Thursday, January 22, 2009

Broadway as an Educational Tool 1: Elaine Stritch and The Glass Castle

One of my assistant principals (from my teaching days) always managed to observe me on a day when I was showing my students a video clip. It got to the point where we would laugh about it in my post-observation meeting. I was never big on showing entire movies (of course I usually did it once a year in most classes, incorporating it into an actual unit and making it a valuable learning activity), but I’d often show short clips and scenes to illustrate a point.

I never used Broadway clips to indoctrinate my students (though it sometimes resulted in that); I used them because when you are up until midnight trying to figure out the best way of illustrating something, you grasp on to what you know well and what will be the most effective manner of communicating the idea. As my assistant principal agreed, showing five-minute clips was much more effective than showing entire movies. I also think the Broadway clips I showed were important because it exposed the kids to art, something they wouldn’t otherwise see. I always felt like I was expanding their minds in one tiny way or another.

Elaine Stritch At Liberty came in handy when I was teaching Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, her memoir of growing up in a crazy household where her parents moved constantly and required parenting themselves, often leaving their children without food, without heat in winter, without even proper garbage removal. Life begins for the Walls children as an exciting adventure as their father moves them around the country in hopes of striking it rich and inventing great things. As his dreams crumble, and he is faced with the reality of the life he has created for his children and that it is vastly different from the dreams he had, he begins to medicate with alcohol, which causes things to deteriorate even more rapidly for the children.

One of the greatest pains I experienced as a teacher was knowing that my students would spend their weekends drinking and drugging themselves up and not being able to do a single thing about it. It’s particularly troubling when you read the statistics on teen drinking and how it relates to alcohol addiction later in life. I don’t know the statistics now, but the relationship between teen drinking and adult alcoholism is astounding. In my first years of teaching, I thought if I shared with them the moderation with which I lived my life that they would see they didn’t need reckless behavior to enjoy their time on this earth. Well, that backfired quickly, and I never knew really how else to address this effectively.

I also wanted to delve into the psychology of the characters in The Glass Castle (these were eleventh graders in a class for students with low ability/achievement) without it turning into me preaching. My objective was to help them process and interpret the characters in the story while also helping them to understand the steps of addiction.

I popped in At Liberty and began by showing them the scene when Stritch has her first drink. It’s a funny memory, and the kids laughed (one said, “She’s crazy”). I have a feeling a number of them could relate to the “fun” of first getting drunk. I then showed the scene in which she’s performing in California and is forbidden from drinking backstage, to which she forges congratulatory notes on bottles of booze with rigged corks to mask the sound of opening the bottle. Again, it’s a very funny story, but Stritch hints at why she was depending on alcohol, and it begins to become apparent that this is more than a choice. I ended with the wrap party in which she starts out with one drink, and then argues with herself about having another, then another, until she almost kills herself because she lacks the control she perceives herself to be exerting. I then fast-forwarded to the part at the end of the show when she says she’s had a great life and almost missed it all.

Yeah, it was an old woman singing, and I did have to explain that she was wearing dancer’s tights and wasn’t walking around in her underwear, but it helped us enter into a discussion of the dad in The Glass Castle. It helped us engage in a discussion on the power of addictive substances, how people come to depend on them, and we looked at why both Stritch and Rex Walls came to be alcoholics. The discussion wasn’t forced, it wasn’t me preaching; it was a discussion.

I ended the unit by showing the Sherman Alexie-penned Smoke Signals, which allowed us to discuss (less vibrantly) the effect of parents and how a person’s intentions aren’t always the same as their actions. It was a good unit, and the best part was that Elaine Stritch helped me cover the topic I was least-skilled at covering. Stritchy rocks.

the Broadway Mouth
January 22, 2009

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