Life on Mars

Posted by David Brown - 21 December, 2012

A hole-puncher provides a sound effect.The longer I work at Randolph, the more I understand and appreciate the efforts made by our teachers to employ multiple teaching strategies to make course material more meaningful to their students, to in fact give them opportunities to create their own meanings.

Not long ago, 8th grade English teacher Patrick Green let my office know about a project his and some of Liz Helton’s students were wrapping up. It sounded very intriguing.

As a “post-reading project” for Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, many of the students would choose from among six of the book’s chapters, all virtually self-contained short stories, and adapt them for presentation and recording as radio plays. After listening to a few radio plays on the internet, some older and some more recent, they would write their own scripts, act all the parts, and create sound effects and original music. There would be two days of final preparations and run-through rehearsals with a third and last day of live recording for keeps.

I know a little something about the perils and pleasures of radio, both live and recorded, having spent more than 15 years working at two NPR affiliates as a music director, program director, and an on air host. That microphone in front of you can be your friend, can make you, in fact, sound better than you do in life. But it’s also there to catch every stumble and bobble, every unintentionally mangled word. It’s daunting, certainly for the novice. For the first year or so I did on air shifts, I would not open that mic without having written down every word I planned to say before closing it. And even then, accidents happened. It’s pressure, and I looked forward to seeing how these 8th graders would handle it.

As it turned out, there were other project options, individual ones, that students could choose to do instead. Using Bradbury’s descriptions, they could create a diorama of a setting from the novel or create a painting, drawing or sculpture of a landscape, scene, or character. The idea was not for them to demonstrate what they knew about the material. They’d already been tested on that. The purpose, rather, was to give the kids a chance to respond in more creative ways, to play to their artistic strengths, and to take different kinds of risks.

Sculpture of a Martian

In Patrick’s several sections there was a division of labor for the radio plays, with kids volunteering to be the actors, the script writers, the sound effects specialists, the musicians. In Liz’s section, most of the students did individual projects, but she had two teams of three members each who collaborated more generally on radio plays.

Over the course of the three days, I bounced back and forth between the two classrooms, which were both hives of activity, with kids building dioramas, painting canvases, building Martian sculptures. One of Liz’s students built a quite elaborate “haunted house” described in the “Usher II” chapter. Another drew the face of a shape-shifting Martian, one side alien, the other human, which was quite sophisticated.

But naturally, I was most keenly interested in watching the radio plays take shape. There was a lot of last minute script editing as each group got to record two rehearsal takes on day two and two final takes on day three. All of the performances got stronger with each take, and it was fascinating to watch members of the groups move deftly in and out of range of the large omnidirectional mic to read lines or provide sound effects. Props included electronic keyboards, electric drills, a triangle to serve as church bells, empty shoes clomping on a desktop, chains, bricks, an old hole puncher simulating a creaking door, and a plastic ray gun that emitted ideal science fiction zapping sounds. You can hear some of the recorded results here:

Fifth Period Martian Chronicles Radio Play-And the Moon Be Still as Bright

Second Period Martian Chronicles Radio Play-The Third Expedition

The kids obviously had fun, and Patrick said later that this was also part of the purpose of the projects, to create a happy association with literature in their minds. “They put a lot of effort into this,” he said, “and the results actually exceeded my expectations.” Liz was also happy with her playmakers. “I think when you vocalize anything, it activates a different part of the brain,” she said. “I even encourage my students to read their class notes aloud to themselves when they’re studying.”

And both plan to build on the experience next quarter, when their students will be immersed in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Patrick plans to devote more time to working with his kids to hone scripts for performing scenes from it, and Liz is considering incorporating a video element in her class. “Shakespeare’s language can be a little inaccessible to kids this age,” she says, “and it only really comes alive in performance anyway. So I’m hoping that by speaking and acting it will open some doors for them.”

So needless to say, I anticipate spending more time in these classrooms next quarter. Stay tuned.

Topics: 8th grade, Academics, art, creativity, curriculum, English, Middle School, project-based learning, teachers, technology, writing

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