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Teaching Our Kids to Teach

By Lisa and Rhonda Barfield
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #62, 2005.

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Lisa and Rhonda Barfield


"Children teaching children" is a concept that has always appealed to me. I saw it work when my five-year-old daughter, Lisa, began to teach two-year-old Mary numbers, colors, and alphabet letters. Later, as a busy homeschooling mother of four, I often counted on siblings to help one another with reading, math, and other subjects. I watched through the years as daily child-to-child mentoring built close bonds of friendship.

When our homeschool performing arts center's drama teachers decided to assign experienced student actors to coach younger ones, I was thrilled. Three of my four children, Eric (18), Christian (16), and Lisa (15), were commissioned as "drama interns." Here is Lisa's story of her mentoring experience.

- Rhonda Barfield

On a Wednesday evening in late November, I was sorting through the things I planned to take for the next day's homeschool performing arts program when the phone rang. Our drama teacher, "Mrs. C.," called to tell us about a new development in the drama program. She said she was assigning my two older brothers and me to be drama interns. I didn't know exactly what she meant, but she said she'd explain it to us the next day.

We soon learned that we weren't the only people who were asked to be interns. There were nine other students, twelve in all, and at the age of fourteen I was the youngest. Mrs. C. and the two assistant teachers explained to us our responsibilities as interns. The assignment was challenging, but also exciting: we would be paired up and put in charge of teaching six kids. Each pair of interns was required to edit, rewrite, direct, produce, costume, and act in an adaptation of one of Shakespeare's plays.

Our drama class mixed all ages together, allowing the older kids to mentor the younger age groups. This arrangement motivated the younger kids to elevate their efforts and improve their acting. The intern program reinforced this idea even more, giving the older kids a chance to actually teach directly. I wasn't quite sure how it would work out.

I was paired with Mrs. C's son, Loren. Fortunately, he was more familiar with Shakespeare's plays than I was. He suggested we do Macbeth. I agreed, wondering what Macbeth was about. All I knew was it had something to do with Scotland. The other intern pairs chose King Lear, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Hamlet.

With deadline fast approaching, we had only Christmas vacation to rewrite Macbeth. Originally, Loren and I both planned to write our own versions and then combine them, but Loren caught a virus and I had to work alone. Instead of trying to condense a two-hundred page play, I checked out an abridged version of Macbeth from the library and edited it even more. When Loren recovered, I sent him a copy so he could make the final changes.

Vacation ended, and it was time to teach the first class. I arrived at drama class a few minutes before it started and Loren was nowhere to be seen. Thirty seconds before drama began, when I was beginning to wonder if he had remembered to bring his version of Macbeth, he ran into the room and handed me the script. Just then Mrs. C. told everyone to be quiet, and class began. The troupe divided into six groups and reassembled in different rooms.

We decided to read through our script. Loren and I kept the atmosphere relaxed, and the kids seemed to be having a good time. Since most of them had small parts in the other play we were doing that year, they were excited when they were assigned major roles. Even though Loren and I played the lead characters, each kid played two or three different parts.

Most of the time, Loren dealt with the boys in our group and I focused on mentoring the girls. I was surprised and pleased at how all four girls listened to my suggestions even though two of them were only a grade younger. Often they had good ideas, too, about how to stage a scene or make a special effect.

Meanwhile, the three drama teachers and two assistants wandered from room to room, checking on how everyone was doing. They never intervened, but sat in and watched us teach.

All the interns had devised creative ways to edit their plays. Loren and I shortened Macbeth, and then had part of the story told in narration while the scene was acted in pantomime.

The King Lear script was very much like ours, told by both dialogue and narration. It was a challenging and complicated adaptation, with most of the actors playing triple roles.

Two interns restaged Julius Caesar in Chicago in the 1920s. All the conspirators were gangsters who wore trench-coats and wielded machines guns. At the end, the script called for Brutus, Cassius, and Marc Anthony to have a shoot-out with cap guns in the back streets.

Romeo and Juliet became the story of the making of a movie about this legendary love story, in which the group, playing incompetent actors, blundered through their parts. First they acted with no emotion, then talked too slowly before they finally pleased their director by performing melodramatically.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was told from the fairies' point of view. When a scene with the fairies ended, the actors froze as a narrator walked on stage and related what was happening to the humans in that part of the story.

Hamlet was transformed into a soap opera entitled The Dead and the Dying, in which Hamlet is a slightly unbalanced motorcyclist and his friend Horatio is a couch potato whose home is littered with pizza boxes. The play started with the theme song of The Young and the Restless, and a voice-over announced the actor's names.

Every other week, a drama intern meeting relating to the upcoming production was scheduled over lunch. We'd discuss props, costumes, programs, tickets, and other details. Mrs. C. would offer her opinion on different actors: "That girl is waiting to become great. You need to push her." "Just give him any part, and he'll be able to do it." "Careful what role you give her, or she might feel too overwhelmed."

The costumes were a challenge. Loren and I had decided upon kilts for the boys. We were able to scavenge only one authentic kilt, so in the end, we had to hem plaid skirts to the right length. The boys in the group were none too happy about wearing "girl's clothes," but we finally convinced them that kilts were better than tights.

At the seven-week mark, it was crunch time. We had one week to pull the play together. Loren and I were kept busy solving last minute problems including finding a kilt for me, switching which side of the stage to enter and exit, and coordinating some of the costume changes in a short time frame.

With some help from the drama teachers, all the problems were solved. The week passed quickly, and soon the big day came.

Backstage was frenzied and frantic. One of the actors in my group complained of a terrible stomach ache, which only added to the tension. As our turn to go on stage approached, I paced furiously up and down the halls to calm my nerves. Then ten minutes before the program, one of the girls dragged her brother toward me, yelling, "He's lost his costume!" That sent us running through the building in search of his stage clothes, which he found just before the program began.

Julius Caesar was scheduled first. The audience enjoyed the modern adaptation and the actors finished beautifully. Our play was next. On stage, we did very well. The actors really put their hearts in it and performed as well as they could. One in my group had especially improved: the youngest girl, a ten-year-old. She was a good friend of mine and I worked with her a lot because I knew she would rise to the occasion. Mrs. C. commented afterward that she had done a wonderful job.

The only rough spot in our performance happened when I exited the wrong side of the stage and had to sprint all the way around the building, changing my costume at the same time, in less than half a minute. Somehow, I managed and there was only a slight delay.

The other groups performed well and the audience loved the entire production of six adaptations. Afterward, I made it a point to tell each of the kids in my group that they'd done a good job. They all deserved that compliment.

I felt both relief and satisfaction at leading a play to completion and a little sadness, too. I had worked with these great kids for eight weeks, but now that the production was over, I wasn't going to teach them anymore. It was then that I realized how amazing my experience had been.

Being a Shakespeare intern was incredibly rewarding for me. I was able to watch the kids I mentored improve and have fun with the characters they played. As an added bonus, I changed from someone who wouldn't read Macbeth - unless someone was holding a gun to my head - into a Shakespeare enthusiast. Through the intern program, I shared my enthusiasm, not just for Shakespeare, but for drama in general, with a wonderful group of kids. They weren't perfect, of course. There were times when I began to wonder if they were ever going to memorize their lines. But in the end, the production came together.

I've just learned that the interns this year are going to write original skits for the younger groups to perform. Now that's challenging!

Conclusion by Rhonda

Observing the drama interns as they mentored younger actors and prepared their plays, I noticed three encouraging developments:

Older students gained confidence. "Could they really pull this off?" - that was the question both the drama instructors and parents asked. The answer: a definite yes. Drama interns learned not only how to improve their acting (because they were teaching acting), but also how to lead a class, adapt a work of literature into a play, assemble cheap and authentic costumes, plan for ticket sales and other business-end dealings, and manage people. At the end of our successful production, all 12 drama interns had grown more mature and confident.

Younger students gained expertise. Through the drama intern program, younger children received intense tutoring. They also participated in the same scenes with more experienced actors, which raised the bar for their own performance levels. Several parents noticed a huge improvement in their children's acting abilities following our Shakespeare production.

Friendships were cemented between older and younger students. Homeschooling is all about people of various ages interacting, working together, drawing close to one another. Our performing arts center's drama program has always encouraged this sort of interplay, which was strengthened through multi-age productions. Positive relationships developed between students, young and old, as they worked together toward a common goal.

The same kinds of opportunities for mentoring are available to you in your own homeschool. Your ten-year-old can help his seven-year-old brother learn math facts. Your athletically-inclined daughter can teach basic karate to her younger sister. Several siblings can join forces to produce a musical. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Children teaching children enriches and deepens the homeschool experience. Best of all, child-to-child mentoring prepares the next generation to grab the baton of homeschooling and run with it, well prepared.


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