Five Lessons from Drama Class on Student Ownership

As a high school World History and ELA teacher, I received my most important lessons about instilling student ownership while directing the school play, namely:

  1. When participation is voluntary, learning happens
  2. If you want students to be prepared, create real consequences
  3. Real deadlines are better than arbitrary deadlines
  4. Give students ways to impact the outcome in dramatic ways
  5. Create authentic tasks and opportunities to teach

How Can We Apply These Lessons in the Classroom?

1. Make participation voluntary

That’s a tough one. Students are generally compelled to be in your class, so short of making system-wide changes to how classes are selected, there’s not much you can do. But, within the classroom, you can give students choices. Work with them to create class rules and expectations, then have everyone agree to them once consensus is reached. Give students a say in what formats are acceptable for the big assignments this year. Whatever it is, find opportunities to give students real choices and ways to participate.

2. Create real consequences

This is a great part about drama. If students don’t know their lines, it’s extremely apparent and it makes the rest of the cast look bad, too. The spectre of failing motivates the slacker student to work harder and her castmates to help her succeed. Contrast that to the classroom; when one student doesn’t hand in their assignment, no one really notices or cares.

Think about ways you can build that same kind of camaraderie and mutual accountability in your classroom. Set a goal to see how many weeks in a row the class can go with 100% assignment completion. Or create study groups that stay together for the whole year with responsibility for checking in with each other and being a supporting each other’s growth.

3. Avoid arbitrary deadlines

A performance deadline is real. The auditorium has been secured, tickets have been purchased. People are going to be in that audience watching you whether you are ready or not. Students feel that pressure and rise to the occasion.

Contrast that with assignment deadlines that feel arbitrary. If you miss it, or turn it in late, you either take a small hit to your grade or you convince your teacher you had good reason for the delay. If you don’t turn it in at all, the consequences are pretty far removed from the action making it hard for students to see the impact of their actions.

It can help to contextualize deadlines with your students. Instead of you, the teacher, assigning an arbitrary date for work to be completed, try to emphasize the impact of their work on the class progress, or even involve them in planning their work and committing to a deadline. Saying, “We need to finish our project by Friday so we can be ready to share our work with the school” can help students see why a deadline matters. By giving them some agency in establishing a deadline you create more ownership in the classroom.

4. Let students impact outcomes in meaningful ways

In play practice, students contribute daily to the direction of the play. They add their own dramatic flare, they give feedback to each other, they have ideas for staging, etc.

In an ordinary classroom, students don’t have much influence over what happens and they don’t typically provide feedback to each other in ways that feel important. For example, we might have students trade papers, but the student marking up a peer’s paper doesn’t have a lot of stake in the game.

Think of ways to create rich learning events and engage your students in evaluating or even designing different approaches to an assignment. When you use questions and problems that allow for multiple strategies to arrive at the desired outcome, students have the opportunity to make choices and compare approaches. This kind of engagement gets students thinking at a higher level, rather than just sharing the “right answer” with each other.

5. Create authentic tasks and opportunities to teach

During the performance, the students have to make it work. The director can’t save a bad performance and the parents can’t step in with excuses for their child. It’s just the students, together as a team, getting through any challenges that come up. In regular class, some kids look for ways to avoid full engagement. If you zone out, it’s no big deal, right? Who are you harming? So, how can we bring that same “do or die” moment to the classroom? That moment when students have get through it?

Just as creating real deadlines and involving students in planning their work encourages student ownership, you can also create authentic tasks that will help students in their lives, jobs, or relationships. Presenting their ideas to the class, or sharing their work and progress with a small group creates a tangible sense of ownership and an event they’re working towards. If they are also responsible for helping to teach part of a lesson (or teach younger students), the process becomes even more impactful.

By encouraging students to think and act like subject-matter experts and develop skills they will use throughout their lives, you instill a sense of ownership over their learning that goes way beyond the classroom.