Engaging Middle School Students
“Posing questions is the central act of reading the world; it must become a habit” (Eric Booth) – what gives birth to the habit is the central question we face here
Statistics bear out what you have known for years- the middle school years are challenging, even more so now in the age of social media. Some question whether the middle school model works. For those with resources private schools report that enrollment jumps for fifth through eighth grades and dips again at high school in an effort to make the road through middle school years smoother and in the hopes of avoiding issues of bullying, safety and academics. It’s a difficult transition to go from having one teacher and one class to six different teachers. So we begin here- with this premise- thrust from the comfort of six or so years in the world of the elementary school, not ready for the independence of high school, middle school students face the toughest time of their young lives. The rules all change- the expectations both academically and socially shift leaving these young adults to travel a road of trial and error. The reach toward self-esteem and self-concept the cornerstone of the shifting landscape they face. Both quantitative and qualitative analysis reveals greater feelings of anonymity amongst middle school students and more negative attitudes toward their own social behavior. Overall results point to serious implications in school design and timing of transition for early adolescents.
So suffice to say we enter dangerous territory….made –I believe- even more so for those of us who are primarily known to produce work for children (as the struggle to leave behind childhood is a part of the middle school struggle).
For us at CTC, a number of tactics/approaches have proved successful and resulted in genuine growth and the ability to sustain a significant middle school population in the past 4 years. The basic premise was to work to spark the curiosity of these students while offering them opportunities that were previously reserved for high school (grades 9-12) students only. Programming initiatives have included:
• intensives and/or bootcamps designed specifically for grades 7-12 and grades 8-12
• pre-professional Lab Collective (designed for writers, actors and directors) for grades 7-12 by audition only
• fundamental classes and opportunities as a pre-requisite to the options noted above specific to grades 6-8
• the addition of Jr. Company performances opportunities (winter for grades 6-8 and summer grades 5-8): audition only programs, that rehearse 3 times a week and have multiple performances (the summer production performs in one of CTC’s professional stages (the Cargill) )
• Acting and musical theatre classes (focused on the fundamentals) that work with mainstage scripts
One of our challenges has been- as we are a union house – to seek out avenues for those middle school students with demonstrated interest and those who are simply curious to become involved and/or acquainted with theatrical options other than performance i.e. design, marketing, directing or technical. To this end we have developed a few tactics with varying degrees of success.
• Our performance-based classes for middle school students include sections of costume, prop and scenic design
• Our Company show actors- in addition to performance- participate in the dramaturgical aspects of the work as well as design, marketing and prop creation
• Our design/tech lab (for grades 7-12 – by interview only) which offers individually-designed workshops with CTC design and technical staff, the opportunity to attend production meetings and tech rehearsals for our mainstage shows. With only a handful of students having been engaged in this program, the primary obstacle appears to be scheduling.
If wishing made it so, our programming would have a better track record at finding ways to integrate digital communication and other current technologies to capture the imagination and curiosity of middle school students. Unfortunately other than working as an ensemble to market these shows and research (dramaturgy), we have not made much progress on this front. For theater to move forward into the future with these young emerging artists- it’s time we caught up to speak the language the rest of the world has been speaking for decades now. I can’t wait to hear your ideas!