At least once a week, I read of a teacher asking help with, “My beginning theater class is open to all students in the school. However, it has become a dumping ground with students completely disinterested in theater and the study of it. At the same time, I have students who are sincerely interested in the subject in the same class. What do I do?” Today, I’m going to talk about Ten Ways to Teach Reluctant Students in Your Theater Class.
I know this challenge all too well myself. Several times in my career, I had students placed in my classroom because the administration thought I demonstrated skill in reaching all students and could reach these students as well.
Do you have any idea how heavy the weight of responsibility for teaching to reluctant students is? Teaching is difficult enough and a theater class poses its own challenges that not everyone is aware of. For instance, when one acts they must share their feelings, real feelings. That’s can be scary for even the most ardent theater student.
Simply put, you need to outsmart your reluctant students. Remember, you are the professional here. You’ve got what it takes to be successful (albeit tiring). Wonder how I got to where I am today? Check out: How Theatre Saved My Life
Teach Reluctant Students
- You need to survey each and every class to discover whether they are interested in theater or not. This is true of anyone who teaches any electives from industrial education to art as well as theater. By surveying the students (through a questionnaire on-line or hard copy) you’ll find out their interest level (because you will ask it) and what they hope to learn in the class.
- After you’ve studied the students’ questionnaire, you can now shape your lessons accordingly. Does this take more time than what you would usually do? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes! It is better to know your audience (because that’s what they are, essentially) than not and spend most of the year frustrated with their lack of engagement.
- Use a game as a warm-up. Most students love a game so I recommend playing one at the beginning of each class. For some students, it is the delight of their day (although they may never share this with you) and it lifts the burden for you always having to teach a concept. Let the game teach them. Also, playing a game makes class fun no matter the outcome. Start with something simple like the Ball Game (Don’t know it? pick it up here). The Ball Game can be played with students of any grade level. Games give students an opportunity to get to know one another without the stress of a face to face conversation. As the quarter progresses the games you can select games which are more difficult. By the last month of the semester, you should have no problem using an improvisation exercise as a warm-up.
- Minimize your students’ worries. Through the questionnaire, you should have a better grasp about what they think theater is as opposed to what it actually is. They may think theater is standing on a stage, wearing a costume (the student may dislike), wearing makeup (even the boys), memorizing gobs of lines and speaking at a volume for the entire class to hear.
Let’s not start there if that’s the case. Let’s do some theater appreciation instead. Show them video clips of theaters around the world and either have a class discussion of each theater or give them questions to answer. Here is what I mean: Theaters Around the World.
Teaching Reluctant Students
- Study technical theater with them--set, sound, stage properties, stage makeup or costume design. Many students just need a backdoor into the subject. Technical theater is nonthreatening. Most assignments are meant to be completed individually and not with a group. This helps those students who do not speak English as their first language, especially. I really enjoy teaching technical theater. Through its study, I usually find a student who no one knew very well that turns out to be a fabulous artist! Their creativity and talent can shine in technical theater and suddenly the other student take note of them. It’s awesome. Here are a few technical theater units which may help you: Technical Theater Units or begin with Set Design, the Rendering
- Readers theater is a good choice for your class. Readers theater is successful in a class with various levels of interest, because there is no line memorization, no costumes, etc. Everyone sits together on the stage, so there’s that “safety in numbers” thing. Plus, if you wait until near the end of the second quarter, readers theater should not be difficult for your reluctant ones. You’ve given them plenty of time to adjust to the class. Here’s a funny script for them: The Brave Little Tailor Unit. Great for grades 5 to 7.
- Radio theater is a super choice, too. Personally, I think radio theater has everything a play does! That’s the reason I suggest it to teachers. Radio theater is highly imaginative from the many character voices actors create to the sound effects. Plus, it is a super tool for strengthening reading skills! It is easy to keep everyone involved, because they are on the stage the entire length of the piece. It can be as simple or as theatrical as you like. And yet again–no line memorization! This is another unit I would teach near the end of the semester or year. If you are interested in radio theater, check out: Radio Theater Units and Lessons Don’t know how to direct one? Go here and pick up all of the training you need: How to Direct Radio Theater
- Use movement exercises instead of acting ones. Movement takes no sound and no verbal reaction. Students like the physical activity, too. The Magic Circle is a good exercise to use for movement. (Don’t know it? Pick it up here)
- Turn down your classroom lights. You won’t believe how dimming the lights will ease students’ anxieties. You just want the classroom light to be dim–light enough you can everyone but no so dark you can’t keep an eye out for any inappropriate behavior.
- Play some classical music in the background. Classical music works because there are no lyrics for the students to notice. It can express mood without anyone saying anything. I think of it like a comforting blanket. In those awkward moments in a game, acting exercise or lesson they can help ease any anxiety that rears its ugly head.
Advice for the Core Subject Teachers
Many of the suggestions I’ve made above work strictly in a theater classroom. Some of them will work for you as well.
Here are a couple of other suggestions for you:
Sometimes our students just need space away from others. Offer that space in your classroom if a student needs it. You want them to feel safe and accepted in your classroom. I say as long as they are focused on their work, this is acceptable.
Giving students choices is always a great idea, too. Remember you have worked out the choices ahead of time so you are comfortable with whether they select once choice over another. Choice Boards are super for this. Here are some of mine as an example. This bundle is very popular with teachers: Choice Boards
You can even pick up a sample of them right here.
So, there you have it! Teaching is a wonderful profession when everyone is treated with respect. Even the reluctant students can learn that respecting your art form is possible and believe it or not–enjoyable! I discovered that once my students knew I had their back and understood them feigning disinterest in theater, I could work with them. Lots of times, it’s just noise on their part. Remember that–it’s just noise.
I’d love to know what you’ve found is successful with reluctant students in your classroom? Contact me at DhcBaldwin@gmail.com.