February 27th is Dominican Independence Day and to celebrate, our students put on an annual presentation. Under the leadership of Odile Grullon, the head of our Spanish department, year after year, our teachers and students manage to put on a better show and last Friday they had everyone in tears. That said, our 19th Independence Day production has come a long way since our first simple backyard show with 11 students, and we’ve learned many lessons over the years.
- The program needs an overall theme. At first, we put on fairly traditional shows in which groups of students did random performances highlighting what they’d learned in their Dominican history classes. They were loosely held together by the idea of Dominican independence, but nothing more. Over time, our Spanish department began to choose themes that were important to the country. A few years ago, they chose “Education,” at a time when citizens were fighting to have 4 percent of their taxes go towards education in the country. Last year’s theme was “Immigration” and its impact on the world. And this year, our theme was “Team: From Independence to Interdependence.” Selecting a theme not only ties the show together, but it offers another benefit, as well: by looking at their history lessons through the lens of our chosen theme, students make meaningful connections to the present, current events, and their own lives.
- The importance of integrating the arts. Once we’ve decided on a theme, the dance, music, and art teachers begin to work with students to find songs, choreography, settings, and costumes that will emphasize the learning being done in their Dominican Social Studies and History classes. Students struggle to make their amazing designs become a reality… and inevitably learn that there are physical restrictions (as well as monetary restrictions) that may block their way. These restrictions act as a catalyst to creativity.
- Writing songs and play scripts as a group is hard… but worth it. Students write all of the songs and the skits they present. This takes a great deal of teamwork, and it’s hard for students to come to a consensus on their performances and how they want to present them. The learning that goes on is incredible: they learn how to listen to others, how to give feedback without being hurtful, how to compromise, and how to put aside one’s ego for the good of the group.
- Every production needs a support crew — and every student needs to experience the work that goes on behind the scenes. Over time, it’s become a tradition for the 10th grade students to make costumes, design backdrops, create videos, and support the entire production when it’s presented. Some students complain at first, because they want to be in the show, but when they experience this role, they come to understand how very important it is. When I asked a student this year how she felt about her role, she said, “I love being on stage, especially dancing. But I also love being in the background – seeing all the costumes and settings we produced makes me feel like I’m part of the whole show.” I marvel at a class’s beautiful costumes and, when a group of 10th graders respond, “Yes, and we made thirty-two of them!” I see the glow of pride on their faces.
- Teamwork is essential. In coming up with themes, teachers in our Spanish department need to work together closely and put their egos on hold, while teachers in the art departments need to step up and be strong team players. When rehearsals for the final production ramp up, the stress throughout the school is palpable, and students begin to act out. But when teachers take responsibility for all students, when they model healthy ways to deal with stress, and when they support the production by giving up precious class time, they teach their students important lessons about supporting each other and working as a team.
Putting together this kind of program is extremely time-consuming and teachers often wonder if it’s worth it. The question sometimes arises: “Does this take too much time away from in-class learning?” But in the end, so much good comes out of this process that we realize it’s one of our greatest teaching opportunities. Students feel proud of their diverse skills. Some of them may not feel successful in academics, but when they shine because of their artistic talents or their amazing ability to dance, they develop self-esteem. Working hard to meet a deadline that can’t be changed teaches responsibility and the need to work together. The lessons students learn in creating a production are real-life skills that will help them be successful in all areas of their future.
And, when the show goes on, it strengthens and renews our feeling that at TCFL, we truly are a community that learns together.