My high school theater students just finished one of the most difficult and terrifying assignments in our class: choosing, analyzing, memorizing, and performing a monologue. In some cases, with results less stellar than what they hoped to achieve. There are always challenges with such a unit. In the past I have struggled to motivate students who simply refused to try it. I’ve offered tissues to students who burst into tears at the idea of performing a monologue. And worst of all, I have had classes that made me nearly nauseous fearing that despite my best efforts to prevent it, a student might decimate the confidence of another student by hollering mean-spirited comments. Once the words are out there, the damage is done.
This year’s monologue unit was different; however. Early on, my fears of possible hurtful comments were allayed. And as I watched these students face their fears with courage and grace, I ended each day feeling increasingly in awe of their hearts.
Conquering the fear of performing in front of peers is a powerful challenge. What I learned this year, however, is that the more powerful part of this assignment was the quality of the SUPPORT students offered each other. High school students sometimes get a bad rep in the media for being bullies, i.e. “kids can be so mean,” and an assignment that requires students to lay everything bare in front of an audience certainly provides fodder for possible ridicule.
To be fair, I requested that students only share feedback if they could find something positive to highlight. (The constructive criticism would come from me.) But this can yield another type of hurtful result – the student who gets ZERO feedback from peers after others have been showered with praise.
While it is true that students can indeed be mean and that they make poor choices, it is also true that they can surprise you with their level of sensitivity and kindness. Fortunately, the latter occurred in their responses to the performances. Perhaps it was the bond that comes from facing fears together. More likely, though, is that there are a couple of strong leaders in each class who spoke up quickly and provided specific, positive feedback to EVERY person. This type of response soon spread to other “reviewers” in the room. When it came time for feedback, hands shot up all over the room. Even in the instances when performers stumbled badly or looked at a script hanging from a shaking because they hadn’t mastered the memorization, no one laughed or ridiculed. In these situations, feedback was a simple as “you had good volume,” or as special as, “you really showed resilience; I’m not sure I could have started over after drawing a blank, but you got right back at it. That takes concentration.” (Yes, students actually identified “resilience” in their peers!) Best of all, there was always more than one comment.
It is difficult to adequately re-create the positively charged atmosphere of the classroom in a blog post. Suffice it to say that witnessing students demonstrate the characteristics of emotional intelligence, kindness, empathy, and support, even when the situation made it difficult to do so, was much more beautiful and important to me than watching the students who nailed their presentation and demonstrated mastery of unit standards. (And there really were some amazing performances!)