My Kids Wrote and Performed a Musical in Eight Days. Here’s What I Learned In the Process.

A willingness to make a fool of myself helps my students take risks, too.

What I Learned From Leading the Middle School Musical

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my school’s new, revitalized summer school program. For my summer course, a colleague and I attempted the impossible. We got 50 kids to write, rehearse, and perform a middle school musical in eight days.

I should make it clear that these kids were not our academic superstars or our top performers. I mean, some of them were. But others came to us with failing grades and multiple suspensions. They were the kind of ragtag band of misfits that wins the championship at the end of the movie … but they were the version you see before the opening credits.

Not to spoil the suspense, but they did it. They wrote a musical. Every single kid learned his or her lines. Not a single actor missed an entrance during the performance (although there was a slight accident with a misplaced table in scene eight). It wasn’t Hamilton or anything, but I was still extremely proud when they were done.

Summer school is different from regular school, and the kind of focus you can demand for a week and a half is different from what you can expect for an entire semester. Still, I felt that some of what we accomplished in that short period of time could transfer to regular class.

So I asked myself, how do we move this level of motivation and commitment into the classroom? How do I get the kids who memorized all their lines to memorize all their vocabulary words?

Here’s why a middle school musical worked with my students:

  1. Choice. The kids chose to take this class, even though some of them aren’t enthusiastic performing arts types. That gave a level of buy-in from the beginning. It’s tricky, but not impossible, to replicate in regular class. Independent study projects, differentiated assignments, and student-selected reading material are all options I can use next school year.
  2. Sense of accountability. Nobody wanted to let everybody else down by failing to do their part during the play. This one’s tricky, because I’m definitely not down with making kids responsible for each other’s grades or learning. Everybody hates a group project where everyone gets the same grade. Still, I think that by assigning specific roles or jobs to students, I can encourage that kind of accountability and community that we found during the play.
  3. Clear final goal. It helped that our middle school musical was very public since we did a performance for the entire school at the end of the summer session. I think I could easily add some coffeehouse style performances or presentation opportunity to my class, and having students present to each other at the end of a unit or project is a pretty easy thing to do.
  4. Willingness to take risks. During musical rehearsals, I occasionally had to sing to show the kids how the melody was supposed to sound. I am a bad singer. Very, very bad. I think my willingness to embarrass myself and do something outside my comfort zone made kids more comfortable doing the same (and they knew they couldn’t possibly be worse than me!). I’m generally pretty silly in class, but I think that ramping up my eagerness to make a fool of myself might be key when it comes to getting kids to take risks and try new things.

I don’t expect my regular language arts class to look exactly like my two-week summer school course, and I don’t think I’ll be able to incorporate all these changes starting on the first day of next year. But I have gained a new respect for what my kids can accomplish under the right conditions, and I’m going to try to replicate those circumstances as best I can. So if you walk by my room and see the kids marching around on tables singing show tunes about the cafeteria food, don’t worry. It’s all part of my master plan.