As a teacher, I’ve moved schools a number of times and have been lucky enough to experience teaching in some vastly different communities. In a recent shift, I went from working at an inner city school serving one of the poorest areas of Toronto, to a school nestled in a wealthy little pocket surrounded by massive houses worth millions of dollars. The average family incomes in these two settings are at utterly opposite ends of the spectrum, and each community comes with their own unique strengths and needs. And yet, somewhere at the core of it all, kids are kids and teaching is teaching. And, the students seem to have more commonalities than they do differences.
In any community, I strive to create opportunities for students to get involved and have experiences outside of their classrooms. To that end, I always volunteer my time and energy working on the “school production.” My heart swells with delight watching a group of seven-year-olds trip through a dance number or a gaggle of grade five kids belting out a catchy tune. In my experience, the joy that the school play brings to the audience is only surpassed by the pride felt by all those little actors when they take their final bows.
I was surprised during my most recent directorial encounter by just how much this particular community had to give. Many of our student performers had years of dance and music classes to draw on. There were parents donating skills and time for all aspects of the production—from arranging the perfect costumes to printing professional quality programs. At this school, an expert artist constructed and painted the sets. Well-trained dance teachers came in to choreograph lively numbers. We even had high school students from the School of the Arts coordinating specialized stage lights and sound cues (not to mention, letting us use their oh-so-professional stage). I was bowled over at every step of the process by just how much support our production had.
In my previous school, things were a little more catch-as-catch-can. Costumes were pieced together out of the students’ existing wardrobe, embellished with handmade decorations. Sets were created and painted by the kids, usually on giant rolls of butcher paper, then duck taped to the back of the gym walls. The sound system might have consisted of one shared, not-so-reliable microphone, and the lighting entailed turning off the fluorescent lights above the audience. A well-meaning teacher (me) choreographed the musical numbers, drawing on my less than professional training (unless you count the endless adolescent dances performed in my bedroom to an audience of stuffed animals). Programs consisted of a student-made cover, processed repeatedly on the trusty photocopier, and the dollar store reigned supreme in the props department.
The results? Really not all that different. Sure, in the one school the production was all glossy and high quality, and certainly more enjoyable for my family, whom I drag along to all these things. But, at the heart of the matter, the benefits were the same. The applause was just as thunderous, and the satisfaction, just as sweet. Both groups learned the value of teamwork and perseverance. Both groups shouldered the burden of hours of rehearsal and balancing their time with other responsibilities. All the kids put pieces of their soul into creating the finished production, and all their faces shone with pride when the final curtain closed (no matter what that curtain was made of).
And in each auditorium, the smiles on their parents’ faces were just as wide, and everyone went home with hands warm from clapping. Well, if you are a parent, you know. You’ve watched your kid perform something they’ve been practicing hard for. You’ve seen your little one, so busy waving at you from the choir that they forget to sing. You know the feeling that it puts in your heart and the lump that it puts in your throat—independent of a sleek program and professional makeup. Parents don’t need fancy stage lighting, because for them, the spotlight naturally falls on their child and the performance is Oscar-winning no matter what.
While the bells and whistles may be a nice touch, I also think there is something wonderfully heart-warming about a student-painted set and costumes made from construction paper. In any community, the school play brings a lot of hard work, extra hours, and nervous tension for all involved, but I got to tell you—every year it also brings some of my very favourite teaching moments. So, no matter the setting, I say, the show must always go on!
Auditions are coming soon—enjoy the journey!
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