At the Core: Looking for Natural Alignments

by Jennifer M. DiBella

in Education,Tools & Research

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(This essay was originally featured in TCG’s Special Report on Education 2012: Arts Education at the Core (PDF). That report shares findings from the over 100 theatres that participated in the TCG Education Survey 2012, along with essays from leading theatre education directors on the impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on arts education, and CCSS resources from the past year. If you have your own arts education/CCSS story to share, please email Gus Schulenburg to learn how to participate.)

Turning our theatres into classrooms and the classrooms of NYC into theatres—that is what Education at Roundabout does yearly for  over 6,000 students and teachers. Over the past 17 years, Education at Roundabout has expanded to include diverse programming, ranging from student matinees, to classroom residencies and school-wide partnerships in the NYC public schools, to professional development workshops for teachers, to an apprenticeship program and our after-school program, Student Production Workshop. We also provide a wide variety of adult learning programs for subscribers and other patrons through our Theatre Plus programs.

At Roundabout, partnership is at the core of all of our education programs, so when the Common Core State Standards were announced in 2010, we knew that we had to do our best to prepare our teaching artists to support their counterparts in the classroom as they adopted these new standards. While the New York state assessments for high school students won’t completely align with Common Core until later this year, the teachers have now been asked to incorporate the standards into their teaching across in all subject areas. To prepare our teaching artists and partner teachers, we slowly started integrating the Common Core language and instructional shifts into our bi-annual Teaching Artist training seminars and the Professional Development workshops we facilitated for classroom teachers. We carefully examined our programming to look for natural alignments and we have even overhauled our assessment paperwork to align with benchmarks found in the Common Core.

In order to better prepare students for college and career, the Common Core initiative asks educators to shift from content-based instruction towards skill-based learning. This shift aims to give students the tools to access the content information they need to excel in whatever subject area they choose to explore. We quickly found that this “skills-based” shift aligned nicely with the arts integration work that we were already doing in classrooms. As theatre artists, we are required to carefully analyze a script and make choices based on evidence found in the text. Skills like close reading and identifying the author’s purpose are important to helping students make strong artistic choices. Another big push found in the English Language Arts Common Core is an emphasis on using non-fiction and informational texts. In order to support this initiative, we encouraged our partner teachers and teaching artists to use historical primary sources and scholarly articles to help build a social, political and cultural context for plays they are exploring with students. Furthermore, we reminded them that our Upstage Playgoers Guides, which include interviews with artists working on our main stage productions, are fantastic non-fiction resources.

Through our research, we also found that the Common Core aligns nicely with our Theatrical Teaching Framework. The Framework, based on Aristotle’s Poetics, posits that every great lesson has the elements of a great story. When employing the Framework, we ask educators to align their lessons with the theatrical plot structure and to include all of the theatrical principles into their teaching practice. The result is a lesson that is highly engaging, well-scaffolded and academically rigorous. One of the most important elements of the Framework is “Language”. The Common Core requires “regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary”. By asking educators to be intentional about their language and vocabulary choices, we are supporting language acquisition skills that students’ need in order to be successful in college and career.

The Common Core also asks that, whenever possible, educators provide a connection to “industry” so that students can be exposed to varied possible career options. Over the past three years, we have worked hard to capitalize on the rich resources Roundabout has to offer students in our partner schools and after school programs. Not only do students regularly attend our Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, and have the opportunity to meet with the top actors in the business, but we are also looking for less traditional connections to professionals in the field. We have created Theatre Business residencies, where students meet with our Marketing and Development staffs to learn firsthand about their work and then replicate these work processes in their classrooms. We have also created a partnership with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to create a “Hidden Career Path” program, where students meet IATSE members working at top Broadway theatres to learn in detail about their roles and responsibilities and to receive in-depth all access tours of the professional spaces in which they work.

As David Coleman, architect of the Common Core Standards, says, “The great news is that the [Common Core] standards call on so many things the arts do well. The tradition of careful observation, attention to evidence and artists’ choices, the love of taking an artist’s work seriously lies at the heart of these standards.” At Roundabout, we are doing our best to maintain and enhance the alignment of the Common Core Standards across our programs, and we continue to support our partner teachers as they fully integrate the standards across their curriculum.

Jennifer M. DiBella serves as Director of Education at Roundabout Theatre Company, where she has worked since 2005. Education at Roundabout reaches over 8,000 constituents each year through school partnerships, career development, professional development, after-school programs, and programming for subscribers. Jennifer holds a MA in Educational Theatre from NYU and a BA in Theatre Education from Wagner College where she also received her NY Teaching Certification. She has extensive theatrical directing and teaching experience with artists of all ages. Prior to joining Roundabout, Jennifer worked for Camp Broadway, Walnut Street Theatre, and schools throughout the tri-state area. She is a graduate of Coro Leadership New York and serves on the Board of Directors for the American Alliance for Theatre and Education and the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable. In 2011, Jennifer received the Dina Rees Evans Theatre in our Schools Award.

  • Daniel Robert Sullivan

    This is a wonderful analysis of how the Common Core’s minimum standards are scaffolded in ways similar to art-making. One skill leads to the next; a compilation of skills leads to greater creative freedom. I may not be convinced that standardized tests are best for all, but I’m definitely convinced that a nation should aspire to defined academic standards.

    Smart kids and great teachers are going to find the standards too constrictive, but this can be overcome by doing MORE than the standards suggest. Struggling kids and bad teachers are going to find the standards too rigorous, but that’s the point, really. The most difficult: struggling kids who have great teachers. That’s the group that is going to find an uphill battle. But do we want to settle for a nation with lower standards? I don’t think so. Let’s push higher.