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The reluctant learner

Two boys and two girls sit against a wall in theatre class.

How to engage students who want to be someplace else

By Peter Duffy

It’s a sad fact of the theatre teacher’s life: not all of the students in your class want to be there. Some students would rather clean up after food fights than take a theatre class, but there they are. Many a well-intentioned guidance counselor has placed students into drama classes because the meeting times fit their schedules, or because the students are “active learners” who would enjoy “those games you play in your room.” True, drama is usually an elective course, so there is some degree of self-selection, but it can serve as a dumping ground for students with challenging scheduling needs.

Fortunately, most students who show up for theatre have a true desire to learn about acting, stagecraft, playwriting, or some other aspect of theatre arts. The question is how to get all students to invest in the class. If a child doesn’t like math, he or she can, in many math classes, simply disappear behind a desk. In a course of study like drama, tuning out means sitting down and not participating—which is, frankly, not an option for a theatre class. How do we, as teachers, get all oars rowing in the same direction so that the energy in the room is not that of the least enthusiastic student?

Not-learning as self-defense

In his essay “I Won’t Learn From You” (New Press, 1995), progressive educator Herbert Kohl discusses the idea of not-learning. He maintains that learning is a painful, personal process and that choosing not to learn something could be seen from a student’s perspective as his or her best option. Kohl remembers how he rejected learning Yiddish because his mother didn’t speak it. His father and grandparents were all fluent, and he didn’t want to be party to conversations that excluded his mother. Not-learning for him was a willful act of solidarity with his mother, not an act of incompetence.

In her brilliant book After-Education (SUNY, 2003), Deborah P. Britzman unpacks the work of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein to explain how the process of weaving new information into our old selves can be difficult and scary. Every time we learn something new, we have to re-integrate that new information into our former selves. This process is deeply personal, and not-learning is something we all do; yet teachers are shocked when they see this behavior in their students.

Think about difficult conversations you’ve had about religion or politics. If you’ve heard information you didn’t want to hear and you discounted it because of the source, the attitude of the speaker, or some other prejudicial factor, you’ve practiced not-learning. Not-learning can be a useful tool to protect our values and ourselves, but it can also be a willful eschewing of information that prevents us from gaining greater insights into our selves and the world. In one course I teach, I illustrate this point by showing a slide of a cow, grazing in a pasture. Then I show another slide of a hamburger. Next I tell the class that the following eight slides are images of the cow going through the process to become that hamburger. When I ask who wants to see those slides, no one has ever raised a hand.

Some information is too much to handle. We are happier not thinking about a cow while eating a hamburger, so we bat away that information. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but we have to recognize that we all practice non-learning, for a variety of reasons.

Kohl puts it this way: “Learning how to not-learn is an intellectual and social challenge; sometimes you have to work very hard at it. It consists of an active, often ingenious, willful rejection of even the most compassionate and well-designed teaching. It subverts attempts at remediation as much as it rejects learning in the first place. It was through insight into my own not-learning that I began to understand the inner world of students who chose to not-learn what I wanted to teach.”

A man looks at his laptop in frustration, with his head in one hand. He sits in a booth and his laptop is covered in stickers.There are many reasons why a student would be reluctant to learn drama. Drama is still seen by many students, and adults, as a waste of time, a soft skill, a less-than-macho activity or the avocation of theatre geeks. Getting up on your feet and practicing spontaneity could be so stress-inducing that students would rather fail the class than take that risk. Some students might be so terrified of memorizing lines or looking foolish in front of their peers that they would retreat into not-learning. There are hundreds of valid concerns from the perspective of young learners to practice not-learning.

To be clear, some students are out to get even with the people who put them in drama instead of the study hall where they could talk with their friends. They are going to make the lives of their guidance counselor and drama teacher a trial. Not all instances of student resistance are a result of an inclination toward not-learning, but when they are, there are some things we can do about them.

The art of off-balance

Imagine a classroom in which all the students are tipping forward in their chairs. Though not a literal goal, this edge-of-our-seats energy in the classroom can be the difference between teaching, learning, and not-learning. It is, of course, easier described than achieved. Our goal as teachers is to interrupt the slouching energy of not-learning that can pervade classrooms just long enough to break the stasis. Every lesson should have elements of surprise, tension, resolution, challenge, ease, curiosity, and novelty—all of which can be antidotes to not-learning and catalysts for spontaneity.

Viola Spolin, the grand dame of improvisational theatre, suggested that the best way to work toward spontaneity is to keep the class off-balance. If we move students away from what they expect, they become more alert and focused. They teeter between the known and the unknown, and this teetering narrows their attention. They wonder, what’s going to happen next? How does this relate to what we just did? How is this going to help me later? What’s the point? Can I even do this? Do I dare try?

Putting our students up on the high wire of positive possibility is difficult enough, but some schools make it even more challenging. There is a trend currently in education for all classes to begin with a “do now” or “bell work,” usually a brief, quiet exercise designed to recap a previous lesson and focus students’ minds on the lesson to come. Though the reasoning for these activities is sound, they can be antithetical to learning that focuses on the physical (i.e., much of what we do in our theatre classes). If the teacher begins class by having students sit down, get comfortable, and work independently, inertia sets in. The hardest thing to fight, in my opinion, is student inertness. Students who do not want to be in your room will cling to the comfort of the desk. It is the one place in the drama classroom where they feel at ease, and just sitting there is the most efficient way for them to practice not-learning.

If the teacher can act as a force against this inertia and get the students off-balance, there is a change of energy in the room and an opportunity to get students to play. Spolin says it this way in her book Theatre Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook (Northwestern University Press, 1985): “Some players experiencing a moment or two of true spontaneity become uncomfortable and frightened. This off-balance moment is the gateway. Support and applaud this glimpse for everyone of sensing the unrealized possibilities.” This tension between anxiety and security, effort and risk, participation and reluctance is the very stuff of spontaneity. Achieving an off-balance moment can turn resistance, fear, timidity, and anxiety into participation.

When I taught high school drama, one trick I used with reluctant students was to get them to unknowingly improvise short scenes with me. I had one student, Robert, who wanted to be a mechanic. He didn’t understand why he had to take English or physics, and least of all drama, if the only thing he wanted to do was to fix cars. On one particular day, I wanted to address the concept of playing an action in my Acting I class, and I set my sights on Robert to help me teach the lesson. I knew that he often worked in his dad’s auto repair shop, so at the beginning of class, when the students were still coming in the room and putting down their bags, I asked him how much a reconditioned clutch would be for my car. After getting the particulars about my car he told me roughly two hundred dollars.

“Two hundred dollars! That’s way too much money!” I protested.

“Well, that’s what it would run ya.” Robert folded his arms. He was obviously well practiced in dealing with cheapskates like me.

“You’d give me a teacher discount anyway, wouldn’t you?”

“I might charge you more because you are my teacher.”

“There’s no way to get it cheaper than that?”

“Nope,” Robert said stoically, feeling as though he won the point.

“Too bad, because I was willing to barter with you.”

By this time, all the students had come into the room and were interested to see what was unfolding between Mr. Duffy and Robert.

“What you got to barter that I want?”

“Well, too late now, but I was going to tell you that if you could cut me a deal, you wouldn’t have to do the final scene at the end of the semester. Oh well.”

“I wouldn’t have to do the final?”

“No, you’re probably right, I should just pay you the two hundred bucks.”

“No, we have a car with a great clutch that I could pull out and install for you tomorrow myself—just pay for labor, like eighty bucks.”

“No, that’s okay. I probably shouldn’t barter with students.”

“Well shoot, don’t even worry about the labor. It’s yours, installed and everything!”

I then went up to Robert, shook his hand, and said, “Robert, I couldn’t have taught today’s lesson without you. See me after class and we’ll really talk about my car.” Then I turned to the class and said, “What you just saw was Robert expertly demonstrating an important acting concept called playing an action.” I explained the concept with them and we discussed how Robert went from belittling me to enticing me to take the clutch.

The most important part of this lesson, though, happened at the end of class. When the bell rang, I pulled Robert aside and thanked him for playing along with me. We had a conversation about my car and then about how what he was doing earlier, dealing with a potential customer, was very much like acting. He was surprised and wasn’t annoyed at me for using him as an example in class. The conversation then shifted to how he felt about his general participation (or non-participation) in the course. From there we were able to figure out a strategy for him to feel comfortable taking on a more active, meaningful role.

If I just played a trick on Robert to teach what I was interested in teaching, with no interest in bringing him along and opening up a further discussion with him, that would be exploitive. I would serve my own purpose of illustrating a point, but at Robert’s expense. If I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to draw him into the lesson and the class, it would have been poor teaching. The real work for the day came from getting him off-balance and creating a gateway between resistance and cooperation. Once that door was opened, I had to take immediate advantage of that opening and get him talking about what he needed to be successful in theatre and what I needed from him as his teacher. We were able to make important strides because of shifting the balance.

Warm-ups can also help move students off-balance. There is a standard warm-up where the facilitator will call out a number and a shape. The students who are walking around the room will have seven seconds to get into groups of that number and create that shape with their bodies. For example, if the facilitator called out, “Five, triangle,” five students would have to create a triangle using only their bodies.

If I want the students to be standing in a circle for the next activity, I will use this exercise and call out the number of people in the class plus one. So if there are twenty-two students in your drama class, you’d call out, “Circle, twenty-three!” Then all the students will move into a big circle and there is room in there for you as well. That small trick creates just enough shift of momentum for you to slip right in with the directions for the next activity.

A smart teacher doesn’t wait for opportunities to rock students off-balance; she plans for them. Doing so breaks up the monotony of the daily routine, but also creates openings for important conversations about students’ learning and not-learning. It engages the students, triggering questions about themselves and the lesson. Once you get students asking questions, they’re hooked: we naturally seek the answers to questions we generate. To go back to my example with Robert, students were most likely asking themselves, when was class going to start? Why is this taking so long? Is Mr. Duffy bribing a student? Is that ethical? They stayed tuned-in to find out the answers to their questions, and once I knew they were off-balance, I could quickly shift gears right into the drama unit that Robert and I introduced together. Being off-balance is not just an effective teaching strategy, but a mind-set that forces us as teachers to figure out how to work with students to move them beyond defensive student mode and into uncertain-but-curious learner mode. If we play it right, students can end up surprising us.

Warm-ups as analogy

In working with reluctant learners, sometimes it is best to come at material through the back door. As described in the example with Robert, it can be most engaging for students if the teacher takes a sideways glance at the goals and objectives for the day and approaches them surreptitiously. Teaching through experience and analogy can help toward this end. The novelty of the activity encourages reluctant learners to participate more frequently—and coming up with these ideas stretches my own skills and creativity. My goal with every lesson is to find a way for students to internalize a concept first, either physically or through imagination, in order to be able to consider the content intellectually. Teaching through analogy could simply mean using a warm-up as a springboard for the rest of the class or developing a more involved series of steps that will lead students to their own conclusions about the experience.

One brief example: When teaching English I would use the “human knot” game, where everyone gets into a clump, grabs someone’s hand and then tries to untangle themselves into an unbroken circle, as a way to teach prepositions. The students all used prepositions such as under, over, around, through, and between to complete the task, and armed with (or rather, disarmed by) this direct experience, they were primed to learn more about prepositions. When the students have an experience with the material prior to its explicit teaching, the content is automatically personalized in a way that even the most engaging direct instruction couldn’t achieve.

Last year I was working with a young middle school teacher who was excited about her lesson for the day. She found a collection of animal monologues that she thought would be perfect to use with her students. The students read the monologues and selected their favorite to work on and memorize. When I sat in on the class, the student teacher planned to lead the students through a series of physical exercises to help them learn more about how that animal might live in their bodies. She started the day off with a counting exercise and vocal warm-ups.

When I pointed it out to her that these warm-ups seemed disconnected from the lesson, she was surprised. She did not even consider how a warm-up could prepare students for the lesson’s goals and objectives. If, instead of a counting exercise and the vocal warm-ups, the teacher chose to do a warm-up that explored various physicalities without explaining necessarily why, she would be warming up their bodies and getting them to ask questions about what they were doing. If she had students moving around independently while exploring high, medium, and low space, for instance, she might have been able to build a bridge to the day’s focus. She could guide the class toward animal movement without saying, “Today we’re going to explore how animals move,” only to then have fifteen instantaneous and unsolicited demonstrations of zoo life. It is always easier to bring the lesson to the students then the students to the lesson.

Two of my graduate theatre education students at the University of South Carolina have made important discoveries about using warm-ups as analogy. One of them, Sandra Dietel, wrote this about a lesson she taught at a local high school:

“In teaching a unit on commedia dell’arte to a Drama I class, I was interested in familiarizing the students with the main commedia characters. Since commedia characters are, in large part, defined by their physicality, I wanted the students to gain a more kinesthetic appreciation for the characters. I began class with a follow-the-leader exercise to activate the students’ awareness of leading with different parts of the body. Students worked in partners. One was the leader; one was the follower. All the students did the exercise simultaneously. I called out instructions in several steps. I had the partners imitate each other’s walks and experiment with leading with different parts of the body.

At the conclusion of this exercise, I transitioned to the commedia content by demonstrating a basic commedia stance and had the students imitate it. From this point, I divided the students into groups and assigned them a particular commedia character. I gave each group a handout that had an overview of the character’s personality, physicality and function in the commedia scenario. Each group had to introduce their character to the class by showing the character’s walk, presenting a line the character would most likely say (most groups did this by showing a very quick little scene), and by coming up with a mnemonic device that would help the class remember that character. I concluded the class by showing a video excerpt of professional commedia actors demonstrating each of the main character’s walks so the students could compare their interpretation with the one on the DVD.”

Sandra’s example is important for several reasons. First, it invites students to make their own discoveries in a low-stakes environment. Because all the students were engaged in simultaneous play, no one felt singled out, so they had more permission to push themselves. Secondly, students could enjoy the activity and spend a few minutes trying to figure out what the activity was about and not have to confront the “learning” right away. When Sandra asked them to consider the commedia characters, the students were already in their bodies and asking themselves questions. Reluctant students could participate—even if it was only to make fun of the activity. Sandra was able to transition seamlessly from warm-up to instruction so there was no need to stop the warm up only to begin again with the day’s activity. The activity was the instruction.

Another student teacher, David Donelan, shared this experience he had while teaching at an area middle school:

“Learning is about the brain making connections. When activities are not related, it is difficult for students to learn, to remember, to integrate. If theatre games are just a warm-up unrelated to the content focus of the lesson, they are just that: a game, and students will treat them as such.

An example of a theatre game that was integral to the content of the lesson is Inflection Canyon. Briefly, students form two lines (students in line one turn to face students in line two). Each line is holding a length of rope. The rope can signify differing levels of pitch or volume; rate is determined by the speed a student walks in between the two lines of students who form a canyon bridge. Students in the line can hold the rope high or low. One student walks between the ropes and at each pair of students, says his/her word or phrase based on the level of the ropes. For example, if one rope is held high for volume and the other one held low for pitch, the student would say his or her name in a high volume with low pitch.

This theatre game wasn’t a warm-up to the lesson; it was the lesson. Students were given brief definitions of volume, pitch, and rate [which falls under “Knowledge,” the first level in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives]. But then they had to apply that knowledge in Inflection Canyon. That [outcome: “Application”] is higher up on Bloom’s Taxonomy [coming after “Comprehension” but before “Analysis”], and is more closely aligned to the standard being taught. And more importantly, students are more likely to remember Inflection Canyon and their high-volume/low pitch or low-volume/high rate calls because they experienced them than they would simply remember specific definitions.”

These two examples from theatre teachers in training demonstrate the importance of creating a through-line of intention for the class which all activities support. The learning started in both examples from the moment the students walked in the door. The warm-up raised questions in the students’ minds, the activities flowed one to the next, and the students were moving through the lesson without any teacher-created opportunities for resistance.

An important consideration in both examples is how both teachers anticipated and planned for transitions. I tell my students that eighty-five percent of classroom management happens while you are planning your lesson. If you can anticipate the bumps, you will know when to drive around them. Planning the transitions in between activities will make your teaching stronger. Telling your students, “Get up out of your seats and walk to the circle” is not planning for the transition. How many students do you want traveling at once? How will they be moving? Will they push in their chairs? What will they do when they get to the circle? All of these ideas have to be considered before you invite the whole group to get into a circle. With younger grades you have to worry about the stampede. With older grades, you have to worry about the student participating at all. Both of these teachers developed these lessons so completely that they had a special transitions section in their lesson planning.

These examples further illustrate how, by simply reconsidering the warm-up and placing it centrally in the instruction, the activity can frame the lesson and become an invitation to learning.

If all teachers would consider these two simple ideas—getting students off-balance and mining the analogy in the warm-ups we choose—we would see the teaching/learning dynamic shift. We would see students who are asking questions of the daily activities, drawing themselves out, participating in creative play, and personalizing their learning. With any luck, even the students who got assigned your drama class would find a piece of themselves in the lesson and give that day’s work a chance.

Many students see not-learning as their only real option to protect themselves from learning material that hits too close. Teachers do not have to make this an easy out, however. If we remember the resources available to the theatre artist when planning our lessons—surprise, humor, movement, desire, conflict—our lessons can capture a bit of the magic that exists in theatre. And that magic is sometimes just enough to inspire even the most reluctant learners.

Peter B. Duffy heads the Master of Arts and Teaching Program at the University of South Carolina.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Teaching Theatre.


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