When Students Return: 3 Lessons We Can Learn from the Performing Arts

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

When Students Return: 3 Lessons We Can Learn from the Performing ArtsOk, I admit it: I was a band, choir, and theater geek. A triple threat to all the athletes in my high school (LOL)! I never considered myself to be book smart, nor that good at athletics. I had a knack for making people laugh. Entertainment was in my blood. So, to manage those difficult junior high and high school years, I immersed myself into the performing arts—where I soared! I eventually went on to get a bachelor’s degree in theater.

The reason I bring up this topic is because as teachers, we can learn a lot from what I learned from my directors (Mr. Trout, band; Mr. Anderson, choir; and Mrs. Herman and Ms. Johnson, theater). These amazing teachers taught me so much about persistence, patience, and perseverance. They also helped me develop critical reasoning, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills that have been extremely useful throughout my life.

Now, as students return to the classroom, I think we can all take lessons from the world of the performing arts. As I stated in my previous post, students are returning from a world that had varying degrees of structure and regulatory assistance. Therefore, we are going to need to guide our students back to classroom routines and assist them in developing greater self-regulation for learning. 

Building Persistence, Patience, and Perseverance (P3)

As an artist, to create is not a quick process. I remember all the hours I put in learning a piece of music, memorizing lines, and rehearsing (by the way, you practice football, you rehearse a play). It takes time to get it “just right,” see things flexibly and to be able to elaborate on old ideas. Giving students something of value to work on in the classroom over time can help develop the skills of P3.

Ten more ideas to assist in developing P3 :

  1. Focus feedback on the amount of effort the child puts forth, rather than on their level of ability.
  2. Establish daily routines so students know what to expect and can begin to develop their own habits of time management.
  3. Play games in the classroom that build patience and persistence (such as chess).
  4. Model for your students how to stay on a task, and when and how to take breaks.
  5. Use fidgets, stress balls, or other tactile tools to help them with impulsive control.
  6. Have students use sticky notes to jot down their ideas, to help control blurting out thoughts during class.
  7. Teach your students how to check their work, whether it be editing an essay or double-checking mathematical work.
  8. Use rubrics to help guide students as they work through projects.
  9. Give them opportunities to share their work with their peers or other authentic audiences.
  10. Provide a list of questions students should ask themselves before they turn in work:
    • Did I do what was asked?
    • How did I show I met the objective?
    • Did someone else review my work?

Overcoming Limitations to Develop Self-Efficacy

No one is born playing the piano or basketball, or doing math. We all must learn how to do whatever it is we do. This also means learning how to deal with and overcome limitations. I played French horn in band. While I was good, I was never better than the first chair. I did not always get the starring role or solo. I had to learn how to deal with rejection and how to pick myself up and move on. I also had to learn how to be supportive, be a team player, and acknowledge my limitations. I had extremely supportive directors who saw my talents and were able to help me through my limitations by developing a positive “can do” attitude.

Nine ideas for overcoming limitations:

  1. Teach your students how to develop positive self-talk, redirecting the “I can’t” statements to “I can’t, yet.”
  2. Provide your students with activities where they can be successful, being sure the activity is not too low nor too high.
  3. Value attempts at difficult task and provide specific feedback on how to get better.
  4. Celebrate successes, no matter how small, because we know that success breeds confidence, which breeds future success.
  5. Use flexible groupings to show students different ways of learning and how to be a team player.
  6. Be a cheerleader for your students by giving both verbal and nonverbal messages of “you can do this.”
  7. Use affirmative speak with your students; focus on what they can do rather than on what they cannot do.
  8. Have students share the strategies they use to solve problems or overcome difficult situations.
  9. Model optimism and positive self-talk for your students.

Creating a Community

As students return to the classroom, there may arise social and emotional issues you did not consider. Students may feel stressed by the longer days, being with others they do not know well, and the awkwardness of being in groups. In band, choir, and theater, we all bonded around our love for the art and knew we were all contributing to the greater good. Even if you were the sound technician, set builder, lighting operator, or bass drum player, you knew your contribution was just as important as the lead actor, soloist, or trumpet player. You can create this kind of community in your classroom as well.

Eight ideas for creating a classroom community:

  1. Have clearly defined classroom norms or expectations that are framed around community building.
  2. Model and provide examples of how to achieve the norms or expectations.
  3. Reference the norms or expectations on a daily or at least weekly basis.
  4. Use various grouping practices and provide each member with a role to play in building community.
  5. Offer times for peer interactions to discuss how each has met the norms or expectations.
  6. During peer interaction times, have students share the different ways to have learned to manage themselves.
  7. Ask students to reflect on how they are assisting in achieving a positive classroom community.
  8. Keep the focus on the greater good—how everyone contributes to the betterment of the whole.

Final Thought

Each of my directors knew the intricacies of whatever piece of music or theater we were to perform. They understood each instrument’s part equally. They knew how to adjust the sopranos’ voices to blend with the tenors. They knew how each character impacted other characters. They knew how to work with flexible grouping (from single instrument/voice sectionals, single scene actors) and whole-group work. Plus, they were uniquely aware of how each individual’s performance impacted the development of the art.

What I learned from these teachers was that we must understand the various parts to our content, know how to break down the learning through focused instruction, and be willing to work hard with each student to achieve success.

Thank you, Mr. Trout, Mr. Anderson, Mrs. Herman, and Ms. Johnson for all the tools you taught me.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners

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