One year (many years ago and in a galaxy far, far away) I was unexpectedly offered a teaching job: three English classes in 6th grade. They wanted something unusual, writing all the time, across the subjects, grammar instruction, and opera.
Yes. You read that right. Opera.
Nothing about me screamed opera on my CV. I used to dance and sing in crowds… children’s choir, school musicals, community theater, so on. I never undertook solos–never interested–a fact that I now think is quite telling about me.
The one role I had with more than two lines, I hated–not because it was a bad role, but I liked being in the background, in the chorus, in the play, but not the star, never the center of attention for long. In a production of Li’l Abner, I played Appassionata von Climax. (I’m not making this up.) I had too many lines, and you can just imagine what they were like.
Appassionata von Climax: one of a series of predatory, sexually aggressive sirens who pursued Li’l Abner prior to his marriage, and even afterwards, much to the consternation of Daisy Mae. Joining a long list of dishy femmes fatales and spoiled debutantes that included Gloria Van Welbilt, Moonlight Sonata, Mimi Van Pett and “The Tigress”; Appassionata was memorably portrayed by both Tina Louise (onstage) and Stella Stevens (on film). Capp always wondered how he ever got her suggestive name past the censors.
I gasp at this now–how did I ever get roped into playing such a role? It was a step up from “Streetwalker #4” or “Hotbox Dancer #2” in Guys and Dolls, but still, you got to wonder who thought an 18 year old should play this part. No matter what I did on stage, though, I had a blast being part of a the cast and crew. I played every questionable character role I could possibly have gotten–including “Saloon Girl #1” in Ten Nights in a Bar Room for a dinner theater–didn’t seek that sort of thing out, I swear. Embracing Serendipity is a lifestyle choice I made as a child. As a result some mighty odd opportunities have come my way from playing unsavory characters on stage to working in aviation to teaching sixth graders to tending bar at the Governor’s mansion in Idaho.
Good grief, when it comes pouring out, it really comes pouring out. I really didn’t mean to wander about in this way, but it’s a good illustration of what I wanted in any way I could get it: being part of a group who did things to brighten the world in some way, a group who bonded in deep ways to produce something together.
I never wanted to be a star (except for playing Frosty the Snowman once–I loved that). I really didn’t enjoy team sports. I didn’t enjoy student government (though I was once the social director for my sorority… no surprise there.) I wanted to make things and make things happen. Do you think that’s why I love art and writing? I think so.
Back to opera and writing.
At that point in my life, NOT one person knew I played a saloon girl in a melodrama set in a bar. I never told anyone about any of that in my professional life–ever (well, there was the one time I choreographed a Fourth of July musical that my dept. chair wrote with a music professor for community event–but that was ages before the 6th grade offer, and I kept that choreography very much on the QT). What folks did generally know about me was that I was a writer and taught writing.
Or I sort of taught writing–at least, I could create learning environments in which writing might be productively accomplished without fear of constant and severe judgement valuing rules over thinking. I don’t value one over the other, a writer needs both, though I do give thinking and creativity the edge over rules in an old-fashioned foot race.
So I took the job teaching three sixth grade writing classes on a handshake, then I was told I needed to travel to opera camp for ten days before the school year began.
I wanted the job and the chance to do something that I’d never ordinarily get to do: 1) teach 6th graders; 2) rethink writing instruction for younger writers; 3) stretch myself professionally. I went to opera camp. For ten days. Opera camp in the middle of summer. For ten days.
It was eight days of learning the process then two days of harried production. I was the set designer–we were encouraged to apply for jobs that weren’t our first choice or our strengths, but to stretch. For the sake of our students, we were asked to try out new things and take risks. We worked 10-16 hours a day, every day. It was exhausting. And the most fun ever. I can’t even remember the name of the program, but we learned how to do everything associated with musical stage production: write a song, write a libretto, construct lighting (including splicing wires and actually building the lights), frame sets, create set designs, make-up, hair, costumes, public relations and marketing (including naming our company and designing brochures, ads, and t-shirts), paint back drops, manage a play, do props, and everything else. I’ve never had a better professional development experience in my life. We didn’t learn a thing in a classroom; we did everything and learned by doing it all. (We had no budget at all for our “opera”–I used paper for the set that I begged/borrowed/stole from the physics department and taped it all on cubicle walls I “borrowed” from another department on the campus where camp was held.) (Did I mention we stayed in freshman dorms in the middle of summer? For ten days.)
Okay then. In ten days we learned how to put on an opera and then we performed it. Yep. That’s right, we performed it at the end–twice. And then we had a cast party. And then we dragged ourselves onto planes to go home, all kinds of bedraggled.
And then we all went back to our schools to spend the year recreating that experience for our students.
I had 62 sixth graders, and that April we put on an opera for our school and community. I still look back on that year in amazement, never really understanding how I did it. (I couldn’t have done it without the music and science teacher helping–they were true partners in the endeavor–the music teacher having attended opera camp with me. No way this is a monologue.)
I learned these things from that year of rocking opera and writing:
- There is no good thing that one person can do that can’t be 1,00o times better with three teachers and 62 sixth graders.
- Understanding that everything we do is process and linking that to writing helps even the most reluctant kids become involved and think of themselves as creators.
- Our opera was a bit like commons-based peer production. Each student got involved in ways they wanted to–designing t-shirts or being the stage manager–they got to apply for the jobs they wanted and had to argue for why they were right for the job, but nearly everyone found the role they wanted to play pretty easily.
- The reflective writing these kids did was remarkable before, during, and after the opera. They learned about collaboration, art, writing, electricity, design, thinking, sharing, growing, becoming responsible; they were creative and open and flexible and amazing. Truly. (Ten years later I ran into one of my students from that year–she said it was the best year of her life–I hope that has since changed, but I get what she meant. For me, too.)
- No one thought we could do it with a budget of nearly nothing ($200, I think).
- But we did it because we got a lot of folks involved who cared included three teachers and 62 kids.
- We did several performances–all of which were spectacular–no hitches in our giddy-ups, not one.
- It probably wasn’t great opera.
- Maybe it was fine, but that didn’t matter.
- We did something together–we were great together.
And that’s all I’ve ever really wanted: to be great together.
Have I been trying to replicate that experience since then? (A lot of things just got very clear to me through this blog post–writing to explore kind of rocks.)
Writing Spaces. It might be the finest thing I’ve been involved in since the opera. Is my involvement with this open educational resource (OER) the equivalent to a sixth grade opera for me? Might could be. And that ain’t bad–that ain’t bad at all.
OER anyone? Or shall we put on a show to save Farmer Smith from foreclosure? Or an opera by, for, and of sixth graders?
Whatever it is I do with my life, words, time, work–I want to be great together. That’s real nice to know.