Friday, April 17, 2015

Making Middle School Even More Dramatic or Using Plays To Teach History

One of the more frustrating things about teaching middle school is their energy. I know we're not supposed to say that, but it can be hard. I would like to be able to talk and not feel like I have to battle for their eye contact. I would like for someone walking by my window not to derail my class for five minutes. And I would like for a simple instruction not to result in the class erupting into conversation.

But it's a silly subject to gripe too much about because it is what we signed up for. A middle school teacher grumbling about dealing with raging hormones is akin to a doctor complaining about sick people. And, despite how difficult they can be, I genuinely believe that their behavior (or misbehavior) does result in better teaching. I would like to think I'd still try to create multiple activities per class that allowed for movement and interaction no matter how my students behaved. But the truth of the matter is that if my students were willing to just sit and listen, I would spend more time talking while they sat.

One teaching approach I've had lots of success with is having them act out what we're learning. I feel like it is a fantastic fit for this age group, capturing their energy and applying it to good use. But that does not mean it has always gone smoothly. I still remember the first time I tried this. I gave groups different subject matters to make into plays. For the entire week there was laughter and engagement. As the week progressed they pleaded for more practice time, which I gave, pleased they were so intent on making quality productions. Then they performed their plays. Each was about twenty seconds long and made little to no sense. I was horrified that I had wasted a week of class time. The following are some ideas I've done since that have worked.

Play + Concept Map
This has worked well for me. I give groups a reading that they will turn into a play. On the first day students read quietly and turn it into a concept map. Over the next few days they get together with their group, plan out their play, decide on whose concept map they will present, and practice. I like this because everyone has had a quiet day to learn the material. Also, by their presentation being a play and a concept map, the audience has two different ways to learn the material.

Competing Plays
A slight twist on the above idea is organizing the activity so that every subject will have two groups acting it out. A major advantage with this format is that it is much more likely that the audience will get to see a good play for each subject. When I do this I  like to turn it into a competition and have the class vote on which group did the better job.

Jigsaw Play
I only did this once, but I really liked it. I gave each group a reading about a different time in Lincoln's life. They performed it in chronological order and we had now acted out Lincoln's life. For continuity, I had the same hat passed from play to play and worn by the student acting as Lincoln.

Write Your Own Play
One time after some mediocre performances,  I decided to write my own play for them to perform. I did this over a few nights and the first draft really wasn't that good: the play included grammatical errors; I had used some vocabulary that was too hard; there were important historical facts I'd forgotten to add...  But it didn't matter. They loved it. We acted it out twice and they begged me to write more.
          Wait, you don't have time? Well, you have come to the right place! (Warning- shameless plug coming) I have a three-book series titled "Acting History." Each book contains six plays, and each play has a vocabulary activity, short-answer questions, and an option for a longer essay. The books cover the Colonial Era to Reconstruction, the Gilded Age to WWII, and the Cold War to today.

Other Considerations
Beware of Props
Students love to make props for the plays. So much so, that if you are not careful, they will spend all their time making the props. They are quite wasteful about them too, using tons of construction paper for an item that they'll be throwing away immediately after their performance. I often ban props or tell students they can only make them after their play is ready.

Don't Give Too Much Time
Having students create plays can be a time suck. I usually err on the side of giving them less time than they need.

Where To Practice
It is often hard to give them a chance to practice. It gets a little crazy when there are six or more  plays being practiced in one room. I have had some luck spreading kids throughout the school hallways. This comes with many caveats of course. Many students can't handle the freedom, you have to be careful not to disturb other classes, etc. But it has gone better than I expected. Perhaps it's because they enjoy acting so much, but I feel they have outperformed my expectations with this freedom. The best situation is if you can borrow the room of a (nice) coworker who has prep that period.

Graphic Organizer
I usually have the audience filling out a graphic organizer as the plays are being performed. (And no, they don't have to fill out the section on their play(which they will ask)). These are usually pretty simple, like "What are three key facts." Students often like to enjoy the plays, and fill it out during the concept map or between performances.

I hope there's an idea you like or are inspired by. Please share if you have any of your own success stories! Failure stories are welcome too!

1 comment:

  1. These are great. Thanks for sharing!