You may or may not know that in real life (i.e. the few hours in which I’m not feeding my internet addiction) I teach drama in an after-school program. People who don’t know that are a little surprised to find that out. “What? A conservative in the arts? And TEACHING?” I love kids. I love teaching. I love theater. They get all that. What they don’t get is how someone so engaged on the RIGHT end of the political spectrum can be involved in “The Arts.”
We should acknowledge the fact that conservatives and libertarians need to engage in the Culture War. But consider what theater-based activities can do for education. There’s a perpetual uproar over finding the magic formula to improve public education; from standardized testing, to classroom size, to technology integration, to longer classroom hours. But think how even a little drama training can equip our kids for life in ways that your traditional classroom experiences don’t.
Drama starts with speech
You’ve heard the statistics that many people are afraid of public speaking; some are more afraid of it than of dying. Yet think of how many professions require speaking in front of groups. The ability to project one’s voice and to hold an audience’s attention is invaluable, and sets one apart as a leader. Drama classes give kids plenty of practice at it.
Drama teaches physical discipline
An important element of drama is physical awareness. The way we sit, stand, and move all telegraph messages to others, and in class we focus on how to express things with our bodies as well as our words. Being conscious of how we communicate physically helps us read others’ body language, and that helps us improve our communication back to them as well.
Drama improves attention skills
From theater games to a director’s instructions, every aspect of drama requires focus and attention. Those are not skills one is born with, they are developed. But do you really think that public schools are teaching those skills? Not as much as they expect students to arrive already equipped with them.
Drama improves analytical thinking and creativity
Every kid knows how to pretend they are royalty, or an action hero, or how to play house with friends, or how to stage sword fights. What happens to many kids, though, is that as they get older, they develop inhibitions and anxieties that keep them from engaging their imaginations as they once did. Improvisation exercises are a comfortable way to put their imaginations to use, in an environment where they won’t be ridiculed for stretching themselves. Improvisation is really just a fancy word for play, but we don’t have to tell them that.
Drama teaches empathy
One of the best exercises I do with my students involves answering “What was he thinking?” It’s great fun hearing their answers. I give them scenarios and ask them to attempt to understand what caused a particular person to do a particular thing, then to act it out. It takes them out of themselves and forces them to think about others: What could be going on with that person? What problems could he be having? What could he have done differently? What would he say in that situation? This is especially interesting when we have scenes that involve standing up to bullies, or apologizing for falsely accusing someone of something. Those are things you want your kids to be able to cope with properly. All I’m really doing is giving them the practice ahead of time, and developing the habit of seeing things through another’s eyes.
Done right, a good drama class feels like play, but also teaches these crucial skills. And as they get older, these same skills can help equip your student to be an activist and a leader. Imagine what they can do in the realm of politics if they are able to speak clearly, communicate effectively, think critically and engage empathetically. We talk a lot about changing things in our country – drama can help your kids develop the skills and abilities to actually do it. We need to begin equipping the next generation to do what we’re doing now, to be ready to pick up where we leave off.
I admit, I sneak all this stuff in, in the guise of playing with the kids. But here’s a Radical idea: imagine what the addition of dramatic arts classes could do for the confidence of our children. In the end, what I really do is instill confidence in kids; confidence in their own voices and abilities. And if you hope your children turn out to think for themselves, challenge the status quo, and be unafraid to speak out when they feel something is wrong, you might consider what an hour or two a week in a drama class can do to help get them there.