Archive for September, 2011

I planned to devote this blog entry—my first in two weeks—to the Virginia Blackboard User’s Group Conference, which I attended on Friday. But what lingers in my mind today isn’t the conference, it’s the personal narratives that my students presented in class after their draft workshop on Thursday.

To shift students’ focus away from “correcting” their classmates’ writing, I decided to devote the second half of class to Readers’ Theater. After students read and commented on their group members’ drafts, each group chose an essay to perform for the class, assigned parts, and assembled impromptu costumes and props.

To honor the students’ privacy, I won’t reveal any details about their personal narratives; I will simply say that their work left a lasting
impression on me. As readers they offered descriptive rather prescriptive comments, and as performers they gave their stories a life in the classroom that was separate and distinct from the words on the page.

FTP’s The Night of the Iguana

The idea of combining a draft workshop with Readers’ Theater stems from my renewed interest in drama and my recent experiences at  Readers’ Theater performances staged at the Firehouse, including the September 19 reading of The Night of the Iguana, part of Richmond’s Centennial Celebration of Tennessee Williams.

The power of live theater and its influence on my teaching also speaks to my experience at yesterday’s Blackboard conference. Though I use Blackboard on a daily basis—and it’s usually projected on the screen in the classroom at least once during each of my Tuesday-Thursday classes—for me it’s simply a tool: a content management system for content that’s always changing.

During yesterday’s conference sessions, many in the audience divided their attention between the large screens at the front of the room and the small screens in their hands and their laps. In the 1:15 session, I overheard a man say his iPad was attached to his thigh.

More and more I see the need for opportunities to turn away from the screen and to face each other.  Though I don’t agree with many of David Mamet’s sentiments—in particular some of his pronouncements in his latest book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (2011)—I do concur with his notion that people go to the theater to see that real communication between human beings is still possible.  I know for me it’s true. My own return to the theater is in part a response to our increasingly digital lives.

Chop Suey Books, 2913 West Cary Street, Richmond, VA

Local writers gathered for workshops on the second floor of Chop Suey Books this weekend, and in between sessions sipped Tall Bike Coffee on the sidewalk and ordered burgers and hot dogs from store owner/grill master Ward Tefft–all as part of  a 26.2 All-Write, All-Night Writing Marathon and Cook-Out to benefit the Richmond Young Writers.

At Saturday’s opening session, “Write Now,” workshop leader Valley Haggard, Executive Director of Richmond Young Writers, led us through a couple of timed writing exercises from Natalie Goldberg‘s Writing Down the Bones, a book that I read years ago and now realize that I need to revisit.

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film adaptation of the 1947 play / britannica.com.

Early in the afternoon, I left Chop Suey to focus on another writer’s work across the street: To mark the beginning of Richmond’s  Tennessee Williams’ Centennial Celebration, the Byrd Theatre hosted a free screening of A Streetcar Named Desire, introduced by Carol Piersol, Artistic Director of the Firehouse Theatre (and my acting teacher), and John Knapp, Artistic Director of Richmond Triangle Players.

After Streetcar, I returned to Chop Suey and to my own writing, catching the end of a Writing Sampler workshop followed by a free-writing session.  I noticed something that I hadn’t seen earlier in the day. On the curtain that serves as the door to the closet in the back corner of the writing room, someone had pinned a sign that read “Enter the Fort of Solitude.” Throughout the free-writing session, one of the Richmond Young Writers wrote there, behind the curtain.

At the end of the free-writing session, I retreated to my own Fort of Solitude on Grace Street but returned to Carytown before daylight.  On the sidewalk across from Chop Suey,  author Eliezer Sobel led  a small circle of writers through a sunrise meditation and writing session. When we closed our eyes to begin, it was still dark. When we opened our eyes, it was light, and we wrote about 9/11 and other numbers on our brains.

Acting Lessons for Teachers. 2nd Ed. (2007).

I wish I could have read Acting Lessons for Teachers (1994, 2007) in 1990 when I was teaching my first college classes. Robert T. Tauber and Cathy Sargent Mester‘s book would have shown me that my teaching act wasn’t a gimmick but a pedagogical necessity–not simply because I was a twenty-two-year-old who could have passed for seventeen but because all of us who teach are performers.

Despite its title, Acting Lessons for Teachers doesn’t offer tutorials on craft but instead describes the acting strategies that enhance teaching: physical and vocal animation, teacher role-playing, strategic entrances and exits, humor, props, suspense and surprise, and creative use of space. It also presents anecdotes from teachers, both K-12 and college professors, who have successfully employed those strategies in the classroom. Raymond J. Clough, Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at Canisius College, recalls an evening in the mid-1960s when he saw Vincent Price perform a dramatic reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” For Clough, then a young college teacher, Price’s mesmerizing performance served as an epiphany, illustrating the importance of “training the voice” and of “knowing materials cold” (192).

Scott Richardson, Professor of Classics at St. John’s University, recounts how he presents a Viewer Mail segment in his classes to address the relevance of studying a dead language and broader questions regarding the value of higher education (202). To introduce the Greek god Dionysus, he invokes The Rocky Horror Picture Show (203).

While some teachers readily draw on the tools of actors in the classroom, others would rather not identify themselves as performers, believing that focusing on performance emphasizes entertainment over instruction. But all of us who teach–whether we call ourselves performers or not–share the aim of instructing our students, which requires their attention.  Acting Lessons for Teachers shows us how we can capture that attention as an actor would.