Don't Cancel That Play!

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Recently I heard about the school in New York that canceled an end-of-year kindergarten play because of the nation's "more rigorous learning standards" for college and career readiness. The story made national news (check out the article and video), as did a recent study that found that "kindergarten is the new first grade" in terms of academic rigor.

Obviously, stories like this made me sad. I run a company, after all, called Bad Wolf Press, whose entire purpose is writing and publishing plays for classroom use. But before you assume that educational trends are crushing our little company and this article is a desperate attempt to turn the tide, let me assure you that I have no concern about the future of Bad Wolf. There's a reason we've been writing and publishing musical plays for almost 20 years, and it's not because we've managed to trick the world's teachers and/or swindle students out of their much-deserved life success. We write plays for classrooms—and thousands of teachers all over the world use them—because, hour for hour, almost no other school activity can help students gain as many college and career skills as putting on a play!

Does that sound completely ludicrous? You're probably thinking of the dreadful school plays you've seen. How could that caterwauling have academic value? (Actually, the awfulness of most school plays is what inspired our founders to start Bad Wolf Press in 1995. We wanted to write funny shows that kids and adults would actually love.) But the final performance, whether amazing or unspeakable, is the least important part of putting on a play. What really matters is the learning process of preparing the play. And, during that process, what's actually happening in the students' minds and lives is quite amazing.

First let's address the basic issue of academics. Putting on any play increases reading skills in several important ways. The process of reading, interpreting, memorizing, and speaking the lines improves reading comprehension, vocabulary, and expression; discussing the characters and action of the play introduces students to literary analysis; editing the script and/or songs (as we encourage classes to do) gives students the chance to write prose and poetry. Many teachers also incorporate complementary assignments, such as persuasive writing or class debates, on the material in the play. While I can't speak for all plays out there, every Bad Wolf play fulfills multiple national standards in language arts.

Additionally, if the show teaches curriculum (as most of ours do—social studies, science, grammar, writing, history, math), the memorization of lines and/or songs cements the material in a way that few other teaching methods can. There is increasing evidence that students who participate in curricular plays actually do better on standardized tests than those who don't (mostly anecdotal at this point, but see the comments below from a teacher who recently conducted a study using our play The American Revolution).

And the academic improvements are just the beginning. Participation in plays fosters the kind of confidence, teamwork, and love of learning that sets people apart in every school and workplace on the globe. We hear every day from teachers and parents who are ecstatic about the leaps they see in their young actors—the improvements in self-esteem, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, public speaking, investment in learning and school, creativity, and even parental engagement.

So when educators say, as the New York ones did—"We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers"—I couldn't agree more. But what they don't realize is that they had it right the first time. The best, easiest, and most enjoyable way to impart lifelong skills for future success is to keep doing school plays.



How do plays promote college and career readiness? Let's ask some teachers who've seen it firsthand:

"I have been using plays for 7 years. This experience does more for my students then anything else I could teach them in the classroom. Through readers' theater and performances, I have watched my students blossom and grow as fluent, expressive readers. I have watched their self-confidence soar through the sky. Most importantly, I have given them a love for learning and reading through the plays. It should be mandatory for all classes to do plays. They are gaining invaluable life skills through this experience. I teach first grade and my students come back to visit me and ALWAYS bring up how much they loved being in my class because of the plays! Students that love school will be successful, hard-working, life-long learners, and how much more prepared for 'college and careers' can you get than that? I am so thankful for my school for supporting what I do!"

—Jennifer Swenson, Teacher, Bear Lake Elementary, Apopka, FL

"It amazes me to read that the kindergarten play was canceled in order to prepare the students for college and careers! I am currently working on my master's degree in elementary education at Azusa Pacific University. I recently conducted an action research study in my classroom on the positive effects of performing arts integration. I directed my students in the Bad Wolf Press musical, American Revolution. My study found that over the 6-week rehearsal process and performances, my students improved in all 4 of the '21st Century Learning & Innovation Skills' (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity). These 4C skills ARE the skills that students need to be college and career ready! Schools need to be EMBRACING the performing arts if they want to better prepare their students for the future, not deter from the arts."

– Sarah Seibert, Teacher, Santiago School, Santa Ana, CA

"Students at our school have benefited from putting on plays for the last fifteen years. Our students learn the curriculum with greater depth and understanding, and learn problem-solving, teamwork, communication skills, and are able to RETAIN increased amounts of information—all valuable skills in a 'college and career' environment! Children are more confident, more self-assured, and able to speak publicly without fear—again, a valuable asset to any employer. The children have an increased desire to be at school, which increases motivation to learn—and that’s something that can’t be taught. It has to be intrinsic to the individual. Last time I checked, self-motivation was pretty important in any job or as a college student!"

— Jennifer Luchsinger, Teacher, Washington Elementary School, Riverside, CA

"My classes have performed plays for the past 14 years. This March we performed American Symbols. The students learned so much about our country, its symbols and history. The parents are still talking about it. We just went on a field trip to our local museum for a 'Pride and Patriotism' exhibit and the docents who led the class through the exhibit were amazed at all the children knew about our country. The children frequently broke out in song when asked about what they know about symbols and patriotism. We did this play from start to finish in a little less that 4 weeks. I cannot tell you how valuable the experience was for all involved. How many second graders can say they know a little bit about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence? They just took their test to see how much they have learned over the past year and all of them have done a remarkable job. I have never worried about THE TEST. They are motivated and excited about learning and I believe your plays are a big part of their success. I also want to tell you how many of my past students write me to let me know they have wonderful memories of their play. I have NEVER heard from a child the words, 'I remember when we studied for the test,' but I hear over and over the wonderful memories of performing their play."

—Kristen Braunreiter, Teacher, Dibble School, Jackson, MI

"I am a teacher at a title one school in a low income neighborhood. Over the past 12 years, I have watched so many students who have never and would never have the opportunity of being in a play gain confidence and poise, and find a place to thrive. Most of my theater students try running for office, participate in the spelling bee, and are student leaders. I have seen some of the shyest students grow into high school leaders and role models. Being in theater production is just like having a job. Everyone is responsible for getting to work at the required times. They need to read and memorize songs, choreography, and lines just as employees have to learn routines, manuals, speeches at a job. In a job, teamwork is important. You have to work together on projects that have deadlines. A theater group is a team whose finished product is a wonderful play. Each member is responsible for doing their part to make that play a success. Just like a job, we expect our students to follow rules for conduct and be prepared.

"Theater is most definitely preparation for the future. As a student now in college told me, 'I would never have gotten this far if it weren't for 4th, 5th and 6th grade theater. I realized then that I really was talented, and now I am taking my talents to become a hotel manager and concierge.' Theater involves reading, problem solving, and even leadership skills (I always have a director's assistant and stage manager). It involves teamwork, presentation skills, memorization, and following directions. Theater puts so many of things we teach in our classrooms into real, tangible action. Theater matters!"

—Kathy Wilbur, Teacher, Prairie Elementary, CA

"Preparing for a play performance is a highlight in a student's learning experience. Students read, re-read, memorize, problem solve, think critically, gain experience with public speaking and express themselves creatively, while building their knowledge on the play's topic. Students treasure their scripts and lyrics and read them over and over and many achieve full memorization of the entire script. Most of all, plays give students an experience in hard work and in revising one's actions to make the story come across with more depth. Play productions are for those who are committed to high-quality work with text and to following directions, thinking on one's feet and following through, despite all obstacles. All of these skills are exactly what colleges are looking for in their student body."

—Mary Rowlands, Teacher, The Laureate School, San Luis Obispo, CA

"I have children afraid to speak in public, but after singing in the choir for one play they come back the next year and want a part—fear is gone. I have seen children grow in confidence and creativity during their time participating in a play. However, the BIGGEST job satisfaction for me was the year one student in 6th grade wanted to be in the play, but struggled a great deal with reading. We worked individually with him on his lines, using actions to help him memorize them. By the time we performed the play he was confident in his part and projected magnificently. His parents came to me after the last performance gushing with thanks for my work with him...he now WANTED to read because he saw a reason to do so. That makes it all so very worthwhile!"

—Karen Wesley, Teacher, Marion Homeschool Assistance Program, Marion, IA

"Plays have helped my students to upgrade who they are as learners and as human beings in general. Confidence skyrockets, risk-taking grows, content learning deepens. As well, and perhaps more importantly, students learn the power of working hard as a team to produce something that is significant, not just in the eyes of a teacher, but in the eyes of the broader community."

—Peter Strand, Teacher, Irving School, Bozeman, MT

"Learning to speak to an audience is a life skill that only develops with practice and experience. The earlier and more often the experience, the better. Performing in a musical or play of any sort requires a child to memorize lines and lyrics. That process teaches a child the value of repetition, 'the mother of learning,' to make any skill their own. Too often, in the fast-paced modern 'academic' program, students never repeat skills to automaticity. Finally, as readers, students learn to make characters come to life. They actually think about how their characters would speak and act, transferring that back to their classroom readers, making them more critical and capable readers. Finally, and related to the first point, students develop confidence. They take on a challenge in a new and challenging area and see what they are capable of. The activity expands their personal universe."

— Rich Howell, Retired Teacher and Current Volunteer, Pleasant Valley School, Williams Ranch School, Scotten School, CA

"Plays put concepts in students' minds that last! They will refer to the songs and the things that apply to their learning at so many times over the months of the school year. Then, the social advantages are worth every minute of the time we spend. Students plan their moves, learn the skills of leadership and presentation, and quickly memorize their parts. While they are learning the plays, they also are creatively showing skills of how to present to an audience. Plays are the best thing of the day for the students, and definitely give kids more skills for going to college!"

—Ruth Kenney, Teacher, Terrace Park Elementary, Mountlake Terrace, WA

"I tell my students I don't expect them to become Broadway actors, but they will use the skills they get in my class in many areas of their lives and all throughout their education. Improvisation helps with quick thinking, problem solving and thinking out of the box. An actual play helps build skills of organization, working as a team, memorizing, becoming comfortable in front of others and the list goes on. In what workforce do you not use all of these skills? The arts have been proven time and again to be an important role in the success of students—why can't academia recognize this?"

—Glendia N. Strandin, Drama Specialist, Spectrum Progressive School of Rockford, Rockford, IL

"I have done a play with several grade levels almost every year I have taught for 13 years. First of all, you can build a play around a story, which is supporting literacy. Acting out the story only deepens the understanding/comprehension. Musical plays reach all children on a variety of levels. You can tie plays into a unit of study that that grade level is doing (e.g. we just finished a "Lost in Space" play based upon Vacation on Mars as 1st grade was studying the planets and space in their science curriculum). Finally, the student that struggles in the classroom may be the 'star' on the stage! Are we going to rob that child of that experience? The superintendent at that New York elementary school needs to look at the research that demonstrates improved literacy and language skills from involvement in music and the arts."

—Nancy Kickham, Teacher, Bayless Elementary, St. Louis, MO

For more thoughts on the value of plays in the classroom, please click here.


Kindergarteners star in Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock
Kindergarteners star in
Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock

Learning parts of speech with Pirates from Grammar Island

Fifth graders master U.S. history with white wigs and 13 Colonies

Students tackle the tough issues with Bullies Anonymous

Learning about the solar system with Vacation on Mars

Mushrooms (aka first graders) learn about habitats in Biomes

Sixth graders bring ancient history to life with Hatshepsut: Queen of Denial

Students learning the essentials of good behavior in Character Matters

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