how best to describe it, I plan to lead one class period every day for all of my students where we use drama, team-building, and reflection to build confidence and character.
As I continue to build on the idea of this new class, I’m also continuing one of my summer passion projects of reading various titles. One such title is Sean Layne’s book (the leader of the drama workshop I attended) called “Acting Right: Building a Cooperative, Collaborative, Creative, Classroom Community Through Drama.” The book highlights each strategy covered in the workshop in more detail with profound thoughts on why behavior is something we should not expect our students to know, understand, and be able to exhibit. Just like math or reading, behavior is something that needs to be taught. So instead of reacting to unexpected or inappropriate behaviors, Layne’s book emphasizes the need to proactively teach proper behavior expectations and impulse-control through various drama techniques and strategies.
Another title I just took with me to my cabin-getaway this past week is called “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do is Wrong” written by Ira Chaleff. Using the premise behind guide-dog training, where a dog is specifically trained to disobey an order if the order should put the “team” (person and dog) in harm’s way, Chaleff explores the idea of applying this idea of intelligent disobedience to people. In a world where we raise children to do as they’re told, to respect their elders, and to comply with people in authority, we need to be preparing our youth to be able to face the world with a careful, critical eye and to be able to communicate their thinking and feelings in a clear and confident way.
I do not wish to imply that we should be teaching our youth to question everything and everyone around them or to disobey orders or expectations pressed upon them. In order to best communicate my summary from above, I’m going to share an excerpt from the book below which demonstrates a prime example of where intelligent disobedience was critical.
“She had been a young nurse, fresh out of nursing school and assigned to a hospital emergency room. A cardiac patient was rushed in. After a quick assessment, the emergency room physician ordered her to administer the medication he judged the patient needed. She was stunned because she had been taught that this particular medication carried grave risks for a cardiac patient.
For a moment, put yourself in her shoes – in those days, probably uniform white shoes. This was an era when nearly all physicians were male, all nurses female, so the gender-based inequality of power was pronounce. The physician was older and more experienced, so this added to the perceived power differential. And, after all, he was a physician, with years more training than she had! Can you feel how many social forces were at work pushing her to snap to and do what she was told? Can you sense the time pressure to act one way or another with a cardiac patient’s life at stake?”
The nurse works up the courage to voice her concern to the physician only to be told, “You just do it!” In the end, she hooks up the IV bag to the patient with the injected medication the doctor ordered but does not open the valve. Instead, she calls the doctor over and tells him everything is ready to go, but that he would need to be the one to administer the medication because it violated her training. It stopped the doctor in his tracks just long enough for him to rethink his decision and other potential options. He quickly changed his order to a different medication, and the patient made a full recovery.
I realize not everyone is going to be faced with literal life-or-death decisions like this one, but Chaleff offers example after example of scenarios in which people have or should have used their gut to intelligently disobey orders given to them. Being comfortable executing such a skill takes teaching and practice – another addition to my new class.
There is so much I want to instill in my students – so much I want to teach that stretches far beyond the academic content every teacher is expected to cover each year. This class is not about academics. It is about each and every person in the room at the time. It will be about building confidence, self-awareness and worth, and essential skills helpful in facing life’s encounters. Oh, and of course I’m going to use drama to teach it!
Looking back at my first years of college, I’m glad I had the guts to intelligently disobey the orders of my college advisor and stay the course. Who knows where I would be today if I hadn’t?