Thursday, July 12, 2007

opening and closing night :: my three weeks with the gifted kids

There are pictures in this photo set on flickr (which will be updated as soon as I get home this weekend), but here are a few off my card to give you an idea of the nine fabulous students I've been working with these three weeks.

We read something like eight or nine plays in the three weeks we spent on the St. Norbert campus: Oedipus, Glass Menagerie, Tartuffe, Trifles, Othello, Midsummer Night's Dream, A Doll House, and Death of a Salesman. All white males, save one, most dead. We would feel guilty for this, save the canonical worth of these plays and my own need to fill in the gaps in my literature experience.

I did most of the typical theatre teaching: improv games, set design (they even constructed their own model sets out of bits of string and wire, slips of fabric, flowers clipped from outdoors), costumes, character building, lighting and sound, etc. We learned to keep rhythm with one another, and these kids bonded so quickly, I swear they came in ready-made best friends--without that social ostracizing of being the "smart kid," (in fact, so many of them became the "not smart kid" or the one being shown up by all the others, though they didn't resort to competitive behavior, which really surprised me) they were able to gel swiftly and easily.

Their final assignment was, of course, a performance. Instead of having them slide into roles (How could I know what play would suit them when I hadn't met them? How could I know how many students, how many males, how many females, who had talent for comedy, who for drama, who for physical action?), I had them group by three's (such a magical number) and write their own script. Script writing was then etched into the curriculum and they learned to put together: a costume plot, a prop plot, lighting and sound plot, character descriptions, a synopsis. They learned the proper way to tag dialogue and how to write stage directions. They learned how to develop character and how to block their own scenes. Some needed more work then others; some naturally slid into their roles with little forcefulness or straining.

There was really an ideal balance of scripts: we started with a macabre re-telling of the Snow White story (a vampire twist) that involved the most elaborate sets and costuming done by one girl interested in fashion design and carrying a sewing kit. The queen wore a transformed t-shirt and it actually worked, looking elegant from the audience.

The next group wrote a piece that was taken from any adolescent girl's experience with friendship: the gossip fight. The one with all the threats, the silly tears, the mean notes (only these were MySpace and voice mail, but we all know what they're talking about). The costuming was easy (street clothes), as was the set (three folding chairs), but the dialogue, though seemingly silly, was fairly realistic, and one of the sweetest girls in the class transformed her face into a glare that could send daggers across the stage.

The last play was a comedy (this, I ordered on purpose)--the longest, the one that was abstract and mimicking the theatre of the absurd variety. Mr. Wiggleson, a character completely created by our sole male student, recounts his many memories with his malevolent nemesis: gum. With its chewy nastiness, this gum follows him about, preventing him from the early joys of walking and reading, going on to wreak havoc on relationships on landlords. This play was clever and the actors did an impressive part playing each role: the ridiculous protagonist, the understated secretary (who had to ad lib for the forgetful and doddering actor playing the forgetful and doddering role), and the sarcastic side kick. Now I just have to get that voice out of my head, the words: Rather; Mmmm, yes.

We brought them a dozen red roses for their performance, which had a decent audience, considering what little publicity we did. A string of students from other classes as well as RAs and instructors sat back to see what these kids have learned, and I would say there is some potential in many of the students.
What struck me more than their performance (and they will not like this; they'd rather me rave on about acting skills) was their utter willingness to discuss the plays we read, the intelligence and intuitiveness they brought to the texts, and the energy they had in the classroom. They could go on for hours, the instructors sitting back and observing, as they picked apart each dramatic text.

Of course, the most fun were the improv games. The warm ups: clapping in time, passing that clap in a circle, so it seemed like one continuous clap. Bibbity bibbity bop, adding new tricks as we went (one girl twisting furiously as a bowl of jello, our male student going through the game in character). The games I observed from Kelly's bachelorette party came in particularly handy: we had the girls serenade our boy student, we had them tell a story with slips of paper like cotton fluff on the ground, we had them tell most outrageous tardy stories.

They were good at laughing. Good at happiness, good at bonding, good at getting up and trying something out.

Saturday we have our exit interviews, where we talk to them about how they did as students, hear what they have to say about the class in general. I hope we were adequate; I hope they weren't disappointed. As with students with learning disabilities, teaching the opposite end of the spectrum is difficult too.

Would I do it again? I think so. The timing was so terribly off though. I have always wanted to teach at a gifted camp, and here I got to teach at one of the most rigorous I think there is out there. And that darn wedding, less than a month away, that keeps nagging me for its attention, and my own difficulties I've had with what I've affectionately termed The Crazy. But I'd do it again, with more focus, with new texts, maybe with some return students. I'd love to work with these same nine again, but I have a feeling most kids that come through "nerd camp" are wonderful. It's just that these are my first, my favorites, my best group of kids I've worked with (so far). Well... I did love my creative writing kids. And my freshmen. And my drama kids. And my lit mag kids. And my juniors. OK, so this is just a bright, shining recent group of kids, another place in my heart.


elise said...

That was an absolutely horrible picture of me you posted! Such gratitude...

michelle said...

i want to know how to do the baby foot prints! can you send me a pattern? or a link to it? i love it and have a need to do it :)

GreenishLady said...

The pictures tell the whole story. They had a great time. It's obvious. Sounds like a wonderful class for everyone involved. Well done!