The Ford’s Theatre Education Department is in the exciting process of scaling up some of our successful student and teacher initiatives, particularly our National Oratory Fellows program. The NOF program is well into its third year with a cohort of 14 ambitious and dedicated educators from around the country who are learning and sharing strategies for integrating oratory and drama into their day-to-day classroom practice. The Fellows all teach students in the fifth- to eighth- grade range.
This program is primarily implemented via videoconferencing technology – a Ford’s Theatre Teaching Artist holds a virtual session with the Fellow and her/his students several times during the school year, collaboratively planning with the Fellow via phone or video-conference between classes. During these sessions, the Teaching Artist models oratory and drama strategies for the Fellow through direct contact with their students. The Fellow eventually uses the strategies independently, through a gradual release of responsibility.
At the end of the year, the Fellows travel to Washington, D.C. for a three-day retreat, where they take master classes, share strategies, and connect with other members of their cohort. As part of the project, each Fellow gets to bring two student delegates who demonstrate the Fellows’ work by delivering speeches on our historic stage. Sometimes, students get the chance to rehearse their speeches at the Lincoln Memorial.
With Fellows in Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho, and Arizona, we make wide use of distance learning with student populations that range from rural to urban, elementary to middle, and from 5 to over 25 students per class. I work with two teams of classroom teachers in Washington, D.C., and Independence, Missouri.
Through a series of unexpected opportunities, in November I was able to visit James Bridger Middle School in Independence, Missouri, for a special two-day residency in the classrooms of two of my Oratory Fellows, eighth8th- grade teachers Cathy Sperry and Jennifer Erdtmann. I made three interesting observations that I’d like to share.
1. Rigorous distance learning can enrich an in-person classroom visit.
For two months prior to my visit, we had been conducting work sessions via webcam. This set the stage for a richer in-person experience, as the students and I were able to develop a rapport that was fed by the anticipation of finally meeting each other in person. Team-building exercises and character-exploration activities became more meaningful to the students because we had already been working on various oratory integration projects. With time always at such a premium in classrooms, it was refreshing to skip the awkward introductory period that often accompanies a teaching artist residency on the first day. That said, it follows that . . .
2. A brief immersion in the school environment can have a positive impact on the distance relationship.
Every year, the Oratory Fellows create videos and narratives about their schools and communities to give us, the Teaching Artists, a deeper understanding of their learning environment’s advantages and challenges. While this is always helpful, spending two days living and working in Missouri enabled me to gain a visceral connection to the unique teaching and learning environment there. I even attended a teacher staff meeting, which gave me a valuable sense of perspective on the teachers’ experiences.
4. Professional development is the key to administration and staff buy-in.
While our Oratory Fellows have been great ambassadors for the program, I’ve found that conducting professional development workshops with other teachers in their schools is also a valuable way to get overall buy-in. Teachers outside of ELA and history sometimes cast a skeptical eye at oratory integration, so it’s helpful to demonstrate oratory strategies that can be applied to various subjects. Also, as the students moved from class to class and talked about their experiences in the classroom with me, their other teachers were in a position to immediately implement oratory strategies that they knew would be familiar to the students.
We will continue to scale out the National Oratory Fellows program, and our primary approach to teaching will remain distance learning. After my trip to Bridger Middle School, I’ve found that one visit, strategically placed after I’ve built rapport with the students and teachers, can add a great deal of value to a distance learning residency.