Years before I ever became a teacher, I tried my hand at being an actor and found my calling at Chicago’s Second City and iO (formerly known as ImprovOlympic). Those years prepared me more for my teaching career than any masters level education class or National Boards portfolio entry. Using current news to inspire improvisational scenes that we honed on stage, I found my voice in the writer’s circle and on the stage. I remember learning so much from audience reaction, particularly when we got booed. I learned not to fear rejection (as much), how to take a suggestion, and most importantly, how to edit.
I teach mostly freshmen at North Charleston High School today. It’s a grade I love because I get to watch my students become more abstract in their thinking over the course of the school year. Analyzing texts, making inferences, and writing their own complex stories has become a way for me to help them get to a new level of thinking and communicating. Playwriting has become a powerful way to tell any type of story. I have found that students who have spoken in class only when prodded will raise their hands to read a script; even the quiet ones will want to be heard.
This year, via Donors Choose — an organization that allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects — many generous community members enabled me to fund PURE Theatre’s Rodney Lee Rogers to teach playwriting to my classes. Our theater experience, coupled with the way he taught my students to conceive a story, resulted in the most meaningful bunch of student plays I’ve ever read. Rogers has a resume in both acting, directing, and teaching writing that is quite impressive.
Rodney, as he preferred our students called him, made my students reach and think about the psychology behind characterization. We discussed empathy and visualization, and by the end of the residency, they were talking like actors and directors. Rodney called it ‘making the movie in their heads.’ Together, we taught them to make sure the details flowed together — that the plot chart worked and their characters made decisions that made sense.
My favorite thing about writing these plays with students was the edit ing process. One student sent us 10 drafts of his play. With every revision, Rodney encouraged the young playwright to play with punctuation “in order to show the actor how to talk.” By switching from textbooks and test prep to creative writing and reflection, students started thinking about language and conventions in new ways. We got questions like “OK, if I use an ellipsis here to trail off, but then a dash to show he’s being interrupted … that works, right?”
When I first was hired to work at NCHS, quite a few people apologized to me about my new school. I got a lot of: “Oh, that must be so hard,” or, “You must be really tough.” The truth is, all teaching jobs have their challenges. I wish there had been a video camera to document this process, so instead of that tired old “dangerous school” reputation, people in our community would see the truth about our students. On days when the students had time to write, I saw lots of furrowed brows, frenzied pencils, and quiet rooms (only the tap-tap-tapping of computer keys). It wasn’t because we made them act like that; it was because they cared and they had something they wanted to share.
This past May 14th, members of PURE’s core ensemble acted with students and read 28 plays (144 pages total) in two and a half hours. There is nothing like hearing your work read by professionals to let you know what works and what doesn’t. Students clutched copies of their formatted scripts, adding new notes and saying things that any writing teacher would love to hear, like “I think I’ll change that when I go back to it.”
Even though the unit is over, they want to go back to it. To keep revising and editing because they consider themselves playwrights, not students working for a grade.
When students write plays, they realize their voices are important. And after reflecting on this past school year, I keep coming back to what Rodney told our students: Everyone has a story.
Once upon a time, I had a group of new freshman students. They learned to write and communicate in a way that would meet state and national standards. Until one day, Rodney Lee Rogers visited as an artist in residence. Ever since that day, they have stretched their minds and opened their hearts to other people’s stories. Finally, they ended their school year with compassion and empathy for both fictional and real tales. Because of this experience, some have become more brave, and others have become more tolerant. And they all consider themselves writers.
Stacy McKinley is an English teacher at North Charleston High School.