The fifth grade class worked with quiet intensity, spread about the classroom in small groups. I kept my eye on one particular group, as two of the members’ were demonstrating difficulty in staying on task, while a third member, who regularly showed a propensity for being easily offended and walking off, teetered on the edge of focusing less on the task and more on relationships.
As the small groups experimented with ways to vocally express the assigned short passage, the group I had my eye on actually stayed quite focused. When I wandered over to check on them, the ‘oft-offended’ boy demonstrated his individual work for me. He had made conscious, effective and somewhat surprising, though engaging, choices. I asked him how he came to those choices. He answered, “I just thought about what you would do.”
I applauded him in the moment, but walked away thinking carefully about the occurrence. I do not, as a practice, model for students, as experience has shown me that they will discover more personal interpretations when challenged to construct creative responses of their own. In the situation above, however, I had done a little modeling, since the assignment’s focus on vocal expression proved a strong challenge for these 5th graders. In the modeling, however, I desired to encourage risk as opposed to demonstrating examples of how to express the text. As I contemplated my 5th grader, I felt that he had, in that moment, taken to heart the challenge, noting that my over-the-top demonstration encouraged him to take a kind of risk he generally avoids.
A central focus for my drama/theatre teaching work in general is what I identify as ‘artistic perspective.’ While I believe that developing artistic skills is beneficial, I suggest it is more valuable to develop an artistry of approach; to learn to think and act as an artist in every aspect of what one does. Not new or necessarily innovative, artistic perspective focuses, rather, on the big picture purpose of my arts education work, bridging the triumvirate of teaching in, through and about drama and theatre. Artistic perspective denotes the multifarious skills of an artist, both of and beyond the obvious skills of live performance. These skills include competencies such as reflective curiosity, persistence of pursuit, astute observation, critical thought, collaborative demeanor and, as noted, willingness to risk. Artistic perspective, arguably, enriches every endeavor.
Although my class of 5th graders collectively still require a lot of work to be effective performers, over the course of my time with them I watched as two girls spoke who never do, three groups challenge themselves with specific, incisive evaluations, many students demonstrate how they tackled comprehension of text through persistence of creative trial and error and a handful make odd interpretative choices, but back them up with convincing arguments. And that one boy, generally an example of disconnection, rose to a model of effective artistic choices. And understood why.