Teaching through Theater: Letting Literature Come to Life

December 10, 2018

Ingrid Rachal is a 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary Charter School and a 2018 New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award Winner.

The first day I taught, it was as if a light switch had turned on: teaching was my life’s work, and my passion was working with children. I loved the relationships I grew each day and the ability to help children develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers. I immediately felt it was my purpose to make sure each young person I worked with felt safe, supported, cared for, and challenged.

I haven’t always been an educator. I have a degree in Business Administration and was working as as flight attendant before Hurricane Katrina, but I knew something was missing in my life. After the storm, I decided I wanted a new beginning.

I began a career in education as a substitute teacher. I stepped in as an ELA teacher at schools across New Orleans, working with grades 6 to 8. I knew the moment I began that this was the path for me. I immediately enrolled in the Alternative Certification Program at the University of Holy Cross, New Orleans, and graduated in January 2010.

Today, I am an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher and Mentor Teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary Charter School. I have been working at Bethune for six years.

I love teaching English Language Arts. I show my students the connection between our work and everyday life. English Language Arts is not just the reading, writing, and the speaking that we do in class. It is about being able to go out into the world and sit at any table, join any conversation and be productive citizens. I feel this is critical; the future of our community and our nation lies in my students’ hands.

Part of the way I prepare them for this future is through theater. I use plays to help my students engage with literature in a new way and grow their skills and self confidence. Integrating drama into my curriculum has been a journey. Initially, we simply read plays in my class, and students performed vocabulary skits in which they acted out the words we were learning. These were so dynamic that I realized I needed to make theater an even bigger part of our lessons.

As they did so, I watched my students grow. As they practiced their lines, they honed their reading and public speaking skills. When they got into character, they stretched their empathy and gained a deeper connection to the emotional landscape of a work of literature. They were called to connect on a personal level with the text. They were transported to other lands and eras.

I saw my students become engaged in a way I hadn’t seen before. They learned to express themselves through literature and their hard work preparing made them role models for the entire student body. They helped one another and worked as a team. They practiced after school and on holiday breaks. They gave the project their all. They embellished their own costumes and made their own props.

Our first show that year was “The Candy Man.” My students were dressed like human candy canes and lollipops. They had cut out napkins in the shape of peppermint candy and glued them on red t-shirts to become human lollipops, and cut out red felt strips and sewed them to white t-shirts to become human candy canes. They danced, sang and delivered candy to the school staff. The performance brought cheer to everyone listening to the song lyrics “The Candy Man makes the world taste good”. We performed to an audience of students, parents, community members, and school staff. It was a resounding success. Since then, our class performances have included  “A Tribute to Jackie Robinson”, “Learn to Enjoy Yourself”, “A Spiritual Medley”, “We Are the World” and “Dreams, Freedom, Change.”

Bringing theater to the classroom isn’t just academically and emotionally powerful for my students. It also helps them grow their sense of self. I know that because of their work on stage, my students are better equipped as both scholars and leaders in our community.

I think about one student of mine who had challenging behaviors in the classroom–he acted out and had difficulty focusing. But he had a true hidden talent onstage. When this student performed, he lit up. He was allowed to express himself through his character’s monologues and his confidence blossomed. He gained motivation–not just on the stage, but in the classroom. This gave him a new, positive focus and reoriented his behavior in class.

Other students discovered new talents–for instance, a number of my students have phenomenal singing voices, and were able to shine on stage. One group recently performed a moving rendition of “We Are the World.”

It has been three years now since my class first put on a performance. This is only the beginning of our work bringing literature to life through theater. There are still so many scripts to read, so many plays to perform, so many characters to get to know. When I think of what all my students have accomplished on stage, I am so very proud—not for what I have done, but for what they have achieved and for the fact that I was fortunate enough to be a part of it. I believe that now, they are better able to head out into the world, to sit at any table, and be the leaders I know that they are.