In Ms. Karen Chu's 5th grade class at West Portal Elementary, we struck story-writing gold. With this group, we had just thirteen weeks to write, compose, design, rehearse and perform a mini-opera. Needless to say, we moved through it all at lightning speed. Immediately after choosing a location (Atlantis) and listing possible characters (King Neptune, the Kraken, mermaid archers, and an evil sorcerer to name a few), the class broke up into four groups, with one story-sifting worksheet assigned to each.
I spend a lot of time thinking about writing: what makes a compelling dramatic story, and how to best teach kids to write them. As a working playwright myself, I can't say I'm surprised to have found this a lot harder than it would seem—I know full well the constant challenge of balancing creative freedom with the rigor of editing multiple drafts, and the difficulty of seriously considering every last crazy idea while simultaneously discerning which ones should never see the light of day. So how do you teach young writers when to open the floodgates? How do you also teach them when to stop and fix a structural problem or check for spelling? Most importantly, how do you train students to enthusiastically engage in both the creative and analytic sides of the story-writing coin? [Below: students from West Portal Elementary performing their mini-opera.]
Once the students broke up into groups I became an almost irrelevant classroom decoration—the groups jumped into creating their stories with more fervor and excitement than any other writing session I have ever led. The students were nearly hyperactive in their discussion of ideas, and in each conversation I heard an impressive blend of creative freedom and editorial rigor. I listened to new idea after new idea being pitched to a group, then carefully vetted before being written down as an accepted part of the story. The class had organically found a balance between creating and editing that left the floodgates open, while only allowing the best ideas stick. I know plenty of writers (including myself) who are constantly at war with themselves to find this balance. Watching it happen effortlessly in this class was downright inspiring.
This particular group was so successful due to two things:
1. The sheer speed of our writing process built up a whole lot of creative momentum.
2. This class wrote and performed an opera together last year in 4th grade, and already knew they wanted to create something really good that they'll be proud to perform in front of the school.
With regards to the speed of activity, moving from nothing into a nearly complete story in 45 minutes really did build a momentum that everyone in the room got caught up in. No one was over-thinking anything because there was no time to over-think, or second guess, or otherwise let the inner critic take over. Every new idea inspired another new idea, and from that one came another and another until there was no stopping them. [Below: students from West Portal Elementary performing their mini-opera.]
The editorial counter to this (which worked to ensure our story was not an unintelligible smorgasbord of crazy ideas) was fuelled by the class's real desire for a high quality story as their outcome. You cannot impose this kind of desire—you can encourage students to do their highest quality work or provide incentives that hopefully lead them there, but the most effective motivations are internal, not external. And I have yet to find a better internal motivator to create superbly high quality work than the knowledge that you will soon be performing that work yourself. In front of all your peers. And everyone you respect. And they will know full well that you created every single piece of what they are about to see. The motivator in our room was born from the knowledge that a performance would come in thirteen weeks, and everyone wanted it to be really, really good.
Currently, San Francisco Opera ARIA Network classrooms are performing 46 original mini-operas between April and June, 2012. Below, check out this great video from West Portal Elementary about the rehearsal process and mini-opera performance from last year!