This blog post was originally published to blogspot on July 11, 2017.
The first month of my technical theater class, I had grand designs on repeating a project I was assigned in college: we were asked to take measurements and build a replica of a theater in downtown Savannah. This replica was to be built neatly and entirely out of black foam board, and they were to build our stage. It was step one to a longer goal of building a model set design on that stage, and it exercised a bunch of skills from measuring to scale drawing to making neat cuts (the key is patience!) to using new tools (like the Rabbet cutter!).
As a theater teacher, it's exciting when your content gets to cross over to the core subject areas that people don't scoff at. A fellow bridesmaid in a wedding in Connecticut last year scoffed at the idea that I was a full-time theater teaching unit. "Alabama needs to get its priorities straight," she said. And instead of arguing with her that my job actually helps those other priorities or that our school is large enough in size to warrant those elective positions, I just went to help the bride with her lip color.
I was excited to watch my students apply practical mathematics to scale their model. I was excited for step two when we could work through their ideas for Romeo & Juliet set designs. What I did not anticipate was that only one out of nine students in my room would even know how to use a knife.
As a Gold Award Girl Scout and a Venture Scout, I was raised knowing how to use a knife and how much weight to give its use so as not to have careless accidents, so it was a complete shock to me when students laid the metal ruler out along their cut lines, positioned their bodies out of the path per my instruction, and proceeded to cut towards extended thumbs. I had to jump in very quickly. We ended up spending some time discussing knife safety, and the stage building took longer than expected.
Months later I decided to resurrect scaled drawing with my Theater I class as a way to dip their toes in the waters of set design. They were to draw a scaled ground-plan of my classroom including the doors and major furniture. There were no knives this time, so I figured we were all safe. Once again, I spent the day teaching students instead how to measure. Some were measuring walls on huge diagonals because of height differences. A couple students didn't even understand the fractions by which their rulers were divided, counting eighths of an inch as tenths.
Some of my more experienced colleagues weren't nearly as surprised as I was. We all like to laugh over absurd test answers from time-to-time (one student last year answered that when Shakespeare wasn't writing plays, he was a telephone operator) but we cannot hold students accountable for what they haven't been taught. Everything we do has a smaller set of sub-skills required to do that. To play soccer we have to first run. To run we have to walk. To walk we have to be able to stand on our own two feet. Every time we go into the classroom, we have to be prepared that plans may change and that we may spend some time shoring up the skill-sets needed for what we had planned.
If there's one thing I learned this year teaching technical theater as a subject, it's that some days you think you're going to create a scaled ground plan, but then you end up just teaching them how to use a ruler. And that's okay. Rulers are important too.
Technical Theater in the shop:
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Amy is a drama teacher with an M.Ed. in Secondary Education, ELA, teaching in the suburbs of Birmingham, AL.