Teaching middle school kids is a special challenge with special rewards. My co-teacher and I opened up our first YPL class at Harrison-Morton Middle School this spring with our usual task: writing a list of ground rules with the students that we could all agree to follow for the duration of the course. We sat down together in a circle and began accumulating the usual list of suggestions (“Listen,” “Support one other,” “Participate,” “Try your best”), and then one student raised her hand and said, “No drama.” “No drama? But this is a drama class,” called out another student. “Aha,” I said. “That’s drama with a capital D. Theater Drama. That’s good Drama. I think she means no bad drama. No fighting or personal issues getting in the way of our work as a class. I think that’s a good idea.” And I wrote it on our list of ground rules: “Make Drama, not drama.”
Two weeks later, we walked into our classroom for our usual YPL class and were immediately confronted with a very unhappy student. “I’m not coming to class today,” she said. “Why not?” “I don’t want to be in the same classroom as her,” she said forcefully, and she pointed to another student. “I got suspended last week because of her. I don’t want to be anywhere near her.” “Well, I can’t let you skip class. You signed up to be here, and you’re going to have to honor that commitment. Besides,” I pointed to our list of ground rules. “You agreed to that list, and so did she. We’re here to make Drama, not drama.” And she begrudgingly joined our circle for check-in.
Our first several activities were rough. She didn’t want to stand for check-in, she wouldn’t look anyone in the eye, and she was resistant to playing Bippety-boppety boo. However, once we started picking up the pace of the game, I saw her trying not to smile. By the time we got to group juggle, she was colluding with her declared enemy to figure out how to beat the challenge of not dropping any balls. When it came time to split up and do some individual writing, she was in a markedly better mood. At the end of the class, it was hard to pull her back into the group, not because she didn’t want to be there, but because she wanted to keep working. Her final check-out that day was, “I don’t want to stop writing,” a declaration delivered with all traces of resentment and classroom feud gone.
This, to me, is what YPL is truly about: creating positive moments of transformation for kids who might struggle in or be resistant to a typical classroom setting. At the end of the day, I am less concerned with what students learn about theater than with what they learn about themselves. In the volatile world of middle school, when students are first becoming aware of and crafting their own identities, theater and play can open up avenues and possibilities that other activities do not. Drama with a capital D can offer a safe and healthy way to channel and transform that personal drama into something decidedly more positive. This is a lesson I intend to take with me into my future teaching, as well as my own life. Whether in middle school or outside of it, I think we can all benefit from the motto so wisely coined by the students at Harrison-Morton: “Make Drama, not drama.”
~ Anna Russell, YPL Teaching Artist