Teach Like An Artist – 4 Easy Ways to Add Some Theatrical Greatness Into Your Day

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It’s fairly safe to say that the arts are one of the most compelling inventions our little species has created. Theater, dance, music, painting, sculpture; they all serve to deeply express what it means to be human and reflect that which we hold most dear. As teachers, we’ve long ago discovered that exploring art in the classroom can take almost any lesson from average to awesome.

There’s massive amounts of evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, showing that Arts Integration (students learning core curricular subjects through the arts) is extremely beneficial for a myriad of reasons including heightened engagement, increased retention, greater ability to make meaningful connections, opportunities for creative collaboration, and more.

But as much as we love art for all of these reasons, the reality is that funding and resources for arts education in most of our schools aren’t exactly a fount that runneth over into a giant pool of acrylic paint abundance. The average school has few art professionals on staff, and those present are overloaded with classes of their own, leaving them little time to collaborate with core teachers in the quest to help them infuse artistic magic into their lesson ideas.

Despite this, there are several easy ways in which we as teachers can inject some meaningful arts exploration, and even assessment into our day. Here is a list of questions to consider as you plan your next lesson or unit, that will help to easily add some meaningful artistic expression through the practice of drama!

Instead of being ‘one more thing’ that needs to be taught, these questions can take the concepts and skills that you are already teaching and help you easily teach them in a whole new way; boosting your students’ engagement levels, your enjoyment levels, and allowing you to teach two (or more!) subjects at once – possibly earning you the Guinness world record for “Most Standards Covered by a Single Lesson.” 

Look at you go.

Questions to ask of your content: The Drama Edition!

Drama is often my favorite style of art to integrate into the classroom for many reasons; it is massively versatile, encourages/requires collaboration, promotes the development of empathy, enhances public speaking skills, and doesn’t require any supplies……which means little clean up, and even less prep – two things that take me to indescribable levels of teacher-happiness.

To easily and effectively infuse some theatrical concepts/skills, ask yourself these questions while planning a unit:

1. What characters, people, vocabulary words, or concepts can they bring to life by acting them out?

Think about incorporating some simple group activities that allow the kids to either improvise scenes or write and perform them. Kids can create scenes based on characters in books, events in history, alternative endings to things they’ve read, scenes predicting what they think will happen next or using vocabulary words as titles (my personal favorite).

2. What non-human things can they personify/animate?

Scenes can be created about the water cycle, the nervous system, the periodic table of elements, have them focus on what voice they think these objects would have. Would they be big or small? Kind or intimidating? How would/does it interact with those around it? Did Pluto bust his way back onstage to staunchly declare that he IS a real planet? How would that play out with the other planets?  Having them focus specifically on attributing human characteristics to non-human objects, concepts, or events helps them to gain a deeper level of understanding and connection to what they are studying. (My favorite example was a student who created a monologue in which he was the Civil War….not a soldier or political figure, but the actual War itself. He talked about being confused and in conflict with himself, full of cruelty, yet secretly sorrowful that he had to kill his brothers; he stated that he wasn’t always sure exactly what he was fighting for….it was a great moment of 9th-grade brilliance.)

3. Are there any two opposing forces at work in this concept/lesson that can be dramatized?

At its core, does your lesson/topic include good vs. evil, fire vs. water, hot vs. cold (either emotional or literal), the powerful and the powerless?  Any contrast can be turned into debates, speeches, mock rallies, dramatized fairy tales, etc.

4. Can the students dramatize or create a caricature of the “wrong way”?

I HATE the entire act of diagramming sentences, instead of this I have had students form groups and write examples of the worst possible sentences they could come up with, grammar-wise, and I declare them the Society of Misguided Know-it-Alls. They then have to come up and give very over dramatized readings of these horrible sentences while writing them on the board; the class works to analyze and correct them. All while the group that is up attempts to stay in character. By doing it wrong first, and playing editor for others, it helps the students feel like authorities on the subject and guides their own self-editing in the future

A note on performance:

If the students are shy or reticent about getting up in front of their peers a few strategies greatly help this; 

  • Build simple theater games into the first 5 minutes of class. The more they play them, the better they get, which builds confidence; the more confidence they have, the more their anxiety will begin to ebb because they have slowly become a part of a community that performs. And that’s tremendously powerful.
  • Consider letting the students record their final products as a radio show; simply letting them record a dramatized version of their work into a smartphone and playing for the class through external speakers is a very simple way to ease them into performing. After this is done for the first project or two, they should be more willing to get up and perform for subsequent projects. The art of recording still teaches them about voice, inflection, expressiveness and effective communication. And they can have fun creating sound effects as well!

Happy Teaching!  As my favorite principal used to say:

The more you add in levity, the more you keep your sanity.”

Make it a great one!

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Check out the video below describing these activities in more detail! And always remember how beautifully brilliant you are!


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Ebony A Mills

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Hey! I am a tacher of ELA, Drama and History with a passion for getting kids to push their own limits through the realms of performance and public speaking. I'm always working on ways to help teachers incorporate the arts into any and every subject with reusable lesson ideas through my fledgling company,  Geniused Education. Native of sunny California; graduate of UCLA and Boston College; teacher of all things literary; performer of all things comedic; singer of all things jazzy (....secret lover of all things nerdy)

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