by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT
"Jab." "Jab." "Jab." "Jab." (Sung) Dance...Boogie Wonderland. Sounds like the weirdest location for a boxing match ever or the most aggressive disco in history. It was neither. This was my C Block today, learning what I learned this past July at the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. As we learned in one of our acting sessions, Shakespeare's language is meant to tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and seen. This full bodied experience of the language helps to internalize meaning. But my third block class wasn't studying Shakespeare. So what was I doing? Why was I doing it? Who is the mysterious author with whose works I was engaging?
The English 11 class I am currently teaching is just starting their work on A Streetcar Named Desire. Getting Williams's work on its feet is no different than putting Shakespeare's work on its feet, so I decided to engage the students in some warm-ups that would teach them some of the basics of acting.
I feel the need to interject a note here about what I mean when I say "acting." The students were not channeling Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. Rather, when I say "acting" in this context, I mean getting up, playing with words, imagining oneself in another's skin. Sometimes that looks like good acting. Other times it does not. Either way, the opportunity presents the possibility for learning a lot.
So, to warm up today's English 11 class, I decided to do some of the punching activities one of the acting instructors taught us at TSI. We stood with our legs shoulder-width, secured our bases by tightening our leg muscles, and extended both index fingers. The first round is simply a point, not a jab. This helps students direct the focus of their eyes to the target beyond the end of the hand. As we progress to jab, I ask the students to visualize the word jab exploding from the end of their fists and hitting a point on the wall. Before you knew it, the glass at my door became crowded with confused faces as people passing by were wondering why the English class was jab the air as though it had just recited the most cutting momma joke in history.
We stopped jabbing and set up for the scene: scene one of Streetcar. When we got to the section where Blanche and Stella begin to argue about the loss of Belle Reve, I could instantly tell the jabbing exercise had worked. Two students, one male and one female, played the parts. Not only was the intensity of each italicized word or word before an exclamation point given the force of a punch, the entire emotional intensity of the scene erupted. The students had gotten so far into the scene that when Stella leaves to wash her tears and says "Does that surprise you?", the ice in her voice and eyes froze me to the core. These students have known me for five days and they were willing to perform at that level already. A testament to their abilities, but also a testament to the power of experiencing language with the entire body.
As a postscript to my day, the freshmen in my homeroom pour in before and after the final bell to plug their Chromebooks back in and store them for the night. As they came through today, they were full of questions about the purpose of the bizarre activities they witnessed in the hall or heard about through the proverbial grapevine. One young man made my week, but he doesn't know it. He said, "Whoa! That sounds like the best class ever" as he and his buddy walked out the door. That level of pure energy and excitement that causes young teenage boys to stop being cool for a minute and express an actual emotion, that is why I teach.