From fall to spring, there’s a class play performed nearly every Friday on the RCDS stage. That’s because every Lower School class, from beginners to fourth grade, puts on a fully staged show each year. Music teacher Amanda Schottlander takes us behind the scenes of a very creative and collaborative RCDS tradition that involves students, faculty, and families, as well as performing arts colleagues Anthony Greco, Joy Santangelo, and Valerie Guerrero.
What are the class plays?
Class plays are an RCDS tradition and a big piece of the curriculum. Every Lower School homeroom — starting from beginners through fourth grade — puts on a play with their class. It’s a very focused way for a smaller group of students to work collaboratively to stage a show. Every student has a speaking part, and every student is involved in the music and choreography.
In beginners to third grade, the class play is always a musical. In fourth grade, students transition to a show connected to what they are learning as a class. For instance, last month all fourth-grade classrooms produced and performed short pieces of Greek theater, which tied into their study of Greek mythology. That’s the overarching structure of the shows.
What is the timeframe for putting on a show?
It can vary, but it’s usually five to six weeks from the time the production is chosen to the onstage performance. Two weeks before the show, we begin to work more intensively with the children to put everything together, including lines, music, and choreography. There is play almost every week at RCDS. When I interviewed for this position nine years ago and learned the number of class plays staged each year, I laughed because I thought it was an exaggeration. It's not. There’s a lot of support for the arts at RCDS and class plays are an integral part of each student’s education.
In what ways are class plays integral to each child’s education?
The shows are structured for sequential growth. For beginners and first graders, we’re really setting a foundation. The shows are connected to The Four Pillars — Kind, Honest, Responsible, and Respectful — and may revolve around character development. Beginners and first graders are also learning how to be a supportive audience. The entire Lower School attends the dress rehearsal for each class play, which gets students excited about their own class play. It also helps us model performance skills. For instance, the third-grade show is typically the first performance of the year. When we work with beginners or first graders on their show, we can say, “Remember how the third graders projected their voices? Remember how they turned to face the audience when they said their lines?” It’s all part of a larger learning process.
In second grade, shows connect to literature and in third grade the musical productions become more elaborate. Students have developed skills and confidence so they’re ready to tackle a show like Aladdin or Frozen. The fourth grade show, as I mentioned earlier, is related to a unit of study.
What other skills do students take away from the class plays?
From the time RCDS students are five-year-old beginners they are used to being onstage in front of an audience. They’re accustomed to singing, dancing, and having speaking lines. We work with the children on things like speaking slowly and clearly, enunciating your words… these are all great presentation skills whether you are five or 50. Students who might be a little bit more on the quiet side when they are beginners or in first grade are able to project and do a lot with material when they reach third or fourth grade because they’ve mastered these skills.
When students reach Upper School and present a research project, it’s rare to see them mumble through a presentation. They’re able to present and think on their feet, in part because of the skills they’ve developed through participation in class plays. We also find that students’ confidence is through the roof as they go through the progression of class plays. This ties into creative skills we aim to foster at RCDS; whether a student is writing a story or solving a science problem, their experience with the performing arts can help them think outside the box.
RCDS alumni often say the class plays were a formative part of growing up. Why do you think that is?
It’s a situation where you work hard, rely on your classmates, and really work together and support one another. It’s a huge collaborative process, involving classmate-to-classmate collaboration, families, and a large group of teachers. It’s a big deal for our students to be putting on a show. There’s so much excitement. The second-grade show is scheduled for February, and in October second graders were asking me, “Are we getting our scripts today?” It is such a unique experience. I can’t think of another school that starts with fully produced shows beginning in kindergarten. It’s such a privilege that we get to work with these children year after year.
How else do RCDS students develop through the performing arts?
Class plays are one component of a very robust performing arts program that involves every student in every grade. In our Early Childhood Center students experience Music Together, a family music program that’s been adapted to schools. We’re preparing our holiday concert now, and our focus is to create a really safe environment for three- and-four-year-old children to be on stage and share a few songs. Moving up, we have classroom music from beginners to sixth grade, plus a Lower School chorus, two Upper School choruses, fourth grade band, fifth through eighth grade band, and three afterschool drama clubs — one for first and second grade, one for third and fourth grade and the third for Upper School. All of these opportunities build a tremendous amount of confidence in our students and help them be sure of themselves in all aspects of their lives.
Mrs. Schottlander is in her ninth year teaching music to students at RCDS. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and master’s degree in arts and teaching from Westminster Choir College of Rider University. A singer, Mrs. Schottlander has sung on stages around the world with MasterVoices, a chorus that performs classical music, operas in concert, and musical theater.
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