How do you get 7-year-olds excited about ancient history? Is it possible to teach life skills in classic literature? How can a teacher make old lessons feel new again? At our school, the answer to all three questions was turning an eighth-century masterpiece into a surprising student musical.
Last year, our group of teachers, parents and 50 elementary students came together to turn The Odyssey into musical theater. Months of planning and practice paid off when we wowed our 200-person audience and left students inspired and engaged in learning.
For me, transforming The Odyssey into a student musical took a summer of research, rereads of the text and more than one glass of wine. But it gave me more than it took. In addition to the rave reviews and student pride, seven surprising lessons came out of the journey.
1. Teachers will happily go beyond their job descriptions for something they believe in.
We joked that our own Odyssey was a journey of trials and tribulations much like the original text. There was heroism, joy, adversity, folly and triumph. I wrote the play, our music teacher composed the songs and my co-teacher directed. Students managed the lights, sound and costumes. Parents designed and constructed sets with the help of the school art specialist. Teachers rearranged schedules to get students to rehearsals. It was a team effort and it was so worth it.
2. Music teachers are under-utilized resources.
Our music teacher is an accomplished singer-songwriter and a huge fan of the musical Hamilton. She jumped right in and wrote more than eight new songs in several genres, including a Klezmer-style song, a blues duet and an eight-minute genre-bending rap.
3. School shouldn’t feel like Scylla and Charybdis.
No rewards, no punishments, no threats—just a community working together. Before becoming a teacher, I worked in professional theater in Washington, D.C., and Cape Cod. I experienced firsthand how deeply empowering it is to contribute creatively to a communal artistic effort. After working together for three months, I witnessed a growing sense of ownership, confidence, ease and leadership among our students. School became fun. Everyone worked hard but everyone benefitted.
4. Hard work feels good.
By January, our Odyssey was in full swing. We were rehearsing multiple times a week. The music director had a steady rotation of singers in and out of her space. We began the serious work of creating sets, costumes and props. Children memorized lines and blocking. Others mapped out the movement of sets, props and lights. This required full effort from every member of our community, including a dedicated group of parent volunteers. It was hard work, but it was exhilarating. My students realized that it feels great to give maximum effort for an extended time frame when you believe in the outcome.
5. Learning differences are assets in theater.
We all know the kid who disrupts, can’t sit still, and never listens or pays attention. Hopefully, as teachers, we’re getting that kid the intervention they need. In my class, we made him the star of the play. He transformed his wiggly body into heroic stances. He spoke commandingly and sang his heart out. It was a shining moment in a life of confusion and a beautiful sight to see.
6. Students advocate for themselves.
We had a 6-year-old wild child play the part of a torchbearer. One day at rehearsal, I heard him shouting from the back of the stage, “Get out of my way! I guide the light!” Though his approach could have been improved, he had noticed a real blocking situation that needed immediate attention. Every student took that kind of ownership. Teachers became the listeners and students felt heard.
7. I can do it!
When my daughter was a toddler, she would run full-speed down the hill at our playground to the climber. She would climb up the ladder, using all of her power to get to the top. Then she’d stand on the platform and cry because she couldn’t get down. She did this every day for months. I’m more than a little bit like her. I love risk. So I did the hardest thing I could think of doing and it paid off.
Our student musical lessons were such a success that next year we’re tackling Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream!