The Play’s The Thing: Human-Centered Learned In The Time Of Social Distancing
Five middle-school students encircle a load of lumber in the STEM Shop. “What’s the scale factor again? Hand me the tape measure.”
Five students, different in all the ways, from different friend groups, levels of enthusiasm, experience with power tools, to racial and gender identities.
They are abuzz with the energy of being physically back together, with physical materials at long last. After seeking input from mentors at Long Wharf Theatre, building scale models, and calculating the cost of materials, they are eager to FINALLY build. With tools in hand, they ascend upon the lumber to assemble a theatrical flat.
“It’s their turn.” A look of delight as a 7th grader uses a power tool for the first time. The other four cheer them on. Unprompted, the team divides the remaining number of screws by the number of students to ensure equitable division of labor… all while maintaining their six feet of distance.
This is just a glimpse of what learning is like at ATLAS Middle School, where we connect our academic work to the theatrical process. This is what learning should be—even during a pandemic.
The worlds of education and theatre experienced similar obstacles when COVID struck over a year ago. Teachers and artists everywhere raced to move years of in-person practice and expertise to an online format. Those who were able to quickly articulate their priorities, and make choices centering those priorities, flourished. In many ways, despite it being our launch year as a theatre-based school in a time when theatres went dark and schools closed, ATLAS was luckier than most. Our legwork at the beginning of the year created a tight-knit, compassionate learning community. Our trust for one another allowed us to continue authentic work even while quarantined in our homes. We knew right away what we needed to prioritize in order to keep our company thriving: theatre-based, human-centered, anti-bias/anti-racist learning. These core values kept our students motivated and engaged throughout the spring and into the fall.
“The play’s the thing” has never been more true. As we in theatre know, collaborating to mount a production is a feeling like no other. The “company spirit” is the social-emotional foothold that so many in middle school desperately need – especially in the time of social distancing. Inevitably, the magic of theatre motivates our students to make deeper connections to their learning. This was true even through Zoom. And why is that?
- Theatre is generative. Theatre easily ties into all aspects of a traditional middle school curriculum. The text provides endless opportunities for close reading and writing work. Dramaturgy draws a map for studying history and social studies themes. Stagecraft applies mathematical thinking and engineering skills. Asking questions about the world of the play opens doors to scientific inquiry.
- Theatre is an outlet for creativity. Designing costumes, sets, sound, lighting, and graphics gives students endless opportunities for artistic study and expression. Learning to work within constraints of space, budget, and materials gives young people real-world practice in creative thinking. When faced with the ultimate constraints of the pandemic, our student company used creative thinking to mount one of the first fully virtual productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This fall, when life threw us masks and distancing, our students creatively used giant puppets and masks, and a vast range of artistic media to raise awareness about voting rights history in the US.
- Theatre builds empathy. Students learn to step into the shoes of characters with different identities and experiences to understand their stories. Sharing these stories with an audience builds our community’s collective empathy. During middle school especially, when the social dynamics determine so much of one’s daily experience, the ability to take another’s perspective is crucial for combating adolescent judgement.
- Students have a voice. Every member of a theatre company is crucial to the success of a production. A democratically-run company must learn to incorporate the varied ideas of its members to create a cohesive show. Our company meetings provide a forum for discussing the needs of the group, reflecting on our process, and taking necessary actions. It is often within these spaces that we hear students grapple with big questions. How can our theatre company impact the election if we can’t vote? Why is it important to get our work handed in on time? Whose voice is being heard most loudly in our class debates? Why?
- Audiences provide built in accountability. What’s more “high stakes” than opening night with a talk-back? Can the actors explain the character’s development? Can the costume designer speak to the fashion of a specific time period? Can the company connect the themes of the play to current events? The act of sharing creates an authentic purpose for doing the work, and a sense of collective responsibility.
Without the play, it’s easy to lose ourselves to by-the-numbers learning, falling back into long-practiced patterns and pitfalls of regular schooling.
Our students (and teachers!) are complex individuals living through a complex time. Despite the circumstances, many schools have been pressured to continue on with “pacelines” tied to a standardized curricula that ignores the complexity of humans in the regular classroom. In the Zoom room, this standardized approach is even more dehumanizing. The full range of interests, needs, and emotions of our young people should not be ignored for the sake of “achievement” in typical times, and are even more important to honor in a time of collective trauma.
How can schools create space for conversation, healing, and connection in physical or virtual formats? A look to a common opening practice of theatre rehearsal is a place to start. At ATLAS, our daily check-ins and circle meetings center human connection. We open by sharing our names and pronouns. Each morning begins with a question that ranges from middle-school absurd (Would you rather eat only pizza forever or never eat pizza again?) to deeply revealing (What is your emotional weather today? What do you feel most grateful for?). We then activate our physical selves with a warm-up, and engage in a theatre game to play and connect with one another.
This sets the stage for a day of learning that continues to honor the individual identities and needs of our company members. Class assignments offer different options for sharing knowledge. A student may write a traditional five paragraph essay to answer the question of “What motivates your character, and how do they change throughout the story?” or compose and present a piece of music instead. Every student applies and auditions for roles that jive with their passions or stretch them in just the right way. Often, when given the wide berth to determine their own pathway, the young person who loves organization and hates public speaking may shine as a stage manager in one play, and choose to try the spotlight in the next.
Human-centered education requires flexibility and responsiveness based on student and family feedback. Because in-the-moment adjustments were central to the ATLAS ethos from the get-go, we have remained agile throughout the pandemic, incorporating students and caretakers into the ongoing design of our model—adjusting screen time here, and adding a mental-health day there.
We are humans learning and creating in a space together.
The result: our students WANT to come to school, and bring their full selves!
When COVID disrupted our educational model, it afforded us a unique opportunity to step back and consider what else needed reinventing. What did we need to make ATLAS what we truly wanted it to be? Inspired by local activists, theatres, and institutions like Long Wharf Theatre, and guided by Kristianna Smith of Via-Arts, we reflected on our values as a school. If we valued human-centered learning, then we needed to do more to value the humans in the room. As white women leading a school in which 40% students who identify as BIPOC, the questions became:
Who were we centering?
Those with internet? Neurotypical learners? White families?
Examining our structures and school culture revealed opportunities to move away from harmful practices, recommit to Restorative and Transformative Justice, and create multiple pathways of learning for families to choose between during the pandemic.
After internal work as adults, we activated our student company and families to view all of our curricular choices and actions through an ABAR (anti-bias antiracist) lens. After analyzing fellow theatre’s statements, readings, and many discussions and iterations, our 7th and 8th graders finalized their mission statement:
ATLAS Middle School is an inclusive, anti biased/antiracist theatre company that defends equity and justice, advocates for change, and supports student voice while educating ourselves and others about our world.
It was with this mission in mind that our students coordinated their get-out-the-vote giant puppet parade in October, created a multimedia virtual production examining voting rights in the United States in December, and this spring embarked upon the journey of mounting an Afrofuturist production of The Wiz. The study of this historical production is contextualized within the current fight for racial justice in our country.
Even more important to our mission are the daily interactions that hold one another accountable. Understanding each of our roles in our company based on our privileges and power dynamics is the most important work of all. We are not (nor will we ever be!) perfect in our actions, but moving towards this collective vision and mission energizes us all to strive to collectively build a better school and a better future.
Piece by piece, the students construct the set. Each plays a key role in the process, each contributing to building the world of the play. They step back to admire their work, air high-fiving from a distance, and smiling beneath their masks. One piece at a time, they will set the stage for their company to shine.
Maria Giarrizzo-Bartz & Caroline Golschneider
Maria Giarrizzo-Bartz & Caroline Golschneider are the founders and co-directors of ATLAS Middle School (Academic Theatre Lab on Audubon Street). They share a passion for arts-based education, a love of New Haven, and a commitment to social justice.