Recently, I reread Amy Rasmussen’s post about defining what we mean by readers’ and writers’ workshop. I loved that Amy described workshop as students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.”
I confess. Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, is my favorite play. I read it obsessively. I find relevance in its pages time and again. Wilder said that he wrote the play to illustrate the value beyond price in every moment of our daily lives.
After spending more than twenty years with middle school students, and experiencing moments of deep joy and sadness, as well as tasting my own mortality, the play resonates with me more now than it ever has…BUT, how do I workshop a canonical piece like Our Town? How do I make the pages sing for my students as they do for me?
Here are four ways that I changed my approach to the play this year to leave more space for student voice and choice.
Less is More: In Our Town, this meant placing students in small groups to reflect on specific scenes from the play. Rather than slogging through an entire act, and then replying to teacher generated questions, I asked students to journal with their groups and express their own thoughts, questions, and epiphanies after reading a few pages aloud and then viewing that scene. Thanks to @MarisaEThompson and @cultofpedagogy for encouraging me to try the TQE method.
Podcasts Rock! is the most performed play in the United States, and that distinction means– a lot has been said about it! Students were invited to choose a podcast featuring an interview with a respected director, and then discuss observations from the podcast with their small group and share how those podcasts changed or enhanced their understanding of the text.
Music Matters: One of the fascinating things about Our Town is that Wilder designated a hymn, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” to be played in each of the three acts. He was also very specific about the music that should be sung during the choir practice in Act I, and played for the wedding scene in Act II. Music is a bridge from life to death, and beyond. Working with their small groups, students composed soundtracks for the play incorporating music from many different genres. They could also choose to write about Wilder’s musical selections and what difference his choices made.
Performance Deepens Understanding: By the end of our study, my students recognized that George & Emily, the two main characters in the play, were allegorical. They could have been anyone, at any time, in any small town. We all grow up, most of us know what it is to love truly, and we all die. That is our story, and Our Town shows and tells it. My students did as well, performing some of their favorite scenes and exploring character motivations and emotions more deeply even than we did during our small group study times. Performing the scenes gave them a new appreciation for the nuances and poetry on page after page.
Our Town. Glorious in its simplicity, and relatable after more than eighty years, if students have the space to think and explore as readers, writers and speakers.
Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte.