Thursday, May 23, 2019

Engaging Middle School Students

Middle school. A time in our lives that many of us look back on and say we would never want to relive. A time where our bodies were changing, our friends turned into people we didn’t know, what use to be acceptable (being friends with our parents and liking our teachers) was now unacceptable behavior and we didn’t want to start thinking about what we wanted to be when we “grew up”, because to us, we were already grown up. As middle school positions itself to be a time for self discovery in our adolescence, what better way to promote exploration and discovery than through the arts. Today, with social media and all the new fangled technologies attracting youth into their grasp, we have to pose the question, “How do we engage today’s middle schooler in the arts programming offered to them?”
One way we here at The Rose Theater, in Omaha, NE, reach out to the middle school populations around us are through our involvement in afterschool programs. Through these programs we have seen a wide variety of personalities give theater a try. There are those students who come to us eager and ready to learn who are commonly the over achievers, committed to 100 different afterschool activities. Then we have the students that do not necessarily have the option to attend and begrudgingly join us for the daily check in. No matter the type of student, for afterschool programs there is really one thing you must keep in mind. These students are coming to you after they have had to be in a classroom setting for the last 6 hours.
Teaching artists at the Rose go around to six different middle schools and offer a “Theater Club.” Each school is visited twice a week by two teaching artists. Our programming starts in August and ends in May. One teaching artist stays at the school the whole year and acts as a host. Some of the strengths that we have discovered through this structure are

  • Breaking up the year into six week sessions
  • Having two teaching artists at each school (One host, one rotating)
  • Rotating lead teachers
  • Introduction/Review of Ensemble, Acting and Improv each session
  • Having one session project oriented


At many locations, we have found that starting your day with a check in, this helps to create a safe, structured environment for the students to be in. Our first three weeks are typically led by the host as they introduce or review the concepts of ensemble, acting and improv with the students. We have found these three topics to be engaging and a great starting point for students as they begin to explore theater. After the first three weeks, the visiting/rotating teaching artist comes prepared with three weeks worth of lessons on topics of their specialties. Some special topic examples from this year have included set design, acting for the camera, dance, musical theater, puppetry, playwriting, Shakespeare, storytelling, devising and stage combat. By always rotating topics we are able to assess which topics students are most interested in. During our fourth session we do a long term project with the students. They review what they have been introduced to and get to select what elements of theater they would like to focus on. Past long term projects have included musical theater selections, writing and videotaping their own film, script in hand presentations, design displays and writing their own plays.


Through participation both in the classroom and after school programs, I have found that student voice is the best way to get middle schoolers engaged. They have questions, opinions and answers and are looking for a place to express them. If we, as teaching artists, can find the balance of instruction and the incorporation of student voice we might find more success in engaging and inspiring today’s middle schooler in theater arts.


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