Monday, October 29, 2007

Drama Queen

Between giggles, Isabel is pretending to be the right ear of a large Indian elephant, the spots on a giraffe, and the snout of a crocodile. She is part of a circle, along with twenty other kids and they are all having a ball. I am outside the circle, off to the side, on the fringes. We are in a non-descript meeting room of a public library late on a Tuesday afternoon.

None of the kids in the circle go to school with Isabel. In fact, very few of them even know each other. A good percentage of them stay home for school. There is no single obvious characteristic bringing together these twenty-one first- through tenth-graders. If I had to choose an adjective that would apply to most of the people in the circle, it would be “vivacious”. These are some lively, outgoing kids.

And what brings them all together in this circle is a love of Shakespeare.
This summer a family friend had a small role in a “Shakespeare In The Park” production of As You Like It. On a lark, I took Isabel one night and it was as if the scales fell from her eyes and she saw a whole new vista of possibilities open before her. She loved it. She laughed in all the right places and when it was over she asked, “When can people start that?” We went back eleven more times and by the end of the run Isabel was as smitten with a 400 year-old dead guy as a person could possibly be.

As luck would have it, Isabel and my wife, Erica, were at a major chain bookstore looking for a Collected Works of Shakespeare when the salesperson mentioned that she runs a youth Shakespeare group. We kept in touch, and now Isabel has joined the group and we have got another thing to do with one of our afternoons.

On Mondays Isabel has piano lessons, on Thursdays she has a gymnastics class, and now, on Tuesdays, she has Shakespeare. To be fully accurate, I should say that on Mondays WE have piano lessons, on Thursdays WE have a gymnastics class, and now, on Tuesdays, WE have Shakespeare.
I don’t begrudge Isabel the time I spend at her various activities. In fact, as a teacher I find the time spent reading student work and planning lessons very valuable. I get a lot of work done while Isabel learns how to play Ode To Joy and do front rolls on a balance beam, (NOT simultaneously).

But here, sitting in an uncomfortable folding chair in this library meeting room, it strikes me that this is the first time Isabel herself has chosen the activity and pushed the process along. She is the one that fell in love with Shakespeare. She is the one who asked about getting started in drama. And she is the one who said, “Yes. I want to go.”

And now there she is, lying on her side on the floor with twenty strangers, pretending to be a dog. She seems utterly at ease, utterly un-self-conscious, and utterly happy. She is doing exactly what I hoped she would do as she got older. It was something Erica and I talked about before Isabel was even born. We didn’t know if she was going to be a “she” or a “he”, but we did know one thing: we knew that we wanted our child to roll around on the floor pretending to be a dog.

No. Wait. That’s not it.

What we did know was that we wanted our child to find things she was passionate about and then to dive into those things. Isabel likes gymnastics and she does well with flexibility and agility. But we started her in gymnastics when she was one and she had no say in it. We signed her up for music class when she was four and that evolved into piano lessons when she was six. She likes playing the piano and shows some skill. But again, she had no say in it.

The acting group is pure her. And as such it may mean even that much more to her. Having a child who is interested in Shakespeare is a surprise to me. It is not something I would have predicted for Isabel. But now that it is happening, I am thrilled. Erica is, too. In fact, Erica has begun to make her own way through his plays and she is loving them. People sometimes say that you get to experience life through your children and that is certainly proving itself true.

Professionally, I am finding this to be a valuable reminder of something I already knew. My goal is to have a student’s motivation for learning be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. When students feel an inner need to learn more about a topic, they are willing to do more work and spend more time and energy thinking about what they discover. Students who learn in order to get a good grade or to please mom and dad can learn just as many facts as someone in it for the love of the subject matter, but I can’t help but believe the reward is greater in the long run for the student who learns out of love.

I teach in a school that has this distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic learning at the center of the methods it uses to educate children. I have witnessed time and again how a student’s heart and intellect can combine to spark a fire for learning that would be hard to extinguish even if you wanted to.

Seeing that same combustible mixture of heart and intellect in Isabel as she explores acting and Shakespeare is thrilling to me. There she is, still on the floor, lifting her left rear leg and barking. I couldn’t be more excited or more proud of her.