Participation in fall musical teaches students essential skills

I expect some students will succumb to illness following the high school musical production. There is such a buildup; late evening rehearsals, along with all of the exhaustion that comes when teens pour their hearts and souls into a common effort.

There always seems to be some magic at work when the fall musical finally comes together. This year was no exception with Heights High’s production of “Damn Yankees.”

Students from all of our schools came together to sing, dance, and perform, comprising two different casts over four performances. Orchestra members were in the pit playing some complicated jazzy tunes, alongside a handful of hired professionals. 

An army of students, all dressed in black, moved sets and props that they had created and built, operated spotlights, and adjusted sound levels. Each contributed a special part to the practice, study, and mountain of work that goes into producing a show. 

At the same time, these students were expected to attend classes, complete their homework, participate on sports teams, and do all of the other things kids are signed up to do. It is no wonder that some students get sick after the final performance—they  are completely spent.

I keep reminding myself that I am a math teacher, but I really think that the learning that goes on in an authentic experience, such as putting on a play with all of its complexities and necessary cooperation, is probably more useful to most students than some of the curriculum they are required to learn in school. 

Aside from developing competence in whatever one’s part is in the production, a student needs to understand teamwork, leadership, patience anddetermination, and should have the skills to cope with frustration.

There is no test for these skills. Every student involved in this year’s production will remember it and will have grown in some way because of it. I wish I could say that students will have similar fond memories of solving quadratics, but math experiences seem unlikely to stick with them in the same way as the play.

What if skills could be learned through experiences more like the musical? Having something real to present to an audience raises the stakes in learning. We have classrooms and entire buildings that present projects on a regular basis to the community, not including musical performances. But these are part of the curriculum. 

Ever since testing and standards have overtaken logic in the state of Ohio, it is harder to have project-based and authentic learning activities. We are so set on what needs to be learned, and how that learning will be assessed, that we lose out on the kind of open-ended, large-scale projects that lead to real interest and discovery on the part of our students. 

I am, perhaps, somewhat jaded because I tried to teach this way early in my career. But if specific standards are required for a particular project, it narrows the scope of what students are free to question and discover through their own curiosity. If the outcome of a project creates restraints that limit the scope so completely, then it hardly seems worth doing.

I am not against standards, but I believe there are many valuable things to learn that may not be prescriptive.

Perhaps things will change in education to allow more flexibility in how and what students learn. Unfortunately, I believe things will get worse before they get better.

As school districts fight for additional money through levies, the arts are usually among the first things to go. A case in point is Willoughby Eastlake that lost a school levy on Nov. 5, and has begun making cuts to arts education. Our district has always valued the arts. I hope we have the will and determination to continue funding our schools so that enriching activities, like the fall musical, will continue.

Ari Klein

Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.

Read More on A Teacher's Voice
Volume 12, Issue 12, Posted 4:25 PM, 12.02.2019