Residency Writer’s Block / Joan Weber

I am supposed to be finishing the lesson plans for a brand spanking new residency that just got moved up a week because the teacher has been asked to attend a conference. It’s one of those rare situations where I will be delivering one residency to 6th graders and a completely different, completely new residency to 8th graders. I should have started weeks ago. I couldn’t. I was teaching play writing then, not social studies.

And, now I have writer’s block. It sounds strange to say that I have residency writer’s block. Maybe it happens because I’m a procrastinator at heart and my creativity builds as the deadline looms. Maybe it’s just an excuse to play more Spider Solitaire, but I’m afraid that writer’s block is one of the steps I have to go through when I commit my thoughts to paper. I think that “writer’s block” is the right term because I believe that writing residencies is very creative. And, like other creative pursuits, such as playing a role on stage, I have a “process” that I go through when writing a new program.

So, to celebrate my writer’s block, I will look away from what I should be doing right now in order to explore how I do it. My fingers are crossed that this will help me get back on track and meet my deadlines again in a couple of hours. There’s time.

As a teacher-trainer, I talk about curriculum and lesson plan writing as forms of creative writing. There’s a way to bring a student along the educational path you place before them, replete with interesting diversions and challenges. I ask teachers and teaching artists to think of the Aristotelian-based concept of the 5-act structure when writing curriculum.  It really works.  The teacher becomes both playwright and director.

Act I – Exposition. In Act I, the audience is introduced to all the characters and concepts that they’ll be working with for the rest of the play. As audience members, we begin to make decisions about how we feel about these things right away. (Good writing will often flip the audience’s ideas on their heads by the end of the play, however.) This act has to grab the audience’s attention while also giving them lots of critical, but perhaps dry, information. We learn the who, what, where, when and how through dialogue and action.

In my new “play,” (aka the new residency) the content is the Constitutional Convention and the characters are the men that were in attendance. For my Act I, I will introduce the characters through a little suspense and mystery. I have created (am creating) a fact sheet on each of the attendants of the Constitutional Convention. Students will draw characters at random. No one will have the same character. In this case, exposition will happen as the students digest the research material in order to complete a character worksheet about their individual historic figure.

Act II is where the “rising action” occurs. In this act, the audience is presented with all the elements that contribute to the conflict or problem that will be resolved by the action of the play. In 8th grade social studies, we will focus on one of the debates described by James Madison: creation of the office of the Presidency. During Act II of the residency, students will determine what their character feels about the problem and why. The students will then find the other characters in the room that feel the same way about the problem that they do.  Together, they’ll compare their character’s views on the problem and consolidate their ideas.

By the time Act III rolls around, or as I like to say, “Wednesday,” we know a lot. We have met all the characters and we understand the problem presented in our scenario. In Act III, the students understand where we’re headed. They stand up in character and speak improvisationally in the language and style of their character. It’s thrilling and terrifying to take this risk. It fits in Act III. From the perspective of the residency, today is the climax. It’s the last of the new things to be introduced. For the rest of the residency, we make connections and draw conclusions, just like we’re supposed to in Acts IV and V.

In Act IV, we practice what we’ve learned. We see where we have gaps in our knowledge or in our skills through formative assessments so that we are ready for the conclusion/resolution of our 5-act play. Act V is summative performance. With me acting in the role of Chair, the students will debate the role of the Presidency in the Constitution. They will be in the characters of the signers of the Constitution of the United States.

It looks like my process now includes writing a blog post.  I wish it had earlier, but my Spider Solitaire score wouldn’t be so good.

I’ll report back after I teach the residency.

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