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Building a Musical Curriculum: Support, Values and Perseverance in Sanford’s “Into the Woods”

posted on Wed, Feb 21 2018 10:23 am by Ryan Weldon, Project SUCCESS middle school facilitator

The following blog was written by Ryan Weldon, a Project SUCCESS facilitator at Sanford who helped to develop the curriculum for the school's musical, Into the Woods, this past December.

At one of the first rehearsals for our 2017 Sanford Middle School musical, Into the Woods, I sat in a circle with the cast and asked the students, "WHO is Project SUCCESS about?"

Nearly all of them responded in unison: "Me!"

Project SUCCESS is about students, their identity, and planning for their future, and our middle school musicals are one of the many programs that help engage students in conversations around those topics.

To connect the themes of the show with their lives, Project SUCCESS staff do weekly workshops with students at rehearsal focusing on ideas like support and perseverance. The musical curriculum gives students the opportunity to reflect on the show, the rehearsal process, and the ways in which the stories they portray on stage can be meaningful in their lives outside of rehearsal and after the show has finished.  Each week focuses on a theme from the show with prompts and questions to guide reflection.

Over the past few years, we’ve worked with students to build a visual representation of what we’d learned through the musical that could be displayed on the wall of the theater as a reminder for students, allowing them to look back at their ideas throughout the rehearsal process. This year, each week we created a visual representation of our lessons that came together to build a large tree. Each week we added an element to the tree – starting with the trunk, adding branches, leaves, roots, and grass. Each part of the tree represented a different theme related to the play and the rehearsal process.

The challenge of the musical curriculum is putting everything together in a meaningful way by looking at themes and ideas from the show, and connecting them to the objectives of the workshops I lead monthly for all students at Sanford, as well as the skills they learn from participating in a musical.

Our musical experiences help students to learn dependability, commitment and risk taking through the process of putting on a show. Together with theater curriculum associate Khary Jackson and facilitator Annick Dall, we started by looking at the different songs in the musical and their themes.  With a wide variety of fairytale characters in Into The Woods, students were able to explore the ideas from many different perspectives.

In the musical’s prologue, all of the characters in the show are introduced singing about their wishes – their “happily ever after.” It was a clear tie to Project SUCCESS; we encourage students to dream big and think about what they want for their futures. After exploring the character's wishes in the musical, we asked students to think about why they auditioned for Into The Woods: “What do you want to be here? What is your wish for yourself throughout this rehearsal process?”

Each week we dug deeper, asking students to not only dream big about the play, but to think about how they were going to make those big dreams happen:

“Who supports the characters in this story? Who supports you as a student in the cast?”

“What sacrifices do the characters make to get what they wish for? What are you willing to give up to be a part of this show, and what are you not willing to sacrifice?”

Each week, starting with a song in the show, students looked at their wishes and dreams from a different angle, always inspired by the characters and choices they made in the story.

Some activities involved reflection, while others involved action -- one week, we were talking about support from others in accomplishing our goals. Seated in a circle, students held a ball of yarn and shared the name of someone who could support them, before tossing the yarn ball to another student across the circle. After everyone had shared, we had created a huge yarn web. It’s an activity full of challenges: It’s challenging to hold on to yarn with one hand while throwing a yarn ball with the other. It’s challenging to catch a ball with one hand. It’s challenging to keep the yarn from becoming tangled. But our group persevered, and every student had a chance to share who supports them. We were all connected by our web of yarn, each one of us part of a cast that could continue to support each other.

The yarn became the “roots” of our tree, with support from others being something that can help keep us grounded. We were also able to practice perseverance an important skill in and out of rehearsal. It felt like a perfect metaphor for the rehearsal process. While there were struggles and challenges along the way, we were able to persevere, laugh through the challenges, and ended up more closely connected as a cast. This close connection allowed us to bring all of the students participating in the musical into our close-knit community, including some of the tech crew students who join rehearsals at a later date. It made it clear that all students were a crucial part of building this show. The cast shared the different parts of the tree and everything we had talked about each week, welcoming tech crew to be a part of their journey.

Conversations about the themes continued at Sanford, including an opportunity for all students at Sanford to see the show during the school day. The week after the show, my eighth grade workshops focused on decision making for the future. In class, students discussed the values of the characters. During one class, a student raised her hand and said, “For the Baker it was not only important that he get a child, but it was also important to him that he get what he wanted in the "right" way, a way with integrity that reflected his values.”

Students came away from Into the Woods with the idea that difficult choices are sometimes necessary in order to get what you want. Students sacrificed spending time with their friends after school to be at rehearsal. Sometimes they would have to sacrifice being at rehearsal so they could meet after school with a teacher and get help with schoolwork. Our curriculum highlighted how these decisions and wishes in their own lives were reflected in the show. We encouraged students to think about this without placing judgement on their decisions, and instead focus on figuring out what was most important for each of them individually. Even if students don’t pursue acting in the future, this was one of the many lessons they can take away from this experience.

These conversations do not end now that the musical has finished. Students will be asked these questions many times through different Project SUCCESS programs. Through the musical curriculum, we worked to connect these questions to the Into The Woods story and rehearsal process: We helped them explore how theater can connect to their own experiences, encouraged them to reflect on their values and futures, and celebrated their individual strengths and perspectives in a way that can take with them for the rest of their lives.