ALAN v25n1 - Acting Up across the Curriculum: Using Creative Dramatics To Explore Adolescent Literature

Volume 24, Number 3
Spring 1997
Acting Up across the Curriculum: Using Creative Dramatics To Explore Adolescent Literature

Jeffrey Kaplan

Write something.

" Huh?"

Write something.

" Ugh."

My ninth grade teacher was telling me to write something about what I had just read, and my mind was gazing out across greener pastures. I was staring at the football field, through my tenth grade high school English class' window, daydreaming about what "pearls of wisdom" I should transcribe to my notebook paper, when all I wanted to really do was "to act."

When I was a kid, and I read a book, all I could do was picture the book as a movie.

And, naturally, I was the star. (Ah, to see my name in lights!) Indeed, all my life, I think cinematically.

When I walk into a room, my immediate thoughts are how would this look on the big screen? What would this person say? Where would I put this chair? Can I make this more entertaining?

It is terrible to think this way. You spend half your time not really listening to what people have to say. And the other half rearranging their wardrobe.

Write something.

I would like to write something, but what I really like to do is "act." I think it's genetic.

I was born with a predisposition to sing and dance. I came out of the womb, wearing a top hat and cane, ready to softshoe my way into the hearts of my relatives. My school years were spent playing the clarinet (not my forte), singing in choruses (you didn't miss anything), and putting on plays. For my high school senior year, I was voted "Most Dramatic." I was not surprised, though. I had performed for my high school a monologue entitled "The Night The Bed Fell On Father" by James Thurber, and I had been -- as they say in showbiz -- a hit.

I remember the day vividly. As a member of the high school debate team, we were forever going to district and state competitions. One category that I relished was dramatic interpretation.

My debate teacher, Mrs. Spector (dear Mrs. Spector, I remember the time when we jumped in the school's indoor pool with our clothes on, but that's another story), selected the piece for me, knowing my penchant for humor and my desire to entertain. She felt this Thurber piece, about a series of misadventures that lead everyone to believe that a earthquake has occurred, instead of a bed falling, was the perfect vehicle for my dramatic debut.

She was right.

There I was on the high school stage, standing near a single chair (You know the kind. They are wooden, sturdy, and usually, found in turn of the century libraries), bathed in a glow of bright light. And a sea of people. My classmates. All staring in great anticipation.

"What's this crazy kid going to do now?"

Until then, my classmates had only seen me in bit parts. I was not the Tom Cruise of my high school. I had been in school plays, but nothing really big. I was the character actor to the right, the nerdy kid in stage makeup, looking like someone's long lost relative.

I was no heartthrob.

Most high schools present Spring musicals, where good looking singers and dancers are held at a premium. And although I love to sing and dance, enthusiasm is my real talent.

Mrs. Spector, though, gave me my big break.

As soon as the audience quieted, I began. It was awesome.

I held my classmates in the palm of my hand. They were glued to my every word. They sighed and laughed appropriately. They understood what I was saying (believe me, Thurber is not easy to follow), and moreover, they listened to me. No one else. Just me.

I was in seventh heaven.

Until this day, I still remember the final ovation.

I remember the applause sweeping over me like a wave of righteousness. Each clap, underlining what I already knew.

Acting is my thing.

On Teaching, On Acting

I like to act.

You know that.

And I went from acting to teaching because it was the next best thing.

I did not want to be a professional actor.

Acting, to be honest, is my passion, but not my life's force. To succeed in the theater, you must devote everything to your craft. You must be willing to sacrifice real life -- stability, marriage, family -- to achieve in an arena where every moment counts. Unless you are wildly successful (million dollar deals are yours for the asking), the acting life is one constant struggle. You are continually looking for work, auditioning for roles that are age restricted and talent specific, and I knew that life was not for me.

But teaching is.

I love to teach. I love to stand before a roomful of kids or adults and lead and direct and motivate people to be the best that they can be. I love to talk about things profound and true and impossible, inspiring and creating new ideas and venues. Teaching fulfills my need to perform because I can be productive on my feet and still earn a living.

Not bad work if you can get it.

And, besides, everyday, everyone must perform. As parents, as teachers, as leaders, we know how important is to be able to speak and think on one's feet. No task - - not even writing or reading -- can compare with the importance of being able to express oneself clearly -- ALOUD!!!! Communicating ideas and opinions stands tantamount as the one skill that all human beings must do well to succeed in their lives. We must talk openly and honestly to convey who we are, and what we want. And we must listen to understand who others are and what they want as well.

For real learning is joyful. Learning, and more importantly, collaborating in the learning experience, is an invitation to pure excitement and exhilaration. Schooling should be, as William Purkey says in Inviting School Success, "a coming together for creative worthwhile purposes that can extend human experiences" (p. 23) . In Side By Side, Nancy Atwell writes, "Part of the richness of our students' lives is their play, including language play. If we make room for it in our classrooms, we can help students use writing to recognize, think about, and comment on the ridiculous in their worlds. We can help them be clever" (p. 49) .

The teaching job is compounded, though, when life's inconsistencies plague us. Kids refuse to do our assignments. Parents bad mouth our programs. Administrators overlook our successes. Each slight underscoring our influence because what we do is felt by many. Hence, when we fail, we must acknowledge our faults. And when we succeed, we must savor our successes.

Teachers must be their strongest advocates. We should celebrate our triumphs, and promote our needs. We must meet and greet the public and wrestle openly and honestly about our accomplishments and goals. We win as teachers when we are forceful and dynamic change agents, and we lose when we articulate poorly.

On Teaching, On Acting, On Speaking

Young people must learn how to speak on their feet. They must know how to communicate effectively and to present a positive image. And teachers, above all, should exemplify the very best educational practices to accomplish this necessary goal.

When counseling students, their conversation should be inviting and positive. When meeting parents, they should encourage cooperation and openness. When working with administrators, they should inspire confidence and respect. All this and more define good teaching. And all these qualities can be taught.

Good teaching is defined by good communication skills. Better teachers know what to say and when to say it. They have a "sixth sense" about the appropriateness of their remarks and are able to articulate their intuitive understandings with clarity and, often, humor. Their strength is in their ability to cross cultural divides by including everyone in their conversations. Good teachers -- no make that, great teachers -- can transcend differences and speak to everyone. They can befriend the shy, the confident, the reluctant, the aggressive, the diffident, the angry, the withdrawn, the athletic, the musical, the verbal, the pompous, and the humble -- all with great grace and style. They are "master communicators," and they are rare leaders in the pantheon of teaching.

Speaking and listening skills are teachable "things." Often intangible qualities like personality and "with-it-ness" are thought to be inherent or genetic. Some believe people are born "good talkers" or have just the right temperament to be "good listeners." Not necessarily. Although, human beings do have special innate qualities -- they might be gifted musicians, athletes, performers, -- more often than not, people can learn to communicate openly and honestly. Therapists and friends can motivate the reluctant to "explore their voice within" and to share their personal vision with an audience. Everyone has something to say. And sometimes, a polite push works wonders.

Teachers can be the"polite pushers." They can motivate the shy to be bold, and the bold to be forthright. By allowing students to participate in communication activities -- discussions, presentations, creative play, -- teachers can signal to even the most reluctant talker that it is "okay" to say something in class. Even if it is just, "hello."

Often, classrooms see three types of children -- kids who always talk, kids who sometimes talk, and kids who never talk. The "always talkers" share incessantly. They are willing to tell you, their neighbors, and perfect strangers everything and anything. Whatever the topic, the "always talkers" say "something." They raise their hands, they share, and they question. The "always talkers" love the verbal arena and thrill in its spotlight.

The "sometimes talkers" love to talk too, but often only to their friends. They share with their friends -- the kids sitting next to them, the group who passes in the hall, the gang at lunch -- but rarely aloud in class. Yet, when coached, when prompted to answer a question or read aloud, they will speak, even if they feel uncomfortable. Given time, though, they can loosen their shyness grip and begin to feel greater confidence sharing aloud. The "sometimes talkers" are naturally smart, inquisitive, and intuitive, but reluctant to let others know. They love to keep things to themselves and revel standing just a little to the side.

Finally, the "never talkers" are the thinkers and self-absorbed. Instead of speaking aloud in class, they draw mental pictures. They are reluctant to share anything, except with few intimates. And the intimates might not even be classmates. Absorbed with themselves, almost to the exclusion of others, these shy and retiring individuals have few friends, preferring to live in their own cocoon. "Never talkers" can go from September to June, an entire academic year, and never once say anything in class. Even when questioned, they prefer to shrug their answers than speak aloud. They live by grunts and groans and are often ignored by teachers who sometimes forget their presence. Lost in their "mind's eye," these muted children might prefer writing to speaking and watching to performing. For "never talkers," participating in oral communication activities can be the single most painful event in their lives. "Never talkers" love their seclusion and cherish their anonymity.

Still, I believe all three types of children can be reached and can be taught good communication skills. Fun, well-organized oral communication activities, especially those embedded in creative play, provide just the stimulus and release needed to motivate real participation. "Always talkers," "seldom talkers," and "never talkers" can come together and share in each others strengths and virtues. Learning to talk aloud -- before a group, before one's peers, in an open and relaxed setting -- can be the achievable goal of all students, even the most reluctant. And creative dramatics can make this happen.

On Teaching, On Acting, On Speaking, On Improvising

In creative play or improvisational acting, all students can participate. All students can be successful and adventurous. They can learn to feel comfortable with their peers, to control their anxieties, to sharpen their focus, to express their visions, to delight in their voices, and to explore themselves. By sharing aloud, they can enrich their lives.

Creative dramatics spells communal experience. It means that students must "leave their seats, get together with other students, discuss ideas, share thoughts, and display emotions," all in the arena of taking an idea and improvising a moment. As in writing, participants in creative dramatics must extend their knowledge base by using their own intuitive understandings. Improvisation, as Gerald Chapman writes in Teaching Young Playwrights, "is a public expression of private thoughts" (p. 120) . This is a most courageous act. "To encourage students in what is, after all, a very scary undertaking, no matter how tantalizing," writes Chapman, "teachers must abandon the role of Ôone who knows' -- or rather, they must reverse it, and start from what the students know" (p. 121) .

Often, the best teaching occurs at the most unsuspecting moment. Researchers call this the "teachable moment," (Arends, 1989 ; Rubin, 1985) , when something happens in class, and teachers automatically incorporate the moment into their lessons. Suddenly, a student writes a terrific sentence, and the teacher highlights the students' writing for the class. Or a teacher is discussing weather, and the teacher shares with the class approaching storm clouds. Or, even better, a teacher reads a poem that triggers a classmates emotional response, and everyone stops to listen.

I love teachable moments, and I suppose my attraction to creative dramatics stems from my love for the spontaneous. When kids act, they become new people, or as I like to call them, their "playground selves." They become the people they truly are -- the person they share with their friends when they are alone and no one is watching.

Given the freedom to act, children reveal their "playground selves." They embody new characters, delighting in their idiosyncrasies and nuances. They react to special circumstances, solving immediate concerns. They improvise bold thoughts and actions, layering their understandings with hidden insights. And they plan ahead, engineering cause and effect. They simply learn to think on their feet --something all children need.

"Always talkers" love improvising. They enjoy the immediacy of live performances, and the chance to show off. "Seldom talkers" love coaching. They egg on their friends, and cajole their enemies into making fools of themselves. Finally, "never talkers" love seeing their fantasy world come alive. When "never talkers" watch creative play, they watch their interior life unfold.

On Teaching, On Acting, On Speaking, On Improvising, On Sharing Good Books

I believe deeply in the power of acting to transform children's lives. Participating and watching creative role playing is therapeutic. Kids see other kids play.

And that is dramatically different (pardon the pun) than watching kids read. Or write.

When young people share good books, creative play, or at least reading and speaking activities, should always be an option. Book reports must be more than writing activities. They should be oral presentations, and the more impromptu, the better.

"What are you reading, Jose?"

"I'm reading..." can be the most vital moment in a child's life. Just speaking the words aloud, "I am reading...," can work wonders to improving self-esteem and communication skills.

After all, why must kids always write something?

Reading a book can be preceded or followed by many oral activities. They can share favorite passages aloud. They can do choral readings. They can improvise characters meeting. They can improvise characters in conflict. They can dramatize selected scenes. They can mimic characters. They can dress as characters. They can sing as characters in an operatic voice. They can interview characters in a talk show format. They can conduct an infomerical for their book. They can improvise stream of consciousness monologues for characters. They can take students on imaginary walks through their novel's setting, time and place. They can invent a dance for characters. They can pretend to be the author and talk to the class in the author's voice. And they can imagine aloud what would happen next in their novel.

Or do the same with a nonfiction work. When studying historical texts, students can become historical figures. They can be the people they are reading. They can say what they might say; do what they might do; and decide as they might decide. They can wear period costumes. They can interview other historical figures. They can recreate significant historical events. They can bring together famous people from different time periods. (Lincoln can talk with Washington. Galileo can meet with Microscoft founder Bill Gates. Columbus can sit down with America's first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.) The possibilities are endless.

But above all, they can become their books.

They can be what they are reading. After reading about a new concept, they can become the concept. When studying science, they can become flowers and birds and trees. When studying math, they can become numbers and equations and word problems. When studying music, they can mimic musical instruments, musical groups, and full-scale orchestras. When studying history, they can be the ship that Columbus sailed across the ocean or the door on which Martin Luther pinned his edict. When studying a foreign language, they can become the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, or a seat in the Roman Coliseum. When studying art, they can become a splotch of paint.

Sound bizarre? Not really. Kids are by nature silly, and any chance to inhabit silliness is usually always welcome. After all, think of the number of times that students, from elementary to high school, dress up for school events. Everything from school birthday parties to elaborate proms reveal young people's desire to delight in pure fantasy. Little kids love to trick or treat. And big kids love to show off -- even the quiet ones.

Even the quiet ones will like to share their reading aloud. Reading Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, her haunting and beautifully written novel about the loss of innocence and young life, can lend itself to read aloud and character explorations. And when passages are read aloud, students can read alone or together. Simultaneous readings are known as choral readings, and I highly recommend this most enjoyable and productive practice.

In another activity, two students become Paterson's central characters, Leslie and Jes, and improvise their feelings towards each other. They can recreate a scene from the novel or, better yet, imagine their own. And, as they act, other students can become inanimate objects -- trees, flowers, water -- all natural things which figure prominently in Paterson's work. And by adding sound effects, students can create an exciting and moving tableau.

Students can act as newspaper reporters or television anchors and interview characters from Bridge to Terabithia. Others can simulate camera people, directors, and stage managers. Together, the excitement and messiness of a live interview, complete with personalities and unpredictabilities, can begin to unfold.

Or students can read Christopher Paul Curtis' The Watson Go To Birmingham Ñ 1963, a touching and tragic novel about civil rights, and the impact of violence on one African-American family. This is the story of a middle-class Black family who head south to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit grandma. Only trouble is, they arrive just as grandma's church is bombed. The ensuing struggle is ripe for many creative dramatics activities. Students can read selected passages from this easy to read family novel; hold frank discussions about racial intolerance; pretend to be the novels' central figures -- the parents, the brothers, grandma -- and improvise scenes together; and/or deliver impromptu speeches about civil rights. All these and more can heighten awareness, and motivate even the most reluctant readers.

Or maybe, you want to explore factual information. Say, in art. Try Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan's The American Eye: Eleven Artists of the Twentieth Century, a smart and handsome reference work featuring biographies of 11 contemporary artists and over 50 full-color reproductions of their works. Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, and others are discussed in great detail, illustrating how their vision shaped a new American artistic legacy. And what fun it would be to enhance students' understanding by having them pretend to be those artists. With minimal preparation, they can tell the class who they are, what they believe, and why they paint the way they do. What fun to entertain with a knowledge base, and what joy to perform spontaneously.

In fact, students can even become the artist's works of art themselves. With a group of students, they could create a reproduction or living tableau of an artist's work -- their painting, drawing, photograph, sculpture, etc. With costume and props, students can assemble themselves to look just like the artist's acclaimed piece. All in one lesson students can read about an artist, meet the artist, and see a famed piece come to life.

When using creative play, anything is possible.

On Teaching, On Acting, On Speaking, On Improvising, On Sharing Good Books, On Learning

"Unpredictability" is the key. Spontaneous, unplanned, and unstructured events are what make true learning exciting and rewarding. When teachers leave the "tried and true," -- the book report that follows the five paragraph theme, the book synopsis on index cards, the old "I read this book because it was on the required reading list" essay--Ñ then teachers become "explorers, adventurers, risk-takers." They learn as their students learn.

Creative dramatics or improvisational drama is a technique to encourage independent learning. Critical thinking, reflective practice, cooperative instruction-- all this and more can be taught using creative dramatics. Teachers can make learning both productive and enjoyable, and oral communication skills can become the touchstone for enhancing self-esteem and encouraging deeper and more detailed instruction.

I remember my high school debate teacher, Mrs. Spector. She gave me the chance to act -- to express who I was on a stage before my peers. She took a shy, reticent individual and made him, for one brief shining moment, a star.

Now, naturally, the object of creative dramatics is not to make every child the next McCauley Culkin. No, the object is to provide students with the tools for free, uninhibited self-exploration. The emphasis is not on the product but the process -- a process that can be triggered by exploring good literature.

Kind of like when Mrs. Spector and my debate club went swimming with our clothes on. It was late at night. We had just finished rehearsing for our debate club dramatic readings. We were tired. We were silly. We were giddy. Mrs. Spector was equally at wits end; and, eyeing the high school indoor pool, she turned to the four of us, all standing in standard plaid shirts and blue jeans, and said, "Let's go swimming!"


"I said, Let's go swimming."

And with that, she flung open the door to the indoor pool, walked to edge, and jumped in -- clothes and all.

Dumbfounded, the three other students and I did not know whether to laugh or scream.

So we did the next best thing.

We jumped in and swam.

And from my entire high school career, that is one of the few things I remember.

The lesson? Learning should be spontaneous.

The moral? Never try to explain this to your parents.

See ya' at the movies.


Arends, Richard. Learning to Teach. Random House, 1988.

Atwell, Nancy. Side by Side: Essays on Teaching to Learn. Heinemann, 1991.

Chapman, Gerald. Teaching Young Playwrights. Heinemann, 1991.

Christopher, Paul C. The Watsons Go To BirminghamÑ1963. Delacorte Press, 1995.

Greenberg, Jan, and Sandra Jordan. The American Eye: Eleven Artists of the Twentieth Century. Delacorte Press, 1995.

Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.

Purkey, William W., and John M. Novak. Inviting School Success: A Self-Concept Approach to Teaching, Learning, and Democratic Practice, third edition, Wadsworth, 1996.

Rubin, Louis J. Artistry in Teaching. Random House, 1985.

Jeffrey Kaplan, active in ALAN and NCTE, is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations and Coordinator at the Daytona Beach Campus for the College of Education at the University of Central Florida.

Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Kaplan, Jeffrey. (1997). Acting up across the curriculum: Using creative dramatics to explore adolescent literature. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 42-46.