The power of the crowd

In education a lot is written about peer group pressure. Generally when it gets mentioned it is very much in a negative context. It’s linked to pupils underperforming because of the influence of others or children being led astray because they don’t want to stand out from the crowd.

These sorts of examples are recognizable to anyone who works in education.

However peer group pressure can have a sort of flip side. Let’s leave all the negative connotations behind and call the flip side The power of the crowd. A winning football or hockey team gets something of this quality, people are swept along on its success, individuals within the team are lifted up by their achievement and share in the achievements of others in the team. We see glimpses of these sorts of qualities in education from time to time, but for me is difficult to imagine anything to match the effects of the music, song, dance and drama project that we have visiting our school this week.

A group known as the Young Americans visit our school every two years. It is a group of about forty or so performing arts students, principally from the U.S. but also from a large number from other countries around the world. They visit for three days and work for that time with all our bilingual second and third classes (ages thirteen to fifteen), normally a total of around 180-200 pupils.

During two and a half days of intensive workshops they put together with the Young Americans, a performance of music, dance and song that is presented to a packed theatre on the evening of the third day. For the Young Americans it is a well-practiced and well-oiled format that allows them to integrate all of the pupils into the performance, often with all of them on or around the stage simultaneously.  It is for all the pupils an incredible experience.

I am used to having to motivate and engage a class of thirty pupils. Sometimes that’s easy, other days you have to work a lot harder. I am also all too aware that there are odd pupils in classes that in the normal run of things are simply quite difficult to ‘reach’ or quite difficult to motivate. So how is it that they are up there on the stage dancing, singing, smiling and enjoying it with the rest of them?

Well the answer to that lies in the power of the crowd. It starts with the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Young Americans. The pupils really don’t know what’s hit them to start with. They show them just how cool having a go can actually be. They support and encourage, they applaud and put an arm over the shoulder when it’s needed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Their high fives and shouts of encouragement edge the nervous pupils forward.  And before you know what is happening the pupils are joining in, cheering their classmates on.  There is a growing belief in the group that they can make something special.  Pupils who are normally ‘background’ inhabitants are suddenly discovered, and they find themselves making the giant step from the background, literally into the limelight.

Come the performance in front of 600 parents, family and friends the tension and excitement rise. Suddenly that thirteen year old who has hardly said a word all year in class is on the stage singing a solo, maybe only two lines before someone else takes it over, but she has done it and in doing so performed to a theatre full of onlookers, an achievement she wouldn’t have dreamed of just two days earlier.

What has brought her to this point?  Well that is part the sheer enthusiasm of the Young American group, but it is also partly the subtle shift that has occurred in the peer group. They have been swept up in the enthusiasm, the excitement and plain thrill of performing.

As a teacher involved in the arts and cultural education it is fantastic to see. Often I feel there is just a handful of us at school to defend and promote the importance and value that the arts in the curriculum have.  Watch one of these shows and a door is opened on the possibilities and crucial role culture, drama, music, art, dance, etc. can have for our young people.

The Young Americans will undoubtedly be returning to our school.

Teenage stage fright

I’m not a natural performer, I’m not particularly extrovert, in fact I would describe myself as an introvert in most situations. Teaching, as many teachers would say is something of an eight hour a day forced performance where you play the role that is needed at that particular moment.  That might be angry one moment and calm and considerate the next.  After years of teaching I’m comfortable with this role and can carry it off pretty well. Put me in an unfamiliar situation and the more introvert side of my character soon surfaces. With this in mind I do have a little sympathy with the nervously shy behaviour my fourth year (15-16 year old) pupils displayed this afternoon.


A colleague had been able to organize the visit to school from a group of dancers and rappers from Rotterdam. The afternoon was divided into two halves, first a workshop in relatively small groups followed by a show given by our guests. Due to my lesson timetable I was unable to take a look at the workshop part, but I do know that the pupils were divided into small groups and were able to get some professional instruction in an area that they had chosen such as flamenco, hip hop, rap, theatre or sung performance. However I was able to watch the performance the visiting dancers themselves gave.

My own preparation for both workshops and show in my lessons had been limited, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know too much about what to expect.  I had had the chance to show some fragments from the excellent Wim Wenders film Piña about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. I can’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in the area of contemporary dance, but do enjoy watching shows when I can, and on this occasion the choice of Piña as a warm up was certainly not inappropriate.

The show that was performed mixed music, voice and an assortment of dance styles. It was performed in extremely close proximity to the pupils, with the dancers on a number of occasions almost landing on the laps of the pupils sitting in the front row.

As a teacher in such circumstances I always find myself split in my attention, I what to watch the show, but I always find myself drawn to watching my pupils to observe their reactions to what they are seeing. This dance show was no different, how engaged are the teenage public? What are they going to take away from this experience?

Dance for a teenage audience is an interesting confrontation. Often it doesn’t have a particularly easy narrative line to follow and in its way it is quite abstract. But to balance that it does have physicality and great control, both factors that most young people are able to engage with and value. The performance my pupils saw today fitted these criteria well and I found myself watching across the lines of faces to see their response.

On the whole the response was good. Two flamenco dancers were an important part of the show and many sat transfixed by the control of the flicking wrist movements and sweeps of the skirts following the dancer. For many in the audience a completely new experience I suspect, sitting watching a dance being performed for them for perhaps the very first time. For some in the audience though, they seemed to find it a little difficult, they seemed a little unsettled by it, particularly one group of boys. I shall ask them when I see them next what their thoughts were. I do have my own ideas…for teenage boys, the ones who like generally to try an assert their place in the class with their ‘street wise’ masculinity, maybe watching young women dance in close proximity was all just a little too much. It was subsequently very interesting to watch the swing in their attention when two of the young male dancers took to the stage. Male role models making the difference perhaps? Maybe, a more familiar hip hop style of dance? There are perhaps a number of factors, certainly worth a classroom discussion.

At the end of the performance the pupils were invited a group at a time to join their workshop leader on the stage to show the rest of their peer group what they and been doing during the first hour. It was at this point that the often quiet mouthy fifteen year olds that I teach seemed to become shy little rabbits diving for cover. Why the timidity, when normally in the classroom there is so little timidity?  Another reason certainly for more classroom discussion, but also something to work on in the future. We all like our comfort zones, I can relate to that. I too would certainly be nervous about making such a public step in an area of unfamiliarity. But the thrill of pushing yourself over that line is also worth experiencing and something I’ll be looking for strategies to do just that in the coming months.

Theatre and the Premier League connection

Part of my work is to teach theatre studies to fifteen and sixteen year olds in a relatively provincial Dutch town. For the last ten years as a school we have been able to fund two trips to local theatres for each pupil involved.  The shows that have been seen have ranged enormously from one man stand-up to dance shows and from try-outs before national tours to straight forward plays. Excellent though many of the performances have been, with this not being Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the Hague, we have never really had the chance to expose the pupils to truly large scale productions.

Like in education in many other countries we are having to cope with budget cuts in many areas and it looks likely, that this school year, it is not going to be two shows, but only one.  The pupils will undoubtedly like the time out from school to visit the theatre still, but as a teacher it presents a problem.  The idea of the trips to see shows is to expose the pupils to an area of the cultural world that they might not otherwise find their way to. If we allow them just a single visit, it means that particular visit really does have to hit the mark.  On top of this, as a teacher I have to find alternative filling for the course to replace the missing theatrical experience.  However, in many ways, finding more cultural material has never been easier.  With the rapid move towards digitalization in education there is so much that you can bring into the classroom at the press of a button.

small theatre war horse

I was reminded all to clearly of this fact yesterday when I visited my local multiplex cinema for a live streaming of Micheal Morpurgo’s War Horse from the National Theatre in London.  Apart from a few moments when the failing satellite link causes the sound to drop out, it was a fantastic way to experience the show.  OK, being there in the theatre would have been truly spectacular, but this film version really wasn’t bad at all.  There are even a view advantages over the ‘live’ show, such as it takes you closer to the action and gives you multiple view points.  If I could lay my hands on a DVD of such a performance it is certainly something I could make use of in my lessons.  It could be used to talk about any number of the aspects of the craft of good theatrical productions, all within the context of an extremely accessible show.

And yet I am troubled slightly by the ease of switching the live performances of much smaller scale theatre for the Premier League of theatreland in the form of a filmed and streamed production.  Obviously there are many aspects and details of the production that are lost in a video transmission, sharing a space with the performers, the intimacy of the experience and the simple tension of a live performance unfolding in front of you.  All these are regrettable loses, but if I continue my Premier League football analogy, I am troubled by the effect on grass roots theatre, the smaller clubs in football terms.  The National Theater is a great institution, with a prestigious and well-earned high reputation.  It is spreading its wings, and moving into new areas through live streaming of shows, as are others, such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Met. Opera in New York.  If this brings new audiences to the arts that is fantastic, but it must not be at the cost of diversity.  The dominance of the few ‘super’ clubs at the top of the football ladder has come at the cost of others lower down.  A result of the national and international branding of these clubs.  Such a chain of events may well present similar problems in the cultural world.

In the coming years I will undoubtedly be digitally streaming my pupils’ cultural experiences often enough.  And as I saw yesterday, the quality will definitely be high.  But I want also to offer my pupils real, first hand theatrical experiences.  A performer literally just feet away, the interaction with the audience and the wonder at the performance of an actor casting his performance out into the darkness of the audience at even the smallest theatre.  These too are so valuable things to see and experience.  They are the things the pupils tell me about the next day at school.