Gr4Play1213 1As art, as a branch of literature, the essence of a personality or the atmosphere of an event is recreated. This is the way children approach history with meaning. It has to become a spiritual experience. --Winifred Moore

At Nueva, there are many phrases that we bandy about quite often and assume that everyone knows what we mean. They are phrases that can, to be honest, sound pretty glib if you don't know the depth of thought that lies behind them: phrases such as integrated teaching, theme-based curricula, learning by doing and caring, and teaching the whole child. But what do they mean in practice, how do they affect the day-to-day educational life of your children, and why are they important?

Let's take the fourth grade musical as an example. As some of you may know, it is a Nueva tradition that the fourth graders create and perform a full-length musical play based on their curriculum for their year-end Culmination. What do we mean when we say that the students "create" the play? The students, not the teachers, write every single word of the script, the song lyrics, the melodies, the accompaniments, make their own costumes and props, plan the choreography, do much of the direction, and run the lights and sound. These are truly student-made productions.

This year's musical was called Son of the Sky, about the adventures of Perseus. Here's a clip of the two-part finale, to give you an idea of what we are talking about.

The idea of a theme is deceptively simple; we make one idea, carefully chosen, the focus of the curriculum for an entire year. We relate all of the subjects, whenever possible, to it. The theme must be one that is inherently interesting, that is accessible to the children, that provides a richness of possibilities, and on which it is worth while to spend an entire year.

For many years now, the theme of the fourth grade year has been "The Path of the Hero." This is using the word "hero," not in the comic-book sense, but in the way that Joseph Campbell, world-renowned mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, among many others, used it -- simply as the protagonist of any story, including our own. Every person, living, dead, or fictional, is the hero of his or her own story every single day of their lives, and we all follow the same stages of the same path.

Gr4Play1213 4Within that theme, we have chosen an ancient culture on which to focus each year. In the past this has included ancient India, Sumeria, Rome, Persia, and Middle Ages England, but the one we keep coming back to is ancient Greece. Why? Simply because it's the one that children at this age love the most. It has a most peculiar and special resonance in the minds and hearts of children approaching the cusp of childhood. In many ways, the development of the child parallels the development of human consciousness, and children around the age of nine and ten are living in that shining light of their own Golden Age.

The arc of the year is simple; the first half is spent learning all about Greek religion -- the myths, The Iliad and Odyssey, the oracles and temples, and the related art and literature. With that essential foundation, the second half of the year is spent on Greek history and culture, especially in the fifth century BCE.

Culmination is called that for a reason: it is the ultimate expression of integrated learning, pulling together strands, both academic and social, from the entire year across many different areas. Though this project is a musical play, it is not primarily either a drama or music activity: music and drama are simply the carrier wave, so to speak, that carries and shapes the content. Here are just a few of the pieces that come together to make the musical.

Gr4Play1213 3Theme. This is the most obvious one — the content of the play and songs is drawn from what the students have learned all year about the history and religion of ancient Greece. It not only incorporates what they have learned about myth and culture, but it deepens their understanding of them as they work to find humor, drama, and connections to enrich the play. For example, in this year's Perseus play, Danaea commiserates with Rapunzel and Icarus, as fellow young people imprisoned in towers, and Poseidon, as a warning to Cassiopeia, brings out Bellerophon, Arachne, Icarus, and Sisyphus to show her what happens to those who defy the gods. But she doesn't listen — click here to see her duet with Poseidon. Then think about the depth of understanding, both of the ancient world and of themselves, indicated in these verses from the Finale:

And if some don’t believe it’s true,
Tell them to see the wonders in the sky,
And ask them to share the wonders too.
Some people say impossible,
But gods are beings, too.

Search, search for your happiness,
Search, search for your only love.
Search, search for achievements in the world.
Search now for your deepest, secret dreams,
Don't let them fade away.

The Path of the Hero is also culminated here. Go back to the video of the Finale at the start of this article, and listen again to the lyrics they wrote. The students not only bring in the stages of the Path, but in the penultimate verse, they relate them to their own lives:

We all face monsters each day
And we must learn to find our way.
We've walked so many miles
Along our Road of Trials,
Masters of Two Worlds someday.

The Monomyth — Path of the Hero

  1. The Call to Adventure
    1. Supernatural Aid
    2. Ordeal / Belly of the Whale
    3. The Crossing of the First Threshold
  2. The Transformation
    1. Road of Trials
    2. Apotheosis
    3. Climax/Final Battle
  3. The Return
    1. The Gift
    2. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
    3. Master of the Two Worlds / Freedom

Gr4Play1213 6Writing. Throughout the year, the students have been learning skills, such as showing character through dialog and planning a story using the stages of the Hero's Journey, which come to fruition in planning and writing the script. They have lessons on script writing, and on the conventions of musical theater. And their work on rhythm, rhyme, and different forms of metaphor in poetry enables them to write the lyrics. For example, those final two songs operated on three different levels -- at the surface they were about the myths and characters, just under that was the level of the Hero's Journey, and at their heart, they were really about the students themselves.

Music. Throughout the year in music classes the children have been learning about composition, different modes and styles of music, and about chord progressions, which they then use to create the melodies and accompaniments. Some years they also compose and play on the Orff instruments as well.

Morning Meeting. The entire fourth grade begins each day of the year in singing together, a new song every week or two. By the time they start working on the play, they not only have lots of great lyrics and music in their heads, but also are very comfortable singing with each other, trying out harmonies, and singing with enthusiastic joy.

Research. All year long the students have done a lengthy series of research-based projects, and the play is not only informed by the contents of their research, but also by their research skill, as they frequently need to go deeper and dig more to find what they need for a particular scene.

Collaboration. The creation of a complex work such as this requires not just cooperation, but a complete subsuming of everyone's egos and desires to what is best for the group. For instance, once two children have written a scene together, they know it is no longer theirs -- it becomes part of a greater whole, their names are not on it, and the group may well (and often do) change it drastically, both in editing and in rehearsal. Many song lyrics are contributed that don't end up being used. There are no starring roles, and larger parts are divided up among several students (there were six Perseii this year). To reach this point, the students have worked on collaborative projects all year, and rather than groups run by majority vote, they must use a consensus procedure in which everyone in the group has to be satisfied with each decision before they can proceed.

PE. The fourth grade physical education curriculum includes a unit on choreography so that the students are prepared to create the movements for songs, battles, and crowd scenes.

Technology. The script is created and printed using word processors, of course, the songs are done using software and keyboard workstations, and students run the lights and sound during the show.

Reading. It probably goes without saying that the students have acquired the knowledge required to create the play primarily through independent reading, including comparing many different versions of the myths involved and deciding on which version of each event they prefer.

The Camping Trip. A week before we begin rehearsals the fourth grade goes camping together for four days. This cements their bond with and reliance on each other, which is absolutely essential to their performance, as they are up on stage for ninety minutes without a net -- no teacher with a prompt script, they must depend on each other. In addition, they spend a day building elaborate driftwood structures on the beach, which further prepares them for the collaborative building needed for the play, and they also have a Talent Show, in which most participate, which helps them get comfortable with the skills that come to fruition during the rehearsal process

The Middle School Musical. Most years you can see the influence of that year's MS musical on the songs. Here are some clips from past years. Can you guess the MS show that year? Answers are at the bottom.

dragonFinaleKing Arthur Finale

mineThe Odyssey - Calypso's Song

guenevereKing Arthur - Guenevere at the Stake

deiniraHeracles - Deinira's Lament

The process, which includes unexpected and gender-blind casting, pushing themselves beyond their own comfort levels, throwing themselves into risky activities such as singing and dancing in front of an audience, working without a net (no teacher with a script prompting them), relying on each other and covering each other's mistakes, making up lines and bits on the fly, ad-libbing, improvising, playing multiple parts, projecting to an audience without mics, adding things, dropping things, writing things that end up not being used, changing and changing again, and so much more, all bring on a sense of teamwork, trust in themselves and each other, and a ready flexibility that will stand them in good stead in many future non-theatrical endeavors.

By the end, the children have learned that, by working together and persevering, they can accomplish amazing things, things that no one (including sometimes themselves) thought they could do. If you stop to think about it, the idea of a gang of 10-year-olds writing, composing, directing, choreographing, and performing a full-length musical play is absurd, the stuff of corny old Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney movies, not real life. Now they know better, and they leave fourth grade with an incredible sense of confidence in their own and their classmates' abilities. They truly know, in a way they never could just from adults telling them so, that when they work together they can do anything.

*MS Musicals that influenced the 4th grade songs (in order as they appear above):
Les Miserables
West Side Story
Guys and Dolls

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