Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Valedictorians of Technical Theater

Guest post by Jan Herder

If you have a theater program in your school you may have couple students who do all the work, run all the shows, design and hang the lights and sets, build and paint the scenery, mix the sound, and otherwise inhabit the space as much as they can. Usually they aren’t the ones in the light, or on the stage as performers--though sometimes they are involved that way too. Some of those students find their way to me and I am incredibly impressed by their passion, commitment, creativity, and diligence.  Many, like me, graduated from high school at the bottom of their class, or have been labeled “learning challenged’ or are part of the ‘pharmy’ culture we have created in order to keep kids compliant. I call these students the ‘Valedictorians of Tech,’ and I am honored to get the chance to work with them.  

Actually I prefer students like this--they learn by doing, they construct their personal learning environment, indeed, their process of construction is their learning environment. Often they are self taught, exhibit leadership aptitude, and are great collaborators. I have been working with these kinds of students for the past 20 years or so and my process as an educator and facilitator keeps evolving, and keeps surprising me.  In some ways it must be like teaching Drivers Ed--letting them drive! Its great to have a break pedal for emergencies, but they can’t learn unless they actually do it. Letting go of my pedagogical expectations is probably the biggest challenge for me as their mentor--but the result of allowing them to take ownership--of their environment, their learning, their ambitions and fears--the drama as they work out the collaborative process of working with others-- this is where education occurs.

Is there a wider lesson here? Although ‘project’ based learning has been around a long time, a theatrical production, for example, brings something else to the equation-- a ‘product.’  A friend of mine coined this as ‘productivity centered service learning’ --there is a lesson here for us as we consider transforming education. It’s the call for relevance. And I find the same idea in Lisa’s call to “publish it” rather than “hand it in.” That is, that the student’s learning journey counts for something, that we take them seriously and their work is meaningful, that there are specific, concrete results, or ‘products’ that emerge from their efforts. These results are not arbitrary or contrived to teach a lesson--but that it is important for them and us that their work has value and is seen beyond the classroom.

How could this be applied to our educational system?  We talk about transforming our schools.  What if we shared the responsibility with our students to manage and explore the systems that sustain the school and the community? A great example is the Center for Ecoliteracy which does pioneering work with school gardens, school lunches, and integrating ecological principles and sustainability into school curricula.   How about IT? I long ago learned my students know much more than I do about computers and technology--I am constantly learning from them. We think we have to get the teachers to implement IT reform--heck, the students have already hacked your system and started a business at the same time. How about the curriculum? Or discipline? Empowering students implies letting go of our habit of control. Opening up education to a radically student centered culture provides great opportunities to support our student’s passion on their learning journey.  Then, what does assessment look like? The proof is in the pudding.

Jan Herder is the Director of Dibden Center for the Arts in their Technical Theater Degree Program at a Performing Arts Center in a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont.


  1. I love the phrase - “publish it” rather than “hand it in.”

  2. Assessment Acrostic Poetry

    Applying knowledge to create new ideas
    Seizing opportunities for new inventions
    Standards that reflect 21st Century skills
    Embracing Social Media
    Synthesizing and solving problems
    Seeing collaboration
    Making real-world connections
    Exploring new technologies
    Navigating Google Earth
    Technology-literate students