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Acing the Boards


Educational Angel

John Browne, TC Professor of english education, poses as the Guardian Angel, his character in TC lecturer Pat Zumhagen's original play about theories of teaching.

Every year, Teachers College's English Education department seeks new ways to impart certain intangibles to its pre-service teachers:  how to develop an engaging classroom presence, build vocal and body-language skills, and form creative approaches to classroom management.

This semester the faculty turned, quite literally, to the dramatic. With help from the Manhattan Theatre Club, the department devoted its two-day 2005 Fall Institute/ Teaching of English Program to "The Performance(s) of Teaching." The highlight was The Multiple Voices of English Education, an original play by TC English Lecturer Pat Zumhagen that was performed by the English Education faculty in Milbank Chapel.

In Zumhagen's play, a  "Prospective Teacher" (Sophia Sarigianides, an instructor in Arts & Humanities)  confronts various theories of how young readers understand literature-'"structuralist, post-structuralist,  whether the text or the reader confers meaning, and more.

Professor John Browne shouldered a pair a white feathery wings to play the bewildered neophyte's TC Guardian Angel, and members of the English Ed department performed did duty as theorists Rosenblatt, Hirsch, Sizer, Dewey,  Atwell, "Constructivist," "New Historicist," "Post-Structuralist,"  Freire, and TC's own Maxine Greene.

Zumhagen said that beyond allowing pre-service teachers to hear the thoughts of many theorists, her play was meant to show that there is no single philosophy governing how children should be taught to approach or understand literature. "It's an ongoing struggle" among educators, she said, "and there are no easy, pat answers. The name of the game is that you have to be aware of what's out there and to know that, eventually, you may have to take a stand." She added that part of her inspiration for Multiple Voices had come from the musical Godspell, with its ensemble format.

Students and faculty also were treated to a performance at the Biltmore Theatre of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular, which the students had read in preparation for the Institute.

Earlier that day, the students took part in improvisational groups led by Teaching Artists from the Manhattan Theatre Club, who encouraged them to think on their feet and understand the tensions and absurdities that create comedy. The activitiesere designed to give students the confidence to stand up in front of a group and teach as active performers.

"Your tools are your body - timing,  the sense of surprise, your voice," said Renee Cherow-O'Leary,  Assistant Professor of English Education. "On a deeper level, it's also about the inner work that theater allows you to do, which you can use in teaching."

A key goal of the Institute was "technique" - getting everyone out of their seats, and involved with learning," said Browne, who has taught for 32 years. "The idea is to show them how a teacher can keep a classroom engaged, taking certain techniques and seeing the teacher as -'performer'." Equally important was having students understand "ways of perceiving how to bring literature to life, and to show that teaching involves - 'becoming' - an ongoing process of learning and adaptation.

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