“That Man In Tights” and Other Thoughts on the Importance of Pre-Teaching

In my first year of teaching, I was thrilled to learn that our school had been given free tickets to take our students to the theater.  In this small rural town, there were extremely limited opportunities for cultural enrichment; and in our bankrupt public school district, there was no money for anything.  So when the principal announced that a bus would take my class to see The Nutcracker two days later, my students and I could not wait.

Even as a novice teacher and even on such short notice, I knew I should do something to prepare my students for the play.  Luckily, our library had a children’s book version of The Nutcracker.  I created a brief guided notes sheet to support the read-aloud, focusing on character and plot summary with the goal of ensuring students could follow the play’s story line when they saw it performed.  I figured it was the best I could do with what I had, and perhaps it would be enough to keep them engaged with the show.

On the way to the community college theater, the bus was filled with the buzz of 5th graders embracing their perceived “freedom from school.”  I let them get a little louder than I would have preferred–it was probably the only field trip they would ever take, after all.  Let them enjoy it.  

We arrived, unloaded, and paraded into the semi-dark theater.  Students were impressed by how “fancy” and big it was.  I was proud of the way they were behaving, unlike students from another school–a few rows in front of us–who were singing loudly.   I reminded my class that when the show started, they needed to remain quiet. 

When the lights dimmed, two things happened that I did not anticipate:

For the 1-2 seconds before the stage lights came on, the entire theater filled with the gasps and shouts of children who had not previously experienced such total darkness.  That noise was quickly overpowered by the shooshing of 20+ teachers, embarrassed by the students’ lack of self-control.

The Nutcracker is not just a play, it is a ballet.  HOW DID I NOT CONSIDER how 10 year olds would react to this:

I hate to be crass, but teachers, you know what I mean?  Every child in the theater lost his or her mind the moment the Nutcracker bounced onto stage.  And there was no amount of teacher shooshing that could stop the pre-pubescent giggle train.  It was too late to explain ballet attire or practice strategies for being respectful in new environments.  Ten minutes into the show, thank goodness, the Nutcracker returned with shorts over his tights and some sanity was restored.  

But as I’m sure you can imagine, the students never really recovered.  Despite my attempt at preparing them, they did not understand the storyline, they did not appreciate the art, and besides the dark theater and “that man in tights,” their favorite moment was “the fight with the rats.”

Fast-forward to a decade later.  As an experiential educator at Live It Learn It, I have just arrived at the Phillips Collection with a different class of 5th graders.  In many ways, they are extremely similar to my first class.  They are mostly students of color, from low-income families, who read below grade-level.  By show of hands, today’s trip is the very first visit to this art museum for every single student.  It’s likely that most of them have never even been to this part of DC.  They are as equally impressed by the museum’s architecture as my first class was impressed by the vastness of the theater.  I can’t help but smile at the numerous exclamations that “this bathroom is SO nice”–10 years of teaching has reinforced that sometimes what captures students’ engagement is not, in fact, the intended subject.  

But I also know from 10 years of facilitating this kind of learning that, unlike my first class, this class will not ultimately count the bathroom as their favorite part of the trip.  By the time we are done, the bathroom will be a fading mirage compared with the vivid images that Jacob Lawrence’s art will imprint on their mind’s eyes.  

Don’t take my word for it.  Here are a few “favorite moments” as shared directly by the kids:

Lest it seem unstriking to you that these students’ favorite part of the trip was, essentially, why they went on the trip (to see Lawrence’s artwork), imagine hearing this on the bus ride back to school 10 years ago:

As teachers, that’s what we want to hear, right?  We want to hear the awe and wonder, the personal connections, the unique details that spoke to students individually.  We want to hear that they “got it,” that learning came to life in an authentic context and created an indelible impression.  We want students so deeply immersed in the experience that they mistakenly assume the art classroom in the museum’s basement is Jacob Lawrence’s studio! 

So how do we do that?  Yes, we take students out of the classroom to informal learning spaces.  But that alone is not enough.  Before students enter the theater or the art museum or the garden or the historic site, they should be immersed in the content in the classroom.  And before students can be immersed in content, we the teachers must immerse ourselves in the content!  

I failed to immerse myself in content before I “taught” The Nutcracker (if you can call what I did teaching!).  By immersion I do not necessarily mean spending hours and hours of time becoming an expert on very specific content.  But I do mean thinking about and researching the experience from 360 degrees.  Here are some questions we at Live It Learn It explore when we are designing a pre-lesson:

  • What will students do during the field experience (the out-of-classroom learning)?  
  • What concepts, images, and critical vocabulary will they need to know to access that experience?
  • What behaviors will they need to practice to be successful in that environment?
  • Why do people generally care about this particular place and content?

By addressing these questions with students before you ever leave the classroom, students will have a foundational understanding of and appreciation for the content.  

What do you do already to prepare students for out-of-classroom learning experiences?  

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