Leah Shaeffer is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Director of Education.
The first semester of school is in full swing, and so am I. I have been teaching a lot lately, both through our after-school STAR Academy programs, and our in-school ThinkTheatre residencies. Before coming to Gulfshore Playhouse, one of my mentors advised me that I should be careful not to distance myself too much from the classroom in my role as an administrator, lest I lose touch with the needs and circumstances of the community I aim to serve. Well, I am certainly following that advice!
In my STAR after-school classes, it has been an amazing gift to see how theatre can affect individual and interpersonal development. I’ve written before about my pre-kindergarten STARs and how theatre has had a positive impact on their developing skills and relationship with the world, but this is equally true with my older STARs. I have had the privilege of guiding these young artists through the process of giving and receiving critical (but supportive) feedback, the challenge of creating new friends in an unfamiliar environment, and of course, the hurdle that all artists of all ages must leap: Plucking up the courage to share your work, ideas, and creations with others.
Starting at age 4 or 5, children begin to develop a larger understanding of the world around them. They begin to realize that other people have opinions about their appearance and actions. This realization can greatly inhibit a child’s confidence and self-expression through their school years and even into adulthood, if they are not given the tools with which to negotiate this larger world. Every day, I aim to pass off another “tool” to my STARs, and every day I watch as they develop the skills to use them. I am thrilled to see their artistic progress as they hone their acting skills, but I am equally thrilled to see them overcome inhibitions, communicate clearly and respectfully, and forge new friendships.
When the classroom is not my own, I have a somewhat different role to play. As with our STAR programs, theatre has an enormously positive impact on the individual and interpersonal development of students involved in our ThinkTheatre in-school residencies. However, the real magic to be found here lies in cross-curricular discovery.
I am a huge believer in Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which states that “students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways”. Since students can have such a drastic range of preferred learning styles, it is no wonder that a “one-size-fits-all” education doesn’t work well for all children. Our community’s educators do amazing work in differentiating and varying instruction to suit different learning styles, but they are so often unsupported in this huge undertaking.
Thanks to the generosity of the Suncoast Credit Union Foundation, ThinkTheatre allows me to work together with classroom teachers to create lessons that allow students to explore their curriculum through the arts, giving them new and unique viewpoints and learning opportunities.
It is so inspiring to see the light of understanding dawn over a child’s face after experiencing information in a new way. For some, a concept might “click” after a reading assignment or worksheet. But for many others, that “click” happens when they put pencil to paper to write a scripted version of a Paul Bunyan legend, use their bodies to pantomime animals from different phylum, or even role-play as H2O molecules in the water cycle. Theatre encompasses so many different learning styles, from visual to kinesthetic to interpersonal to linguistic.
Participating in ThinkTheatre not only allows students with a variety of learning styles to engage fully with the classroom material, but it also gives our classroom teachers valuable and much-desired experience with arts integration. ThinkTheatre benefits students and educators in our community’s schools long after Gulfshore Playhouse has physically left the building.