17 Mar Staging the Lesson: Proscenium Presentation
The original and perhaps first presentation of dramatic works, barring the storytelling around the communal campfire, is the proscenium presentation. It is perhaps the best known and most widely recognized theatrical staging of any dramatic work. This staging is familiar as it resembles a box or television screen. In fact, many theorists and critics have posited that the idea for the cinema and later the television came from this particular presentation. School auditoriums and community playhouses have been erected with this design in mind.
In fact a one can make a certain connection linguistically between the proscenium theatrical presentation and certain instructional terms and furniture, or props, utilized in the classroom. Many teachers still use podiums to deliver instruction from, even with the heavy use of technology in today’s classrooms. The linguistic parallels between these two words should not pass to lightly over us. Actors, especially in Elizabethan – which includes Shakespeare – drama, were keen on having soliloquies as well as monologues. It is not a far stretch to see the similarities as well between these and lectures or direct teaching episodes in the contemporary classroom.
But what exactly does this mean for instruction, as well as curriculum in today’s secondary, standards-based, content classroom that is driven by state and national measurements of student achievement. From our perspective of looking at the theater of the classroom and understanding teaching as a performance art, it means a great deal. Primarily this is the method that the majority of us are comfortable teaching. This is due to the fact that most of the classroom teachers were taught using this method when we were students, and this is the dominant method in most colleges and universities.
Now, having presented these facts is neither an indictment nor excoriation of the proscenium presentation. There are certain lessons, just as there are certain theatrical works, which work best in this particular mode. Yet, repetitive use of this particular presentation is neither useful nor fruitful. More than perhaps any time before in the history of education, classroom teachers are facing greater odds and challenges in effectively engaging students. Today’s instruction relies more on connecting with the audience, the students, in an engaging and entertaining way than ever. This is a trend which has been growing steadily since the late twentieth century with the rising popularity of children’s television programming and compounded with computer software and games.
Whether or not we as teachers agree of even like it, it is a force to be reckoned with. There is an old Asian proverb that goes something like this, “No matter how much the wind howls, it cannot make the mountain move.” This is where we are as classroom teachers. However, the history of education shows that there has always been an element of the theatrical and something entertaining about good instruction well before the advent of television and the computer. Perhaps the time has come for us, as a group to reclaim it.
With the proscenium presentation, like the actors on the stage, the classroom teacher is primarily stationed in front of the class instructing. While this is not necessarily the worst possibly method of instruction, it is not the best either. It opens up the possibility for numerous behavioral problems as well as off task opportunities for the students. Simply put, boredom has every chance to set it and mayhem is free to roam about. Yet, there are times which call for this particular mode of presentation.
So this begs the question as to what can the classroom teacher do about combating disruptive behavior and off task students. Again, looking to our dramatic cousins in the theater, many possible solutions present themselves in some simple places and practices. One of these is the skillful use of props. Technology can be of great use, but can be too readily relied upon. There are numerous presentation programs that can easily assist a teacher with engaging students in new material. However, believing that the technology and/or the material alone will suffice in motivating the students is an all too easy pitfall that many fall prey to. It is a fine line that the classroom teacher must walk in combining technology in their presentation as well as their motivation and knowledge in engaging the students with the material.
This is where another practice from the theater can help us in the classroom with the proscenium presentation. As teachers we must remember that what we do is something of a performance art. With this frame of reference in mind, then we can balance a dual responsibility of not only passing along knowledge and skills but also engaging our students in an entertaining measure as well. When the term entertaining is used in this sense it is meant as an all encompassing expression that contains the full range of human emotions and experiences. Not everything in the classroom must be jolly and full of frivolity.
Sometimes this takes the form of anecdotes from history, others created on the spot – for it must be borne in mind that the earliest teachers were storytellers and we are inheritors of this tradition – as well as jokes, including good one-liners directed good-naturedly at students. This can also take a more artistic bent with creative approaches focused on the students where they can engage the material in a theatrical manner. This is has only two delimiting factors, the creativity in the classroom and the time on the clock.
Now some of the more common pitfalls, as mentioned previously, is the simple use of technology. All too often in the classroom, we can confuse a quick presentation, with animation and a few sound bites or movie clips as an engaging and complex lesson. However, if we truly step back and look at it, the presentation is something that one our students could generate in their basic computer classes. The key component in presenting the lesson, the instruction is not the technology, or even the material, it is us…the teacher. The students are looking to us to bridge the unknown and translate it for them. Just as the audience is looking for the actors to present the play, to make it come alive off of the page and onto the stage for their enjoyment, so too the students enter the classroom.
Yet, our audience is not always the most beneficent, well-rested, or fed. They may not want or be willing to learn. Regardless of these facts of life that we teachers face daily in the classroom, we do have one universal and undeniable truth on our side. Students on any age are curious. Also, most are motivated as well. If for nothing else, they do not want to repeat our class. We can leverage these givens with our understanding of teaching as a performance art to our favor with the proscenium presentation. A few well-placed props combined with a skillful delivery, and it will not be surprising that achievement will rise while the dreaded discipline will decrease.