Tag Archives: drama

Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

RPG’s in Education

This morning I was thinking about an activity my 7th grade social studies teacher assigned called the Redwood Controversy. My classmates and I were each given different roles. In order to understand how great this assignment was, I need to preface my description of the activity and my role in it by explaining I was easily the most liberal child in my class. In our class election, I was the lone student who voted for Walter Mondale. I remember going with my parents to the polls, begging them not to vote for Ronald Reagan (I knew they planned to). I remember desperately trying to change their minds. The Redwood Controversy (look: you can buy it here) is essentially an RPG, or role-playing game, in which students are given roles in a senate hearing about a logging company wanting to begin logging on protected forest land. I was outraged. How could a company want to do that? Of course they were in the wrong. Then Ms. Snyder assigned me my role: I was to be the logging company’s attorney. It was a big role. I had to research my position and answer my senator classmates’ questions. I knew the case wasn’t going my way, but as the game progressed, I wanted to win. Even though I didn’t agree with my own position, I was increasingly frustrated by my classmates’ inability to see how reasonable my arguments were.

Well, I didn’t win. The environmentalists won the day in my class. Some few days later, I was called to the assistant principal’s office while I was once again in Ms. Snyder’s class. I was terrified. I had never been called to an administrator’s office for any reason. I couldn’t imagine what I had done. My fear must have shown on my face because I remember he said to me, “I’ll bet you’re wondering what you did.” He reassured me that I was not in trouble. He had a certificate in his hand and he read it to me, presented it to me, and congratulated me. Ms. Snyder had given me an award for my performance in the Redwood Controversy debate. When I went back to class, I remember she caught my eye and gave me a sort of smile. Being recognized for my hard work felt good. I still have the certificate somewhere, and naturally, when I looked for it to include the exact wording here in this post, I couldn’t find it, but I remember Ms. Snyder wrote that I defended my position well without becoming overwhelmed. This learning experience stands out in my mind today as one of my best. I had to think about my arguments and do research about my position. I had to look at an issue from a point of view that differed from my own, which was actually the most important part of the learning experience for me. Taking on a role, especially one I wouldn’t have chosen, taught me a great deal about the environmental issue at hand. It was early exposure to bias, too: I remember seeing some of the materials my classmates had and realizing that the information was presented to them in a much different light in their materials than it was in mine.

My point in bringing it up again (because I’ve written about it before) is that it is easily one of the most memorable learning experiences of my K-12 education. I think I learned more about environmental issues and controversy in that one assignment than I did in the rest of my education experiences, even in college. I still remember it quite clearly. Admittedly I don’t haven’t done any research to back this up, but I am wondering if role-playing gives students an active way to learn that will not only make students learn better but also personalize learning. Any readers have similar experiences with RPG’s? I do intend to see if I can find some research to back up this assumption, and I am sure I’m not the first person to examine the question of how good RPG’s might be for education. After all, I think a lot of us remember playing Oregon Trail in order to learn about what westward expansion was really like for pioneers. However, I haven’t noticed it being used a lot. My current school has Mock Trial, and I know other schools do Model U.N., but I haven’t personally witnessed (or experienced) a lot of teachers harnessing the power of RPG’s, whether computer games or physical games, to teach students. One time in which I used an RPG to great effect was a Thoreau lesson I found on Discovery’s website.

I’m wondering if introducing students to reenactment might not be a great way to pique students’ interest, too. Historical reenactors, such as Civil War Reenactors and Society for Creative Anachronism members, are often viewed as huge history buffs. They read everything they can get their hands on about the time they reenact, but they reach a certain point at which they really want to live it, not just read and learn about it. Rather than being the endpoint of serious historical interest, reenactment could be the gateway for learning. Have any readers taken students to reenactments, had students participate in reenactments, or invited reenactors to school?

Many long-time readers know I have participated in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It took place the week after school let out, and I have never wanted to get back into the classroom so badly the week after school let out as I did that week. I immediately wanted to take everything I had learned back into the classroom. Essentially, drama, RPG’s, and reenactment have many similarities and involve many of the same kinds of thinking skills, decisions, and learning experiences.

I can’t help but think we really need to be doing more with RPG’s in education. Do any of you have resources you can point me toward? Interested in joining me on this research excursion? Might be a good project for a group wiki on RPG’s in education, which could be a collection of ideas, resources, and research citations (wish educational research wasn’t so often behind a paywall).

Are you in?

Prison Performing Arts

My local NPR station broadcast a rerun of This American Life last night that made me stop cold and listen.  The episode, entitled “Act V,” centered around a drama program that serves prisons, exposing inmates to Shakespeare through performance.  Click on the plus sign to listen to the program.

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Stories like this are why I wanted to teach literature.