Theatrics Cultivates Self-Discovery
Recently, one of my boys announced in the weekly school assembly that his world literature section had to meet after lunch for dance rehearsal. I was impressed at his ability to organize his comrades for a meeting without my help. But I was awestruck at his confidence in admitting before 240 other boys exactly what they were up to. Seeing students with that confidence, the kind that flouts embarrassment or failure, is one of the greatest perks of teaching. My experience teaching at an all-boys school has yielded surprising discoveries of how they learn and mature.
The student's bold rehearsal call was related to a special extra-credit assignment that I give early in the year. We examine the power of creation myth and the effect of Westernization on Maori culture in New Zealand. Before their paper is due, I allow them the opportunity to learn and perform a "haka" war dance as a class. The whole lot must be involved, or no extra points are awarded.
The boys generally grumble or negotiate at first, insisting that their toes twinkle too dimly to participate. When I show a video of Maori men and rugby players intimidating their opponents using haka along with an explanation, it suddenly seems possible. The boys typically nominate a gregarious friend to be the dance leader, and eventually even the most introverted stragglers join the fray.
A Search for the Self
These dancers are working to overcome the fundamental struggle with adolescent boys' school performance: their ability to bring their genuine selves to center stage. This type of "display" is crucial not only to their academic success but also to their own self-discovery. How can they pull the basket off their little light if they haven't even figured out what lights their candle?
My job as their teacher is to facilitate basket removal—by methods ranging from a mental nudge to a cerebral dead lift. The successes in basket removal far outweigh the quality of the haka. So I attempt to be a comprehensive role model to promote their perusal of more diverse interests. Why not expose them simultaneously to the "Great Books" and The Clash discography?
When I started the haka experiment, I realized the power that performance had to break my students' barriers of conventionally accepted coolness, as well as their interpersonal barriers. Football jocks and skater punks could engage in civil discourse toward a common goal. I, too, hoped to model a similar confidence in sharing myself and my passions to pique their academic interest, so I tricked out my classroom with pictures of my favorite musicians and artwork. I used a couple of my own clips from my college newspaper as examples for writing assignments. Still, I felt like their performance had shown more of them than I had revealed of me. I wanted to repay them.
So enlisting a colleague, I enacted the famous tavern scene of Henry IV, pt. 1, playing Prince Hal to his Falstaff—horribly but earnestly. It was obvious I had no experience acting, but the idea that their wrestling coach was interested in theater must have struck a chord. Perhaps such diverse interests indeed have a place in men's lives in an ever-specializing and career-orienting world. We received a rousing ovation.
Looking Toward the Future
Theatrics—in the classroom or the school play—can engender self-discovery. And the self-display necessary for public performance can improve boys individually as they pursue the common good. By learning that changes within themselves (and therefore within the world) are possible, boys can prepare themselves for making positive contributions to society. Perhaps connecting the profound with the profane—as theatrics often does—will help my students arrive at their own sets of values resembling, I hope, those that the world prizes universally.
Trevor Thornton teaches English and coaches wrestling and lacrosse at Christ School, an all-boys boarding school in Asheville, N. C.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 4. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.