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Pandemic sidelines what would have been an active year for theater students

Pandemic sidelines what would have been an active year for theater students

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In the pandemic era, there may be no more obvious change to daily life than the upheaval it has caused in the Napa Valley Unified School District. Teachers are feeling disconnected, and the students are struggling with the lack of structure.

Summer Heartt is the drama teacher at American Canyon High School. When the shelter in place order was mandated, her department’s production of “Cinderella” was a week from opening.

While it was not canceled—the show will go on once school reconvenes—the seniors will have graduated and won’t be able to participate. Heartt said they were heartbroken. “They had put so much love and work and sweat into this show and now they have nothing to show for it.”

Vintage High School

Mark Teeters is the choir director at Vintage High School and also had to grapple with the cancellation of his department’s monumental production of “West Side Story.”

“I’ll never forget watching the majority of our 57 member cast burst into tears the moment they finished performing what abruptly became their final show,” he said. “After 6 months of classroom preparation, 6 weeks of laborious after-school and weekend rehearsals, and 5 successful shows in front of enthusiastic audiences we were forced to cancel our remaining 5 shows because of the coronavirus. The cast worked so hard up to that point and their talents were just becoming refined. They should have been able to feel the rewards of performing their final weekend when our audiences would have been large and supportive of their accomplishments. I’m sure my students feel they were robbed of something very special and it will take some time to recover from this loss.”

Performances were not the only things canceled. Heartt had planned to take her students to Ashland, Oregon to see some professional theater. Teeters had plans for his choir to sing at Disneyland. Neither is happening now.

St. Helena High School

Patti Coyle, drama teacher at St. Helena High School, which mounted an excellent production of “Newsies” this spring, is concerned that shows will be on a permanent hiatus.

“The question is, will we be able to have an audience again?” she said.

Coyle is not alone in asking this question. How people will gather in close proximity in the future is a question on the minds of many entertainers.

While online classes are common at the college level, high school teachers, used to the immediate feedback of an enthusiastic smile or a confused frown, now have to discern their students’ attitude through a screen. While the change has been nice for some teachers as they have more time for their families, they all lament the lack of personal contact and feedback intrinsic to a productive learning environment.

“The hard part is I have a real connection with my students,” Coyle said. “They are so dynamic and insightful, they bring so much into the classroom, that is something you don’t get with online classes.”

Jennifer LaMonte teaches English at Vintage High School. “I have found that Zoom is better than nothing, but it is really hard to pick up on the social and individual cues that as teachers we are attuned to pick up on when students are confused or need more explanation,” LaMonte said. “I don’t know if it is just because it is a new tool, but many of my students seem even more reticent to speak on Zoom, especially if it is a larger class.”

LaMonte traditionally teaches Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at this time of the year, but she said remote classes will hinder the physicality of performing the play.

“That is the unit that I am most sad to miss teaching in class because it’s close to impossible to teach Shakespeare in high school without the physical elements of interpretation,” she said. “I can’t do the fight scene or the balcony scene in class in a way that puts students on their feet and helps them put themselves in the story and begin to understand the language.”

The Zoom format hinders Teeter’s choir classes as well. He says normally he is a sound technician, making adjustments in real time as students are singing. That is impossible via Zoom. So assignments now consist of critical thinking projects, analyzing, researching and recommending choral music, as well as suggesting possible choral tour destinations.

“Keeping hope alive by planning our future together is one way that I’m striving to stay engaged with them in meaningful ways during this unprecedented time,” he said.

Heartt’s drama classes have changed in a similar way. Since in-person performances are not possible via Zoom, she has put together a substantial “menu” of assignments students can choose from. It includes designing sets using things in the students’ home and photographing them, performing a monologue and recording it, reading scripts and analyzing them, and writing reflections on performances they have seen or been in. One assignment is due every week.

The schedule of classes has changed dramatically. Where in-person classes meet for 50 minutes every day, the online classes meet for 30 minutes twice a week, Monday through Thursday, with a preparation day on Friday. “It’s a profound shuffle in terms of how one uses time,” Newton Thomas, English teacher at Vintage said.

But that doesn’t mean their teaching load is any different. LaMonte, Teeters, Thomas and Heartt all still teach 5 classes—between 100 and 200 students per day.

Student engagement, a crucial aspect to the educational experience, varies widely.

“They are sad,” Heartt said. “They are lonely. They are bored. Some are engaged. Others are working full time, caring for younger siblings, or just really depressed.”

Both LaMonte and Heartt report that students are not sleeping like they would normally. “The students tell me that they stay up until 3 a.m., 4 a.m., even 5 a.m. every night,” LaMonte said. I don’t think that’s good for them and their learning. For all of them, this is a call to figure out how to manage their time and create that discipline for themselves. Without a doubt, the students that already have those skills developed are doing fine, even thriving, because they are able to work at their own pace and so they can move ahead quickly. But many students—because they are teenagers and are still learning how to do all that—are struggling.”

“But perhaps this isn’t the time to worry about that,” LaMonte added. “I do think the socio-emotional health is probably more important right now than their academic growth, so I encourage them to get outside and take walks and listen to music and just read books for fun—and limit their time on the screen.”

A student who is following that advice is Ellie Aslanian, a junior at St. Helena High School. She is taking Advanced Placement (AP) English and U.S. History and studying for the AP tests in those subjects. She is also taking anatomy, pre-calculus, Spanish, drama and dance.

“Zoom classes are definitely a new experience,” Aslanian said. “I’d say the worst thing is the level of collaboration. Online, it’s difficult to contribute and have the same energy that we have in the classroom, which can lead to the teacher trying their best to engage us. It can be difficult to speak up and work together when we’re all in separate homes; the zoom format also makes it more complicated if two people accidentally try to talk at the same time. I’d say the best thing is seeing my friends’ faces, but after a while I have to admit it gets a little sad just seeing them on my computer screen.”

Ellie said that she was working on straight A’s, but when she found out the schools were going pass/fail, she was crestfallen. “It isn’t exactly a motivator,” she said.

However, she says, “My teachers are all fantastic and great at what they do, but none of us were prepared for this kind of extreme transition. They all immediately got into assigning work online, which is great, but I know most of them miss us just as much as we miss them.”

John Henry Martin’s experience is that online class is no substitute for in person class. If you agree, email him at jhm@johnhenrymartin.com.

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