Teaching drama in the classroom is a lot of fun and has so many rewards! I have found that with the right play, students learn more during a drama lesson in the classroom than they do with any other lesson. Here is the catch! It must be a play they can connect to and fully comprehend or the entire unit is lost. I know it’s hard to hear but this might mean that Shakespeare is out! But, Westside Story is still in! The plays that I teach in my classroom, which I have found much success with are: “Wicked”, “Hamilton”, “Dear Evan Hansen”, and “Westside Story”. These plays are humorous, have a great plot and characterization, and are highly engaging!
How to use drama in the English classroom: Plays are intended to be read aloud so it is important that you take this intention seriously. Reading a play straight out of a textbook is not only painstaking but it is also pointless if engagement isn’t present. I print out scripts for the plays that I use, and I put up character names for each scene and write the parts up on the board each day. As students enter the classroom they can sign up for a character role they want to play for that class period. I give everyone a chance to sign up. This includes a narrator, smaller parts, and “all”. Students are to go to the front of the room to act out their parts. You would be shocked to see how into this students get. Personalities that are typically shy show up for this unit!
Teaching Drama in the Classroom: “Wicked“
Drama in the Classroom Video Summary of Blog Post
“Wicked” is the most engaging play I have used in the classroom and it is chalk-filled with so many lessons. Oprah Winfrey claims that “The Wizard of Oz” takes the cake on lessons, but I believe “Wicked” has even more. The story is told from the perspective of Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West) and we get a completely different perspective about Glinda, The Wizard of Oz, and the protagonist, Elphaba (who is supposed to be an evil character). We learn that Elphaba was set up and that those who are truly evil in “The Wizard of Oz” is the Wizard himself, and one who is selfish and materialistic, although still portrayed as a good person, Glinda. We learn that Elphaba’s mom had an affair with The Wizard of Oz, and therefore Elphaba was born green. Elphaba’s father, sister, and the community know that Elphaba was born by another father because she is green and this is the color she has to wear in shame.
Elphaba spends her life taking care of her sister, Nessarose, born and favored by both parents. The two sisters go to something akin to Wizard school where Nessarose is intended to be trained as the next Mayor of Munchkinland. There, Elphaba meets an evil headmaster, Madame Morrible, at the school who works with The Wizard of Oz to discredit Elphaba at first, and later commiserate to have her killed. When Elphaba finds out the Wizard is her father, she tries to meet with him in the hopes that they will resemble some semblance of a family, but the Wizard decides once Elphaba refuses to enter a life of dishonesty to have her killed. After all she is a reminder of infidelity and a moral obligation he never fulfilled.
There is one scene in “Wicked” where the Wizard enters the home of Elphaba’s mother when Elphaba is conceived but there are no sex or any derogatory acts in this scene. For this reason “Wicked” can be taught beginning at the 8th grade level or higher. Teaching drama in the classroom can be done in English middle or high school.
Teaching Drama in the Classroom: “Hamilton“
“Hamilton” is another engaging play to teach in the classroom. Students love to play out the roles and it is particularly useful if taught in the 11th grade year when students learn about American history. “Hamilton” can also be taught in a history course. “Hamilton” tells the story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who experienced a hard early life, and at a young age, leaves his home. In New York, 1776 Hamilton meets Aaron Burr, John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan, and impresses them with his rhetorical skills. The latter three and Hamilton affirm their revolutionary goals to each other, while Burr remains not a fan. Later the daughters of the wealthy Schuyler go into town and share their opinion on the upcoming revolution; it is at this time that Seabury warns everyone about the dangers of Congress while Hamilton disagrees and counters Seabury, until King George insists on his authority. During the New York and New Jersey Campaign, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s aide. Eliza falls in love with Hamilton as Hamilton’s feelings are reciprocated they end up married. As conditions worsen for the continental army, Hamilton aids Laurens in a duel against Lee, who had insulted Washington. Eliza asks Hamilton to take it easy because she is pregnant with Philip.
As the war progresses Hamilton feels he should die a martyr and a hero in the war and is warned that history has “eyes on him“. In Act II Hamilton has an affair and is seen by Burr who is envious and releases the information which eventually leads to a duel between Burr and Hamilton, leading to Hamilton’s death, but not before Hamilton experiences the agonizing pain of the death of his son Philip. This play is a bit more in-depth when it comes to characterization and plot. To be a success there must be front-loading on the history of Alexander Hamilton and the Revolutionary War. I would print scripts and have students read as was mentioned in “Wicked“. A pre-warning, right before Hamilton engages in his affair there is a song I would take out of the play altogether about sex. The rest of the play seems appropriately fit for high school. Teaching Drama in the classroom: Hamilton is best if taught in 11th grade year.
How to Teach Drama in the Classroom: “Dear Evan Hansen“
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a play that all teachers should walk students through either with the play or with the novel. It is a story about a boy who commits suicide and another teenage boy who is lost and close to committing suicide who becomes popular and experiences a life change as a result of this other teen’s suicide. Evan Hansen has been given an assignment by his psychiatrist to write letters to himself as an exercise to create a more positive life for himself. They are lessons in gratitude. However, Evan hates this assignment and types out his true feelings about being alone, and added dark comments that could easily be mistaken as a suicide note. Connor, the student who commits suicide later that evening, grabs hold of Evan’s note (Connor is somewhat of a bully) and Connor’s parents mistaken Evan’s note as a suicide note from Connor.
Evan suddenly deemed as Connor’s “best friend” becomes popular, and a personal favorite to the family. Evan buries himself deeper and deeper in this charade as he not only poses as his best friend, he has another kid create fake email letters that are correspondence between Evan and Connor. Evan even ends up with Zoe the girl of his dreams, Connor’s sister. Some very important themes to discuss in this unit are: teen suicide, which MUST be addressed prior to beginning the unit; mental health, bullying, friendship, homosexuality and family. I would suggest having a counselor come in to discuss teen suicide prior to beginning the lesson as a precaution. In addition I would have a Socratic seminar for students to discuss teen suicide and then I would pass out some type of teen suicide support materials such as a suicide hotline phone number for students to call.
There is primarily humor and laughter in the play but the background theme of suicide is important to address from the start. I would not suggest discussing suicide all throughout the unit as that is not how the author’s intended the play to be, nor is that an appropriate degree of heaviness that students can handle. I would have a collaborative discussion about mental health that might include a social emotional learning lesson that includes coping skills. It’s a great opportunity to introduce healthy habits to students. In addition this is a great time to talk about homosexuality. The teenager, Connor, who committed suicide did so because he believed his love interest (another male) had “dumped” him. He didn’t feel he could talk to anyone about it, and believed he was alone in this world. The most essential theme in this story is that teens feel that they are different, and that they themselves are the only ones who feel inadequate, different, or are the only ones who feel alone. The story brings to light that all teens feel this way at different times throughout high school and that they are not alone. Teaching Drama in the classroom can be a safe place for these conversations.
Drama in the Classroom: “Westside Story”
“Westside Story is a great play to teach in 8th, 9th, or 11th grade year. In grades 8 and 11, students are learning about American History, and in 9th grade students read “Romeo and Juliet“. “Westside Story” is a rendition-a modern (1950’s) version of “Romeo and Juliet“. Students learn about immigration and how it affected and created gang culture at the time. The setting takes place on the harsh upper west side of New York where two gangs battle over turf. The situation becomes even more complicated when two members of opposing gangs fall in love with one another: Tony and Maria. The members of the Sharks, new immigrants from Puerta Rico are taunted by members of the Jets, a white gang. The main character, Tony a previous member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo.
The difference between the gangs is that in Romeo and Juliet it was a time period of family gang rivalries whereas when families became smaller over time, gangs branched out to friends and became more of a teenage practice. Many believe that the story of Romeo and Juliet and Tony and Maria are primarily about love; however they are not. The primary themes are darker and are about the American Dream crashing into reality, teens singing about their dreams only to turn and cut each other’s dreams down in violence and death. It is about a desperate hope for a better life. It’s important to look at the migrant struggles to make a living and the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice. I would print scripts and assign students to parts as mentioned in all the above plays. This play is best taught con-currently with Romeo and Juliet. Teaching Drama in the classroom can be a safe place for these conversations.
Creative Drama In the Classroom
Teaching Drama in the classroom can be a painstaking experience or an amazing-engaging learning experience if the right play is chosen and taught in the right manner. If you follow my advice on the plays above, your students can have an amazing learning experience! Let me know how you are using drama in the classroom in the comments section below! Also what have been the benefits of drama in the classroom?
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