“Quiet on the . . .
set!” shout twenty-three voices in forceful unison. It’s Dress Rehearsal Day for the first and second grade plays, and second grade teacher Kelly Porter is attempting to channel her students’ excitement into preparing for their performance. Over the past three weeks, the young actors have memorized their lines (and everyone else’s!), practiced their delivery, learned their cues, and painted their own sets. However, with 24 hours to curtain time, nervous energy is bubbling over onto the stage of Harris Theater.
The first and second grade plays are a highlight of the year for parents and students alike. In the spring term, each class performs an adaptation of a storybook, complete with speaking parts for every student and choreographed songs.
This past April, the first graders performed David Shannon’s A Bad Case of Stripes, about a little girl who tries so hard to be like everyone else that she breaks out in stripes. Art teacher Billy Claire accompanied the students on guitar as they performed a hip-shaking rendition of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.” Second graders performed an adaptation of Philip Stead’s A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a play about the restorative power of friendship that included the song “Lean on Me.”
At turns adorable, funny, and poignant, these performances represent much more than the culmination of a few weeks of rehearsal. The plays are a demonstration of developing literacy and communication skills that have been months and years in the making. “Parents enjoy the play,” says Head of Primary School Teri Lawrence, “but they don’t always recognize the steps that come before and the foundation that it builds for what comes next.”
As the foundational step in Fay’s public speaking curriculum, the first grade play is the first time a student gets up on stage and speaks in front of an audience at Fay. “The play can seem scary at first to some children,” says first grade teacher Max Bogaert, “but it’s a life lesson. Speaking in front of people is something that they will learn throughout their time at Fay.”
Whether a student is a ham on stage or painfully shy, a strong reader or one who is mastering basic phonetics, the play is a learning experience for all. For example, first graders often delight in racing through their reading to show what strong readers they are—not a desirable behavior when delivering lines on stage. “The play teaches students the importance of speaking clearly and expressively,” says first grade teacher Jill Gibbons.
The play also connects to the broader work of developing poise and confidence throughout the first grade year. At classroom morning meetings, first grade teachers talk with students about how to talk through difficult situations, refocus when they are feeling nervous or frustrated, and advocate for themselves. Students also learn to greet others by shaking hands, looking them in the eye, and speaking clearly.
By second grade, public speaking is a part of daily life. Students play improv theater games in morning meetings like “30 Seconds,” a game that requires them to get up and talk to the class about anything, such as a new pet or a hobby, for 30 seconds. The language arts program incorporates read-aloud time as well as Readers Theater activities that get the students warmed up to public speaking. Even lunchtime is an opportunity to practice public speaking, where second graders can read the lunchtime reflection or sing a song.
When the curtain finally rises, the combination of hard work and excitement results in an unforget- table experience. For the first graders, the fear of the unknown is replaced by the thrill for what they have achieved. “They come off-stage and say, ‘That was amazing! I want to do it again!’” says first grade teacher Laura O’Donnell. For second graders, the play cements a confidence that will carry them through to their first Fay speeches in third grade.
As students move on through Lower and Upper School, the memories and lessons learned from the first and second grade plays reverberate through the many speeches and performances to come. “I see Upper School students now who performed in their first grade plays, and they’ll say, ‘Mrs. Gibbons, do you remember how nervous I was?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I remember how amazing you were!’”