BYU and U of U prepare students to teach theater

(Cartoon: Dalton Johnson)
BYU’s Theater Education BA and the University of Utah’s Theater Teaching BFA prepare students to teach theater in schools and other areas of the community.  (Dalton Johnson)

To be a drama teacher or not to be a drama teacher? That is what theater students at both the BYU and the University of Utah must decide.

BYU and the University of Utah seek to produce qualified theater instructors to educate students in public schools and various community settings.

BYU’s theater education bachelor’s degree consists of theater content classes, theater teaching classes and general teaching classes (through BYU’s college of education). Students graduate with a K–12 teaching certificate.

University of Utah’s theater teaching degree is under construction, according to Professor Xan Johnson. Johnson said he wants to make it possible for students to graduate in four years with the bachelor of fine arts degree and teaching certification through the university’s Urban Institute in the College of Education. It would currently take a student around six years to complete the bachelor of fine arts degree and get certified.

He described a bachelor of fine arts degree as a more professional program versus a bachelor degree’s more general education. He said he thinks taking 14 credits from the program and making the remaining classes more dense will preserve the quality of the bachelor of fine arts degree.

Both BYU’s and U of U’s programs teach multiple methods for teaching drama to elementary students. The different methods include drama games, tableaux, pantomime, improvisation and choral reading, according to U of U professor Penny Caywood and BYU professor Teresa Love.

BYU’s program focuses heavily on curriculum. Ashworth, a theater education area head for BYU, said some high school drama teachers get a negative reputation for “goofing off in the classroom.” She said this is because some administrations express more concern for school productions than classroom curriculum. The theater education capstone project is curriculum development because the professors emphasize that drama teachers are teachers primarily and theater artists secondarily, according to Ashworth.

BYU theater education professor Shawnda Moss said students are taught backwards design, a curriculum-planning method where they start with the objective and work backwards. They are taught how to tangibly measure whether the objective was reached. Part of backwards design is the big idea, the life lesson one can draw from the class. Theater education majors are also taught student-centered learning where students are given opportunities to take charge of their own learning, according to Moss.

She said the theater education professors model this kind of teaching when educating BYU students.

“We won’t ask them to do with their students what we aren’t doing with them,” Moss said.

Ashworth said the professors set examples of being open to feedback since receiving criticism is part of being a teacher. She said it is vital the students develop interpersonal skills because teaching theater is a people-oriented job. If instructors notice a student struggles with respecting others or giving respectful feedback, it is addressed because they worry the student will disrespect their own future students.

“When you graduate from our program, and you pass student teaching and you get a license, we are saying you are fit to work with young people,” Ashworth said. “That is an important responsibility we take seriously.”

Johnson said the University of Utah is committed to putting good teachers out there for secondary schools; more non-traditional theater teaching job opportunities are opening up, however. He gave one reason for this: Neuroscientists, psychologists and occupational therapists are seeing positive results from merging science with the arts. He said he wants students to understand the power of teaching in different environments, not just public schools. One program he is working on is having theater teaching students work with people with autism.

“Here are brilliant kids who struggle with social signaling,” Johnson said. “If acting requires understanding complex social environment, and creating actions that explore that environment, can we enhance the neurology or the behavior of an autistic child to be much more independent as an adult? It’s a great goal.”

Students at both BYU and the University of Utah said they have found the university programs to be beneficial. U of U student Tyson Walker said the main thing he has learned through his theater teaching degree is the importance of theater in the community. The program currently has one specific class on social action theater. Walker said each class, however, includes a discussion on how theater could address social issues.

“The reason I want to go into theater teaching is because I know of the impact it can have on community or on audience members, especially children,” Walker said. “I came into the program understanding that. I’m learning more on how to go about that or what stories are worth telling.”

Nichole Clarke, a theater education major at BYU, said she felt prepared to student teach Fall 2015 semester. She said every education class she took had fieldwork assignments, like teaching three lessons at a school, observing classroom teaching for so many hours or interviewing teachers. Clarke said it allowed her to see how different theater teachers taught and how they responded to the community.

“I knew what I was getting into,” Clarke said. “There were no surprises.”

She said having to take so many classes left little room to take extra classes, but it was worth it.

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