Third Graders Take the Stage

November 28, 2016

I know it’s the beginning of the school year when I see my third graders, standing in the music room, ready to rehearse. The year always begins with the third grade play. At Tapscott, drama cycles through the second, third, and fourth grades, each culminating in their own public performance. The third graders are lucky; they have a year of drama under their belts and kick off the start of school with rehearsals and a fall performance.

The topics of the plays are not chosen at random. I collaborate closely with each lead teacher to decide which topics might resonate best with each group. Last year, all the third grade plays were based on tales and myths from local Native American tribes like the Ohlone. Play topics are a great tool to deepen the understanding of a curriculum or address topics that benefit from being taught through the arts. For instance, dramatizing conflict is a major way the Toolbox Program teaches students how to recognize and regulate emotions.

This year, the content of the plays is focused on celebrating our differences and having empathy for others. Four picture books were chosen based on their message, adaptability to the stage, and maximum opportunities for shared stage time. From there, the scripts were written, roles were assigned, and rehearsals begun.

Role assignments aren’t random either. What I normally like to tell my students (as terrifying as it may sound) is that their “audition” started when they walk in the door. Their ability to work together, take direction, try new things, and work hard are the most important factors considered when assigning roles.

In rehearsal, students are immediately met with tasks that challenge them in a variety of ways. Students must increase their spatial awareness of the body as it is presented to the audience and the other actors onstage. Students must perform complicated sequencing to keep track of the plot, scenes, and where they need to be when. They must work independently on their individual role while working closely with others to make a scene. They must battle stage fright, not just in front of their peers, but also before the audience of parents and staff.

Students must have empathy for performing roles that are not like themselves. My favorite story from this year was when I cast a student to play a mean character. He struggled to perform the role because he didn’t see himself as a bully and didn’t want to even act like one. I reassured him that it was only acting and that he could leave the bully persona behind once the play was over. Students are also required to bring an immense amount of focus to rehearsal; their brains are highly engaged due to the structure of dramatic play and the important role this has in developing their executive functioning skills.

Students must be emotionally skilled in tapping into appropriate emotions for the purposes of acting, and how to express them. Students must read, memorize, comprehend, and execute their lines “in character” which develops a deeper form of literacy that simply reading aloud does not. Students who normally love being the center of attention may need to learn how to step back to let others shine. Students on the shy side push themselves to have loud voices and expressions. And I haven’t even touched upon the joys and benefits of creative outlets and artistic collaboration. The list goes on!

Each play is unique despite sharing an overall message. All four plays have transformed the original script to plays that are unique to each group. Third graders have added their own humor, acting, choreography, music, accents, and lines that not only color the plays with a third grade hue, but also give the students a stronger sense of ownership.

Our third graders have been working hard since the beginning of the school year to put together their play. It has not been an easy task, but it has been a rewarding one. They will not be perfect. Some students will forget their lines and possibly their props. There will be one student who you can’t hear, maybe another who will miss an entrance. But it wouldn’t be a school play otherwise. And it is through this practice, with both success and failure, that our learning deepens.

Maggie Manzano-Mallison, Elementary Drama Teacher