When the average class size of a Philadelphia public school classroom is upwards of thirty students, the above can be a challenge. This is the size of classes at Grover Washington Middle School, for example, where Young Playwrights (through a partnership with Arts Rising) recently finished a year long program with the entire sixth grade. To ensure that each student at Grover Washington received the attention they needed, the teaching artists approached three major benchmarks of crafting a play – brainstorming, writing, and revising – with multi-layered approaches that also ensured that students of varying learning styles had an equal opportunity to explore and understand playwriting as well as the literacy skills it requires.
For the students at Grover Washington this year, some of the modes of brainstorming included reading and discussing excerpts of published and student plays, using music as a means to spark the imagination, and passing objects around a circle to generate lists of possible characters, conflicts and settings. While writing their plays, students participated in activities which featured an element of writing, such as character, by looking at a strong example of that element as used by a student in the class. One such featured student, after looking at the list of over ten details about his character Duke that his class had identified in his one and a half page play in progress, asked the teaching artist if he could take the typed up copy of his play home with him to show his mother. By the end of the year, his play was over twelve pages long and he said he was determined to make it into a movie someday.
In April, at a point when nearly all of the sixth graders had finished writing their first drafts, Young Playwrights brought a touring production of A Bully Problem to Grover Washington. A play written by a fifth grader at Penn Charter, A Bully Problem provided the students with multiple layers of discovery: they explored what the play looked like on the page in their classrooms before seeing it presented on the stage, they experienced a full production of a play that was written by a student their own age, and they also had the opportunity to discuss the theme of bullying by brainstorming and sharing what they each would do should they ever be faced with a bully like the protagonist was in the play.
To connect the performance of A Bully Problem back to their own individual playwriting, each Grover Washington classroom had two visits from professional actors. During these workshops, the professional actors helped the teaching artist, teacher and students to read every students’ play in progress. Not only did this give every student an opportunity to see how the words they had written on the page were interpreted by an actor, but after his or her work was read aloud, each student had an opportunity to hear positive feedback and questions about their first draft from the audience of their peers. Just one of the many ways Young Playwrights encourages teaching artists to bring revision to the classroom, this method allows every student a moment in the spotlight to be celebrated and treated as a true artist.
Finally, as students worked independently on their revisions, each playwright received one-on-one conferencing opportunities as well as written feedback from their teaching artist. A girl from one of the Grover classes was awed to receive a copy of their play back from their teaching artist with an entire page of written compliments and feedback, saying with awe, “You wrote all of that about my play?” In another classroom, after a teaching artist finished a conference with one of the boys, the teacher articulated her amazement that he had completed a play and was working on revisions, because the student had rarely turned in writing assignments in the past.
The result of the process as a whole? The Grover Washington students taking ownership of their voice and their ideas to wear both with pride, and this newfound confidence has already spread to the students’ approach to their schoolwork. Instead of doing a report in the traditional format, for example, one student asked if she could do her persuasive essay as a play - and her teacher was happy to say yes.
If you would like to learn more about Young Playwrights, about how to bring Young Playwrights to your school, or about how you can give your support, please visit our website: www.phillyyoungplaywrights.org.