red theatre seats

How drama units can have a big impact on student engagement

The most impactful unit I ever taught involved students writing and performing their own play. The idea came to me when I first taught Romeo and Juliet to a bunch of very lost students. One kid sat in the back dozing off, another confused child stared at the ceiling, and yet another student pretended to be reading online when he was really viewing Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” video. (It’s crazy what gets through those firewalls!)

It was then that I realized that I needed to change things up. The first step was to have kids write a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet, but then I thought — why not produce a play out of it, too?

I’d read research about how dramatic play increases literacy and develops a deeper understanding of text and character motivations. So I took this BIG idea and ran with it. Each year I learned something more — and couldn’t believe how a drama unit passed on so many life skills!

Here’s my story about how these plays helped my students relate the content to real life while gaining valuable skills for their future.

5 signs that drama and student engagement go hand in hand

pocket watch with a park behind

1. The importance of time management

Writing and performing plays teaches you to manage your time. At the beginning of the unit, students knew the date of the play and thus needed to work efficiently to meet their deadline.

We spent a quarter reading, summarizing, writing, planning, and putting on a play. That may sound like a lot of time, but in reality, it was nine weeks with all the typical interruptions of school: vacations, assemblies, sporting events, early release days — you get the picture. So doing all of this, especially for a middle schooler, was a huge commitment.

chalkboard with a schedule and some post-it on it

2. Students learned about goal setting

My kids had to fill out a weekly action plan that summarized what they were working on and what they aimed to accomplish. After some trial and error, students learned quickly that the more detail they put into these action plans, the easier it would be for them to complete their goals.

Some students began using this planning strategy in their sports and homework. They learned that time management and goal setting are essential skills that carry over to many aspects of life.

hands with paint on it

3. Like in the real world, students had a job

When you think of a play, you think of acting. And yes, some kids acted (a skill that promotes memorization and public speaking). But people don’t think about all the other jobs that are involved in a production.

We had an editor who helped brush up the screenplay, a lights person who turned lights on and off on cue, and a sound and special effects master who played audio at the right times during the performance. There was even an assistant director who was in charge of monitoring actors and stepping in when I was tending to other groups. Another interesting job was the line feeder, who would hide in a decorative box on stage and feed the actors lines if they forgot them.

But perhaps one of the biggest jobs was working with props. This involved going through the screenplay and identifying all the items we needed to make, plugging them into the final screenplay, and then transporting them on and off the stage. Imagine having 50+ props that you’re responsible (with a team of four) for getting on and off the stage — in the correct order.

We also created backdrops, so one group painted and held up the scenes in the background of our play. Honestly, the list goes on — those kids really did it all!

Now, this doesn’t mean that every student was going to become an actor in real life, or an artist, or a special effects director. But each student had a responsibility, and if they didn’t do their job, the performance would suffer. More importantly, others relied on them.

The play was a different scenario than simply refusing to write your essay and not handing it in. In that situation, your choice would only affect you not the whole class. During the play unit, you couldn’t hide. You were part of a bigger picture, and your peers were watching.

This lesson struck a chord with the majority of students, who discovered that they didn’t want to slack off because it was about more than just them. And what a great life lesson this was!

child with a book in his hands looking surprised

4. Lifelong lessons, passions, and careers

One of my most rewarding teaching experiences was when I had students coming back and telling me that the play had actually changed their lives. Some students joined their community theaters. A few students decided to major in art because they loved working on the backgrounds! Another student event got into graphic design because he had been responsible for all the programs and graphics. And the stories go on.

When I first put on a play, I just wanted to entertain the kids and offer them a way to understand and appreciate the classics with a twist. But I found out that the play was so much more than that. And although it required the most work out of any units, for the majority of students, this play was well worth it — it carried tangible, lifelong lessons.

At the same time, the play was not for everyone, and some students shut down due to the large workload. But even for those students, there were still life lessons to be learned — namely, that there are jobs out there that are hard! If you’re a teacher, you know this. You’re responsible for people’s lives; you have to be flexible, and you have things being thrown at you nonstop. You have a mountain of work that could seem impossible, yet you make it possible. And that’s the way it was for the play.

More often than not, a student who had trouble with my traditional units excelled in the play unit. A few times, there were struggling students who got the lead in the play, and you know what happened? They prospered.  — they worked their tails off and memorized more than they ever had in their lives.

We’re talking about students who refused to memorize a poem for me in the past — who then ended up learning an entire screenplay and performing it with ease.

We’re talking about students who refused to read books but read the screenplay each night over and over again because they WANTED to memorize their lines.

We’re talking about students who were offered an opportunity and ran full-speed with it and tried their best. Because that’s all I really asked of them — to try their best.

kid with blue eyes looking away

5. Students learned about the power of resiliency

These plays were known all around our school, but they weren’t perfect. Perfection was never the end goal. I always told the students that it was more about the process, and the process influenced their grade more than the final performance.

The imperfections of the play — a missed light, a broken prop, a couple of forgotten lineswere all life lessons, too. Because life’s not perfect. You may try your best, and you may do everything in your power that you can, but perfection is unattainable. And that’s okay.

My proudest moments of the play were when students made a mistake, brushed themselves off, stood up proud, and kept on going.

This resiliency is the most relevant life skill I’ve ever witnessed as a teacher

Because let’s face it: life will get tough, and you will fall, but you have to keep getting back up and trying again.

If you want to engage your students while teaching them valuable life skills and helping them refine their speaking and presentation skills, then a drama unit is definitely the way to go.

Give it a shot — I guarantee you’ll enjoy it as much as your students will.

Photo credit: Kilyan Sockalingum; Andrik Langfield; Daniele Riggi; Amaury Salas; Ben White; Séan Gorman /

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