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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Break a Leg

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

By pure serendipity--and perhaps evidence that there is order in the universe--I've met several school leaders recently whose school careers began in the performing arts. Our conversation turned, as it does so often with school people these days, to the topic of restoring a sense of joy in the schoolhouse, for kids and faculty alike.

Performing arts people bring a unique perspective to this question and a deeper kind of experience because the nature of their work is to elicit salient emotional responses from an audience, and to teach musicians, dancers and actors the art and science of doing so. Good performers know that their performance itself must be inspiring, but they also understand that they must know something about their audience beforehand and adapt their work to the audience's response in the course of the performance itself. In this way, an excellent performance is a kind of collaborative effort. This is what Hamlet means when he says the purpose of a play is to "hold the mirror up to nature."

This formulation feels like a good way to move beyond the notion that bringing joy back to the schoolhouse is yet another onerous task for faculty and one saturated in bad faith, as faculty themselves struggle to find enough joy to fill themselves up much less have more to give. Rather, in this metaphor, it is a collaborative effort albeit one in which the faculty play the role of catalyst. At one client's school, the leadership team installed a recess period for the high school division, not a series of "flex" periods to be gobbled up by AP labs or club meetings, but an all-stop, unprogrammed respite. Concerned that the kids might revert to COVID-cave behaviors and isolate themselves in every corner they could find, teachers asked the students what kinds of activities would bring people together. Some kids returned to their favorite middle school games--four square, spikeball, lightning--others set up cards tournaments, speed chess, and, bonus effect, faculty often jumped into the action.

Another thing that performing arts (and athletic) people know is that a flow state is a particularly powerful kind of joy and is often to be found in challenge, not the panic zone, but the zone in which heightened adrenaline meets the edge of competence often elevating performance of the individual and, even more thrilling, that of colleagues. "I can't believe I/we did that" is the signature outcome. We heard about this approach at another client school which had augmented its already robust outdoor education program with a series of capstone wilderness experiences for each high school grade level and moved the ninth grade program to the beginning of the year as a way to promote the important social meshing implicit in that moment with kids arriving from multiple schools. They'd built a curricular contrail across the disciplines in the month after the kids returned with writing projects and environmental science study based on the kids' experiences, thereby making them the context for shared academic challenge.

Shared experiences, shared work have always been at the heart of joy in the schoolhouse. Everything else rings of false cheer, empty performance, cajoling. This is the story of Lear and the disappearance of the Fool whose bitter, instructive jokes and absurdist antics cannot restore joy in a man who has systematically isolated himself. Performing arts people know this.

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